Which way are you looking? Part 2

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We are reflecting on how the way we look at our life and accomplishments can have a profound impact on our overall sense of happiness and contentment. (See previous post).

We’ve introduced the idea of  The Gap from Dan Sullivan. This is the permanent difference between our actual achievements and the ideals that we would want.


I don’t want to give the impressions that ideals are somehow bad or wrong. An ideal is there to help us establish goals; to motivate ourselves and to allow us to withstand difficulties and hardships. We all have ideals in some form or another.

When I had my spiritual awakening in 1984 one of the ideals that became important to me was to grow in Christ-like character (see spiritual maturity).  A simple measure of that is being less easily irritated and less easily discouraged. However, even after 30 years I will still have to say I have an enormously long way to go!

Or take another example. Ideally I would love this website and blog post to be of value and help to every single person on the planet. Now that clearly is an ideal that is not measurable and even if it were it is unachievable. There are too many people on the planet and how do I even go about measuring that I have been of help and value to others? But it is an ideal to help everyone I possibly can that inspires and pulls me forward.

Now let us compare ideals to goals. It is easy to confuse the two.

When we translate ideals into goals we end up with what Dan Sullivan calls two “actuals”: Actual 1 and Actual 2.

Actual 1 (A1) is where you are when you begin, and Actual 2 (A2) is where you are now — the results you have achieved towards your goal.

Once we have A1 and A2, we can divide people into two groups.

All people, when they get to A2, want to measure their progress. We do this automatically, and every person does it as it is a fundamental part of how the human mind operates. For some reason, very early in life, people learn one of two ways to do that measurement, and which one they learn makes a huge difference in how happy and satisfying their life is.

Either they:
1) measure themselves against the Ideal (in other words, they measure their progress against the Gap, which is always large and never gets any smaller), or
2) they measure themselves against A1 (their starting point, against which progress can continually grow).

Each way of measuring has a completely different emotional and psychological result.

Those who measure themselves against the Ideal end up unhappy, frustrated, and disappointed. They do not get to experience a sense of accomplishment or a sense of achievement. Whatever they do, it feels like a failure, because they are still just as far from the Ideal as when they started. This creates incredible dissatisfaction and low self esteem. Such people may achieve a lot, and may contribute to the world a great deal, but emotionally and psychologically it does them no good. At the back of their mind there may be the thought, “this is the price I pay for being a high achiever”. Although they work incredibly hard there is no internal satisfaction. Even when they are making progress, with this approach it is all to easy to  spiral downward and run out of inspiration and motivation. I know that personally because I myself have been there.

Those who measure themselves against “Actual 1” (their starting point) have a different result. These people look backward to measure their progress. In fact, that is the rule: always measure against where you were, never against the Ideal. Always measure backward, never forward. Because they measure against where they started, they experience great psychological and emotional reward. Over and over, they experience satisfaction and a sense of progress and optimism. They keep spiraling upward, always making progress — and enjoying their progress.

So going back to our two examples at the beginning. When I think of spiritual maturity and growing in Christ-likeness I have much more helpful questions to ask myself.

Compared to say a year ago:

1. Am I growing more or less easily irritated these days?
2. Am I growing more or less easily discouraged these days?

Or if I think of this website and the daunting challenge of helping and empowering others to find wisdom in a challenging and complex world. I can’t help everybody, but I can give thanks for the progress made so far and the people who have been helped to date.

I was reminded of this with one of my patients who came with his mother to see me in my clinic recently. He arrived full of negativity and discouragement about how little he felt he had achieved and how nothing in his life seemed right since we had last met. I asked him instead to focus on what he had accomplished since I had last seen him a few months earlier. It was amazing to see his countenance change and his overall sense of accomplishment and fulfilment become so much more positive. By the end of out time he left positively beaming – it was quite a dramatic turnaround. He had got himself out of the Gap he had put himself in!

So how can you change the way you tend to look at your life and accomplishments?

How could focusing on how far you have come rather than continually looking at how far you have to go help you in your life?

5 thoughts on “Which way are you looking? Part 2”

  1. As well as recognising and celebrating what we have achieved (the difference between A1 and A2), there’s something very important about enjoying the journey. Without that, life can become a process of always trying to attain a goal which is never achieved, as our goals themselves tend to change with time, and to extend out into the horizon. So, definitely keep developing, changing and heading somewhere new and interesting – but remember to enjoy the ride, too!

    1. Thank you for that insight Ian.
      Yes it is so easy to put our happiness ‘out there in the distance’ when some goal is acheived rather that looking to enjoy the journey or finding the good in the here and now.

  2. The ‘I’ll be happy when……..’ trap is a horrible mobius strip to be stuck on. As we all know, the future (non-measurable) doesn’t even exist and hasn’t happened, but our past (measurable) has. Occasionally I’ll encounter someone who was born the same year as me but has a much higher rank, then automatic thoughts of ‘they are more successful than me’ surface, but after careful rationalisation, it’s all artificial and they could be trapped in the ‘I’ll be happy when I reach the next rank’ cycle which makes them despondent also. On our annual appraisals, we put our aspirations, but do not set a date of when we wish to achieve them, we only break them down into short, medium and long term, whereas the other part of our appraisal we write what we have achieved the previous year, which I always find an enjoyable read because it shows how much I have contributed and achieved.

    1. That is a really helpful way to do appraisals, Karl. It is so much more inspiring to look at how far you have come rather than being disappointed by how much further there is to go!

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