“The way to measure your progress is backward against where you started, not against your ideal.” — Dan Sullivan, THE GAIN AND THE GAP
Key concepts to understand in this article that will be explored:
- Your ideals and your goals are two separate things
- Ideals are general and immeasurable
- Ideals are constantly changing and moving as you change and move as a person
- Your ideals should not be your benchmark for achievement
- Instead, your ideals should be the source from which you create your specific, challenging, time-bound, and measurable goals
- Moreover, your ideals are intended to produce positive emotions such as excitement and anticipation — but these emotions are not what you’re trying to replicate in the future (most people get this wrong and it creates a great deal of unhappiness)
- The emotions you want in the future relative to this ideal are happiness, satisfaction, and confidence that come from achieving your goals
- If you measure your current-self against your ideal, you’ll never be happy because there will always be a gap
- If you measure your current-self against your previous-self — where you were when you set your goals (and even before) — you’ll experience happiness, satisfaction, and confidence
- If your goals are not specific, they’ll be hard to measure (which is one reason you shouldn’t measure yourself against your ideals, because your ideals are general)
- If you don’t have a specific measurement criteria, you won’t experience the joy of the progress you’ve made
- Once you hit your goals and have taken the time to adequately measure where you are, you should set new ideals and re-experience the excitement, anticipation, and motivation that comes from pursuing new adventures and growth
- If you’re not making progress, you can’t feel happy
- If you don’t feel happy, your brain will be less adaptive and less effective toward future endeavors
- If you’re not making progress, you can’t feel confident — because confidence is a byproduct of prior success
- If you don’t regularly take the time to review your progress, you’ll never appreciate the small details, which will rob you of the experience and of all the benefits of gratitude
- If you fail to appreciate where you are, you’re missing out on the benefits of mindfulness as well, which can lead you to pursuing the wrong goals and missing the small moments along the way
- When you set and measure your goals in this unique way, you get the benefit of deeply experiencing all of the positive and energizing emotions that will allow you to become increasingly successful
With this foundation in place, we will further dial-down the process and also detail the science behind why this process is so brilliant.
Here’s the thing: most people have a negative relationship with goal-setting. There’s a lot of emotional baggage associated with the concept.
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One group of people may believe they should be happy just the way they are. Another group is constantly striving for more and are never quite happy with what they’ve achieved.
Both of these approaches to goals are ineffective because neither can produce actual joy and happiness.
- If you’re not growing and changing, you’re not happy. Research is clear that as people, we are happiest when we are improving. Self-acceptance is important, but self-acceptance is also intended to be a vehicle for positive growth, not for staying stagnant and justifying mediocrity. Moreover, you can’t have hope for the future if you don’t believe you can change. Trying to force yourself to remain the same stunts hope and happiness.
- If you’re growing but constantly measuring where you are against your ideal, you’ll never get there. This will lead you to always feeling dissatisfied with yourself, which isn’t helpful to your future goals and it robs you of the joy of the distance you’ve made. When you rob yourself of the joy of measuring how far you’ve come, you don’t experience happiness, gratitude, or confidence. And when you don’t experience these, you actually set lower and less clear goals. Put simply, when you take the time to reflect and measure how far you’ve come, you’ll set clearer and more powerful goals, because those goals will be set from a place of confidence, happiness, and gratitude. They’ll also be set from a place of tangible measurement, not abstract idealization.
The Gap vs. The Gain: How happy, motivated, and successful people approach their goals
Your future growth and progress are now based in your understanding about the difference between the two ways in which you can measure yourself: against the ideal, which puts you in what I call “The Gap,” and against your starting point, which puts you in “The Gain,” appreciating all that you’ve accomplished.
When you’re in The Gap, you feel as though you haven’t accomplished anything at all. This is because even though you’ve moved forward, the ideal remains distant from you. The ideal is a moving target. It might even get bigger, leaving you worse off than where you started if you measure against it. You’ve also used up time and energy getting to where you are, so if you don’t measure the progress, you’ll feel like you’ve wasted that time and energy and have fallen even further behind.
