Mind the Gap

You experience the gap numerous times each day. Everyone does. The gap, in this case, is the discrepancy between what you expect will happen and what actually happens. Because your brain finds this gap to be very unsettling, it responds by rushing to close it (i.e., explain it) as quickly as possible. Ostensibly, the purpose of an explanation is to help you understand what’s happening—or give you the sense that you understand—so you can determine a course of action to take.

This is an automatic process that works reasonably well in a variety of situations, especially if they’re straightforward and/or familiar. Coming up with explanations is so automatic and so fast that you probably don’t stop very often to question the validity or accuracy of the expectations that gave rise to the gap that needs explaining.

But if your expectations are based on unfounded assumptions or an incorrect analysis of the situation—or if they are missing critical information—then your explanation is bound to be flawed. And it turns out that most such explanations are flawed.

In truth, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to unconscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. Explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them—and most of them are the results of nonconscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is that listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time. —Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Barbara

You can’t avoid having expectations. If your brain wasn’t predictive, you wouldn’t be able to function in the world you find yourself in. But those predictions are based, to a great extent, on the mental model the unconscious part of your brain maintains of what’s normal for you. Naturally, you feel pretty confident about them. But the degree of confidence you have in your explanations is not a reliable guide to their validity or accuracy.

When the gap is generated by a flawed explanation based on unfounded expectations, the action you take to correct or respond to it won’t get you the result you want. Instead you will be faced with yet another gap to explain and contend with. Continuing down this winding road can take you very far afield from your original destination.

As a result, the conscious part of your brain (the part you think of as “I”) may become more and more dissatisfied, frustrated, and even confused. You may give up or at least feel like giving up. The unconscious part of your brain, on the other hand, is likely to be quite satisfied with this state of affairs.

We have a big brain capable of greatness with hardwiring for survival. –David DiSalvo

The unconscious part of your brain is, as Cormac McCarthy put it, “a machine for operating an animal.” This particular machine’s prime directive is survival, and it thinks the best way for you to survive is to maintain your status quo. It has a variety of tricks up its sleeve to deceive you into thinking you’re moving forward when, in fact, you’re expending a lot of mental energy running in place on the hamster wheel.

The Myth of Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is a great example of an explanation created to account for the gap between the expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions and the experience of doing something other than what we consciously intend to do. If you accept the self-sabotage explanation, the logical action to take is to try to determine how and why you’re sabotaging yourself. This is a diversionary expedition that leads to a dead end. It contributes nothing in the way of helping you change your behavior.

The expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions is based on several unwarranted assumptions. The reality is that since we operate on autopilot most of the time, most of our behavior is generated by unconscious impulses, not by conscious intentions. And the unconscious part of our brain wants to maintain the status quo. You’re far more likely to keep doing what you’ve been doing than you are to do something different.

You may not like it, but the fact that you don’t always do what you consciously intend to do should not surprise or confound you. The logical action to take (instead of trying to figure out how and why you’re sabotaging yourself) is to retrain your brain to make the desirable behavior part of the status quo.

When you follow the path of least resistance by unquestioningly going along with your brain’s interpretation of events and behaviors, you end up digging yourself deeper into your rut. If you want to expand your mental model, change your direction, and give yourself more opportunities to succeed, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to develop the habit of questioning your expectations.

E Is for Enneagram


The Enneagram is a straightforward, yet rich and complex system that describes our individual strengths and weaknesses, deeper-level motivations, and most importantly, the compulsions that often rule our lives. Although we’re wired to operate under the impression that we’re consciously choosing what we do, most of the time we’re at the effect of unconscious impulses. We’re living our lives on autopilot; asleep at the wheel, doing the same things over and over again, expecting different outcomes.

As I wrote in A Is for Autopilot:

Estimates are that close to 80% or more of what we do every day we do on autopilot, which means without conscious intention or volition. It’s not just what we do, either. The majority of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of automatic brain processes.

As neuroscientist David Eagleman says:

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.

When you look outward at the world—or even inward at yourself—you see things not as they are but as you are. You view the world through your own set of filters, biases, opinions, judgments, personal experiences, and temperament. You act and react as you do—and not as someone else might—because you’re looking out from within your own model of the world. Your model of the world influences what you pay attention to, how you interpret and react to events, the meaning you assign to them, and most of what you think, feel, do, and say. When it comes to trying to change the status quo, your preexisting model of the world is your most formidable obstacle.

In order to create and sustain positive change, you have to change your model of the world. But how can you change something you can’t see—the very lens you see through?

That’s where the Enneagram comes in. It offers each of us a window into our particular model of the world so we can develop the self-awareness that’s essential for creating change.

The Enneagram is the most practical and accurate tool I’ve found for describing our basic temperament or personality, and therefore our habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. (Other typing systems include the MBTI, OCEAN [a/k/a Big Five], DISC, and Social Styles.) The Enneagram is comprehensive and multifaceted, so it requires some effort to fully grasp. But it’s worth it. When you identify your type, you may find that the Enneagram knows you better than you knew yourself. It isn’t the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything, but it gives you a place to look, a way to pay attention to what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

In a Nutshell

Enneagram is a Greek word that means nine points. The Enneagram symbol is composed of a triangle and a hexad within a circle. The triangle connects points 3, 6, and 9. The hexad connects points 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8.

The 9 points represent 9 basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. We tend to polarize near one of those points, as a result we overdevelop some areas and underdevelop others. That polarization strongly affects how and what we perceive of the world around us—and how we respond to what we perceive. Our perceptions and responses become so much a part of us that they occur automatically, without any conscious thought.

alphabet-changeOne way to think about the Enneagram is that each point represents a particular kind of imbalance. (It’s easier to spot imbalances in others than it is to recognize them in ourselves. So it can be tempting to “helpfully” point out those imbalances to friends, family members, and co-workers. It is also tempting to stereotype people because categorizing is an automatic process of the brain.)

The Enneagram can make you more aware of your particular autopilot behavior. It can show you how you tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways, as well as in negative and sometimes destructive ways. Your core personality type doesn’t change over the course of a lifetime, but as you become aware of your tendencies and imbalances, you gain the ability to moderate them. You’re no longer run by them.

Some people believe that being typed diminishes them somehow, that typing puts them into a box. But typing doesn’t put people into boxes; it identifies aspects of the boxes we’re already in. It points out what’s inside the box and what’s outside, both of which are equally important.

The Nine Types

Very briefly, these are the nine types:

Type 1: The Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist. Principled and responsible, but can also be rule-bound and critical.

Type 2: The Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner. Compassionate and altruistic, but can also be co-dependent and manipulative.

Type 3: The Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, and the Status Seeker. Self-assured and accomplished, but can also be competitive and performance-driven.

Type 4: The Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person. Creative and inspiring, but can also be overly dramatic and fault-finding.

Type 5: The Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker. Perceptive and curious, but can also be cold and detached.

Type 6: The Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate. Organized and hard-working, but can also be indecisive and overly-vigilant.

Type 7: The Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast. Cheerful and multi-talented, but can also be acquisitive and thrill-seeking.

Type 8: The Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter. Courageous and magnanimous, but can also be combative and domineering.

Type 9: The Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist. Deeply receptive and serene, but can also be disengaged and inattentive.

When it comes to creating change, the greatest benefit of learning about your Enneagram type is discovering how you repeatedly get in your own way. Without that knowledge, your efforts are likely to lead to frustration more often than to success.

For more information about the Enneagram, visit ninepaths.com.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

V Is for Vampire

More accurately, V is for choosing whether or not to become a vampire. (Stay with me.) It’s an example offered by philosophy professor L.A. Paul to describe the difficulty of making certain kinds of decisions—decisions that will, literally, transform you in some way. She asks, how could you make an informed choice about whether or not to become a vampire?

Imagine that you have a one-time-only chance to become a vampire. With one swift, painless bite, you’ll be permanently transformed into an elegant and fabulous creature of the night. As a member of the Undead, your life will be completely different. You’ll experience a range of intense new sense experiences, you’ll gain immortal strength, speed and power, and you’ll look fantastic in everything you wear.