But if you turn around and measure your progress against where you started, then you’re in The Gain, and you’ll experience a sense of having moved forward, of having achieved something, and you’ll be motivated to continue on to your next stage of growth.
— Dan Sullivan
Here are two definitions of “ideal”:
- satisfying one’s conception of what is perfect; most suitable
- existing only in the imagination; desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality
Here are two definitions of “goal”:
- the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result
- a specific, measurable, and time-bound outcome or experience a person is seeking
Once you’ve made tangible progress on your goals, it’s important to measure, track, and report your progress. That progress should clearly be measured against where you were when you set your targets, not against some vague imagination.
Creating your vision and experiencing the excitement and anticipation
“Some adults try not to engage in make-believe anymore because they think it’s childish, but I don’t think we ever really outgrow it. In fact, I think that make-believe is the basis for all our motivations in life.” — Dan Sullivan
Children are generally considered more imaginative and creative than adults. This isn’t actually true.
The ability to imagine and fantasize about the future never actually goes away. Some adults constrain themselves from indulging too deeply into their fantasies, because the positive emotions related to those fantasies are quickly shattered by the pain of their reality. Or, they’ve experienced the disappointment that comes from achieving goals and not feeling satisfied.
Indeed, people adapt quickly and if the target for happiness is always moving and in the future, it’s impossible to reach. Hence, those powerful and positive emotions end up being reframed in the memory as negative, which creates a negative association between goals and happiness in people. Thus, people stop setting goals and develop a personality of being comfortable where they are — and never truly happy.
Again, it doesn’t have to be this way. This process Dan Sullivan has created allows you the playfulness, the excitement, and the motivation involved in creating ideals and dreams for your future.
Lots of science has found play to be extremely important for productivity and creativity. As Greg McKeown explains, “Very successful people see play as essential for creativity.”
In his TED talk, Stuart Brown said, “Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity… Nothing fires up the brain like play.” There is a burgeoning body of literature highlighting the extensive cognitive and social benefits of play, including:
- Enhanced memory and focus
- Improved language learning skills
- Creative problem solving
- Improved mathematics skills
- Increased ability to self-regulate, an essential component of motivation and goal achievement
- Team work
- Conflict resolution
- Leadership skill development
- Control of impulses and aggressive behavior
One of the core learning styles is “imagining,” and it’s something that few people allow themselves to do enough. Imagining and fantasizing are learned skills, which can also be like muscles that atrophy. If you don’t develop these muscles, you’ll lack the creativity and excitement of pursuing crazy dreams and ideals. You’ll “grow-up” as they say and settle for reality as society and the norms around you have deemed-it.
Instead of such a bleak and uninspiring existence, you want to spend a great deal of time fantasizing about your future. You want to dream big and dream creatively. You want it to be fun and playful. Set no boundaries on your ideals and what you imagine.
The more immersive you can get into what Dan Sullivan calls, “Make-believing,” which is creating a make-believe future or ideal, the better. You want to experience all of the excitement, anticipation, and motivation that comes out of that possible future. These emotions drive you forward. But again, they aren’t the emotions you’ll experience when you get to your intended goal.
Your future should be big, fun, and playful. In in Sullivan’s words, “Your future should always be bigger than your past.”
The more playful the imagining, and the more immersive, clear, and specific you get about that imagining, the more creative and powerful will be the goals that you set to strive for that ideal.
However, it’s important to realize a few things:
- this ideal that you are forming is always changing
- once you reach a destination, your ideals and fantasies will change
- these dreams and ideals are the direction for guiding and creating tangible goals to move toward
- if you constantly measure yourself against your ideals, you’ll be living in what Dan Sullivan calls, “The Gap,” which will create feelings of unhappiness and disatisfaction
- instead of measuring yourself against your ideals, happiness and satisfaction come by measuring yourself against where you were when you formulated the ideals and set the tangible goals
- when you measure yourself against where you were, you live in what Dan Sullivan calls, “The Gain,” which helps you realize and appreciate how far you’ve come
According to psychological research, the anticipation of an event is almost always more powerful than the event itself. Both positive and negative events are generally more emotionally-charged in your head than the actual experience ends up being.
Very quickly, we adapt to our new experience and the event itself is underwhelming compared to how we imagined it to be.