So far, so good. However…

You’ll also need to drink animal blood (but not human blood) and avoid sunlight.

Paul goes on to say that all your friends and family have already become vampires and they are crazy about it. They encourage you to become a vampire, too. When you ask for more information, they tell you that, as a human, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a vampire until you become one.

High Stakes (no pun intended)

Paul refers to such decisions as high-stakes transformative decisions. Once you take the plunge, there’s no turning back. High-stakes transformative decisions definitely alter your status quo, for better or for worse. Other examples are:

  • Becoming a parent for the first time
  • Being born deaf and getting a cochlear implant
  • Being in a war
  • Seeing color for the first time

Normally, Paul argues, experience helps us develop the conceptual or imaginative abilities we need to imagine things or situations that don’t currently exist. (It’s easy enough to imagine a vampire, especially these days, but it’s not so easy to imagine being a vampire.) When we go about trying to decide if we should take path A or path B or stay right where we are, the right kinds of experiences allow us to project ourselves into the future so we can make a rational decision about how to proceed. If we lack such experience, we have no basis for making a rational decision.

We Are Not so Rational

Paul says:

There’s a lot of value in introspecting. It’s important for us to try to think about who we are and who we want to become when we make these big decisions.

Of course that’s true for all kinds of decisions. And there are no guarantees that even the most rational of decisions will produce the results you want or hope for. Whether the stakes are high or low, even if you think you know yourself pretty well, and you think you know who you want to become in the future, and you have suitable previous experience, and you attempt to include all the relevant information, you can still end up choosing something that leaves you disappointed or far from where you thought you’d be.

Besides that, the vast majority of choices we make are non-rational (System 1, unconscious) choices. Rational decision-making isn’t even the norm for most high-stakes transformative choices.

Affective Forecasting

When we project ourselves into the future, trying out various potential outcomes, we may be weighing (consciously or unconsciously) numerous factors. But a primary consideration for most of us is how we’re going to feel as a result of a particular outcome. This is called affective forecasting—and we tend to be really, really bad at it.

In order to predict how we’re likely to feel about something, we need to be able to imagine the event. As Paul says, that’s easier to do if we’ve experienced it or something similar in the past. If we’ve been to a lot of parties, we can imagine—in general—how we’ll feel about attending a party on Saturday. If we’ve cleaned out the garage before, we can imagine how we’ll feel about doing that on Saturday, too. But if we haven’t experienced something, what we imagine or expect may not bear much resemblance to the actuality. Thinking we can predict the future leads us to believe in the veracity of what we imagine.

Even if we’re able to imagine an event because we’ve experienced it before, our memory of it—and how we felt at the time—may be faulty simply because it’s the nature of memory to be faulty. And the feelings we experience when remembering an experience from the past are not necessarily the same feelings we had at the time of the experience. (Daniel Kahnaman claims the experiencing self and the remembering self have very different agendas.) Additionally, when we don’t recall actual details of something, we may come to rely instead on our beliefs or theories about how that thing will make us feel in the future.

The Future Will Not Be the Same as the Present

There are many other variables that influence the way we make decisions, including how we’re feeling at the time, both physically and emotionally. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes how our attempts to imagine the future are based in our experiences in the present:

We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.

He adds:

We fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.

And our future world won’t be identical to our present world, either.

So if you want to improve the odds of having your decisions lead to positive outcomes rather than negative outcomes, you need to identify what’s really important to you and focus most of your attention on going after those things. Feelings are fleeting, but the things that are most important to you are also likely to be the most constant.

Trying to decide whether or not to become a vampire isn’t really so different from actual decisions you face. Making high-stakes transformative decisions will lead to unexpected results and unintended consequences.

So will not making them.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

U Is for Urgency

According to the gospel of Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, paraphrased by Dwight D. Eisenhower in a speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, and subsequently adopted by Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.

You’ve probably seen—or at least heard of—the Eisenhower Box or Covey’s time-management matrix. Maybe you’ve used it. In any case, it has gained traction to the point where it’s generally accepted as a viable operating principle by nearly everyone who’s trying to be more productive, effective, or successful.