Because we adapt so quickly, it’s easy to take for granted where we currently are. Moreover, because our ideals and dreams are like a horizon which is constantly moving — we never reach our ideals. The horizon always moves, no matter where you are. It’s the direction, not the destination.
This is what creates feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. We quickly adapt to where we currently are and our ideals are always out of reach. This is living in “The Gap.”
We mistakenly believe that our experience once we hit our goals should be the playful and exciting emotions we had when we were imagining the goal. This is not the case.
The playful and joyful experiences of imagining our dreams and ideals are not the experiences we are to have in the future. We have those experiences to draw us forward. Actually, when you expect these same emotions to be what you’ll experience when you get there, you downplay their importance. These emotions are both a means to an end, and an end in themselves.
They are a means to the end of allowing you to create highly specific goals which lead to growth and happiness. But they are an end in themselves because the playful anticipation and excitement of ideals is a beautiful part of life. Don’t downplay these emotions. Allow them to be what they are. You get to experience them again and again as you continue to expand your horizon and dreams.
Once you’ve developed that horizon, you then need to set tangible, measurable, challenging, and time-bound goals to move toward that horizon.
Set measurable and highly specific goals
“Specifics must be measured against specifics. Trying to measure a specific against a generality is not real measurement. Setting up a goal of making $10 million is specific, and you’ll feel successful once you’ve done that by measuring from there back to where you started. But if you have the imprecise goal of “being wealthy,” that’s a generality. You may never feel like you’ve achieved it, and even if you do feel as though you have, this feeling won’t last because it’s not grounded in specific reality. The goal — being wealthy — will continue to change and always seem out of reach.” — Dan Sullivan
If your goals are not specific and measurable, then you won’t be able to measure your progress. If you can’t clearly discern the progress you’re making:
- you won’t know where you actually are
- you won’t experience the joy, gratitude, and confidence of growth
- if you don’t enjoy the gratitude and confidence of growth, you won’t operate as well in the future and you won’t set bigger targets to strive for
Thus, when you don’t set clear targets and measure yourself against what you’ve gained, then you cheat yourself out of your past, present, and future.
- you cheat yourself out of your past because you never take the time to appreciate and measure against it
- you cheat yourself out of your present because without measurement, you never know where you truly are
- you cheat yourself out of your future because without happiness, gratitude, and confidence, you won’t imagine and create more compelling ideals and goals
Psychological benefits of measuring your progress against where you were
According to the research of Harvard psychologist, Shawn Achor, happiness is the secret to success.
Being happy allows you to work more effectively. It allows you to embrace your experiences more fully. It allows you to be far more open to feedback. Happiness is a powerful way to create high performance. Even my 10-year old son is realizing this when he practices the piano. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be happy if you’re living in “The Gap.”
Not only will you be happier if you measure yourself against The Gain, you’ll be more confident. Research has shown, confidence is the byproduct of past-performance. So when you take the time to live in “The Gain,” your confidence can increase, which will allow you the ability to set bigger and more imaginative goals.
It will also give you the clarity to create better plans, which according to research will give you more hope and expectancy in your future that you’ll achieve those goals.
According to psychology’s Hope Theory, hope reflects your perceptions regarding your capacity to:
- clearly conceptualize goals
- develop the specific strategies to reach those goals (i.e., pathways thinking)
- initiate and sustain the motivation for using those strategies (i.e., agency thinking)
Hope is a byproduct of confidence, which is a byproduct of past success. Thus, as you set clear and measurable goals, and measure your progress against the Gain, you’ll recognize the changes and progress you make. This will give you both confidence and hope — which will allow you to set bigger ideals and dreams in the future, and to make better plans and strategies for achieving those goals.
This is how you increase in your motivation overtime. According to one of the core theories of motivation — known as Expectancy Theory — motivation involves three components:
- the value you place on your goal
- your belief that specific behaviors will actually facilitate the outcomesyou desire
- your belief in your own ability to successfully execute the behaviors requisite to achieving your goals
As your happiness, confidence, and hope increase, your motivation will increase. This motivation comes because you expect to achieve your goals and you highly value those goals. As you become more confidence as a person, you’ll stop setting goals that society has placed on you.
Your goals will come from inside and be uninhibited by the standards and expectations of those around you. Instead, you’ll purposefully surround yourself with better mentors, teachers, and collaborators, which will allow your dreams and ideals to expand far beyond what you could conjure-up on your own. Psychologists call this “The Transforming-Self,” and it’s the highest level of conscious evolution.
You’re constantly seeing yourself improve. You’re grateful and appreciate that progress. You spend just as much time soaking-in the Gains and you do imagining and indulging in the dreams. You then use your gains and the confidence you’ve built to get back to the playful and fantasizing process of imagining new ideals!
One other potent psychological benefit of measuring The Gain is gratitude, which has nearly unlimited benefits to well-being, happiness, and high performance. Gratitude may be the most important key to success. It has been called the mother of all virtues. According to Sullivan, “growth and gratitude” go hand-in-hand. Yet, those who only focus on The Gap rob themselves of much of the benefits of gratitude.
Gratitude journaling is a scientifically proven way to overcome several psychological challenges. The benefits are seemingly endless. Here are just a few:
- Gratitude makes you happier
- Gratitude makes other people like you
- Gratitude makes you healthier
- Gratitude boosts your career
- Gratitude strengthens your emotions
- Gratitude develops your personality
- Gratitude makes you more optimistic
- Gratitude reduces materialism
- Gratitude increases spirituality
- Gratitude makes you less self-centered
- Gratitude increases your self-esteem
- Gratitude improves your sleep
- Gratitude keeps you away from the doctor by strengthening physiological functioning
- Gratitude lets you live longer
- Gratitude increases your energy levels
- Gratitude makes you more likely to exercise
- Gratitude helps you bounce back from challenges
- Gratitude makes you feel good
- Gratitude makes your memories happier (think of Pixar’s Inside Out)
- Gratitude reduces feelings of envy
- Gratitude helps you relax
- Gratitude makes you friendlier
- Gratitude helps your marriage
- Gratitude makes you look good
- Gratitude deepens your friendships
- Gratitude makes you a more effective manager
- Gratitude helps you network
- Gratitude increases your goal achievement
- Gratitude improves your decision making
- Gratitude increases your productivity
It’s a beautiful process and it allows you to experience ALL of the powerful emotions along the way.
The importance of keeping a record of your goals
If you’re achievement-oriented, you probably write down your goals and you probably achieve a great deal of them. However, it’s powerful and important to regularly go back and examine your previous goals.
Even if it was just the goals set for the previous 30 days. It’s insane how many of our targets we hit without appreciating it because our targets and ideals are continually moving.
I recently looked back at my goals from the previous 30 days and realized I’d achieved something I’ve wanted to accomplish for almost 4 years.
I hit a major milestone and didn’t even realize or appreciate it because my mind quickly moved to the next ideal. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for setting new targets, but it also robs me of seeing how far I’ve come.
Moreover, when you immediately move from achievement to visualization without taking the time to regularly measure how far you’ve come — you rob yourself of the satisfaction, happiness, and CONFIDENCE of accomplishment.
Yes, all of these things can be subconscious — your happiness, satisfaction, and confidence. But you can compound the experience by making them conscious. By actually indulging in the moment and truly appreciating where you currently are vs. where you were when you set your goals. You then get all the benefits of the past, which allow you to create a more compelling future.
You’re probably living your dreams right now
When you measure yourself against “The Gain,” you often realize that you’re currently living your dreams right now. Where you are right now may be far beyond the ideals you had even one or two years ago. Yet, you’ve probably adapted to your current reality and are now striving for newer and bigger ideals.
But if you take the time to examine your previous goals, you often realize that your current reality is beyond the wildest dreams of your past. Indeed, your current reality has become your “new normal” even though it may have been completely unimaginable to your previous-self.
The daily experiences you’re currently having are the IDEALS of your past-self just a few short years ago!
Appreciate that fact.
Allow that fact to create more confidence to set bigger and bigger ideals and clearer and more tangible goals!
This is a beautiful and rare process!
Enjoy it. Soak it up!
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This column first appeared on Medium.