The four quadrants in the matrix are:

  • #1: Urgent and Important
  • #2: Important but not Urgent
  • #3: Urgent but not Important
  • #4: not Urgent and not Important

Although I understand the concept, this matrix has never seemed useful to me so I haven’t paid much attention to it. But the wide acceptance of it has had a profound effect, one that I encounter repeatedly when I talk to my clients about change: it has turned urgent into a dirty word.

Gentlemen, Define your Terms!

The definition of important is: of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.

The definition of urgent is: compelling or requiring immediate action or attention; imperative; of pressing importance.

According to proponents of the matrix:

  • Important tasks contribute to your long-term personal or professional goals or mission. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. Focusing on important tasks puts you in a responsive mode, which keeps you calm, collected, and inventive.
  • Urgent tasks, however, require immediate attention, which puts you in a reactive mode. You become defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused. Furthermore, urgent responsibilities require immediate attention. These activities are often tightly linked to the accomplishment of someone else’s goal, and not dealing with them will cause immediate consequences. Urgent tasks are characterized as: crises, pressing problems, deadlines, emergencies, last-minute preparations, and (my favorite) fire-fighting.

This is a whole lot of hooey for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. The most annoying aspect of the matrix is the seeming conflation of urgency with emergency.

An emergency is defined as: a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action.

While both urgent tasks and emergencies require action or a response now, not everything that’s urgent is an emergency. And there is nothing inherently negative in the definition of urgent, which begins with compelling: evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.

If It Feels Good, Don’t Do It?

According to the matrix, or interpretations of it, pleasurable activities are neither urgent nor important, so they should get the lowest priority in terms of how you spend your time. Try telling that to the part of your brain that runs you, and which is not remotely interested in all that stuff in box #2.

The unconscious part of your brain (System 1) is interested in immediate gratification, not long-term satisfaction. That’s why (I’m guessing…) you don’t always do what’s in your own best interest, even when you’re clear about the benefits of doing those things or the consequences of not doing them.

Why are pleasurable activities banished to the bottom of the heap, anyway? That seems somewhat puritanical. Pleasurable activities are rewarding to the brain, so you naturally want to experience them—and, one way or the other, your brain will see to it that you do.

In fact, anything you experience as urgent falls under the operation of System 1, whether it’s good for you or not. All of your planning and evaluating and strategizing require the attention of System 2, the conscious part of your brain. The matrix is a System 2 product. It’s logical and it seems like a really good idea. System 2 has millions of really good ideas. (Anything you classify as important but not urgent is, until you take action on it, nothing but another good idea.)

System 2 forgets it is often a mere bit player in the game of life.

Make What’s Important also Urgent!

The prime directive of System 1 is your survival. It carries out that directive in a number of different ways, one of which is to maintain the status quo. When you try to change your behavior, System 1 “corrects” you back to your previous path.

For example, per the matrix, you may decide that it’s really important to make different choices in regard to exercise, eating, snapping at your co-workers, or the amount of sleep you get. If so, you will likely notice that important is often insufficient to maintain your commitment to making those changes. That’s because, from moment-to-moment, System 1 will keep you focused on what it considers to be urgent. You simply don’t have enough System 2 attention to continuously override System 1’s impulses.

System 1 is powerful and pretty relentless. If you want to change the status quo, you need an equally powerful and relentless force to counteract it and to get it to work for you rather than against you. So the best thing you can do is make what’s important as compelling to your brain as possible. You want to have a sense of urgency about accomplishing what really matters to you. If you don’t have that sense of urgency, then what you claim is important to you is nothing more than a good idea or intention—you know, those things famously paving the road to hell or at least to disappointment, mediocrity, and failure.

You’re much more likely to take action based on what’s important to you if you—and your brain—feel a sense of urgency about it. Get your brain to take on those good ideas and intentions as if your life depends on it because, not to be overly dramatic, it probably does.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

Q Is for Questions

If you want to get good answers, you have to ask good questions. That seems pretty obvious. What may be less obvious is that it’s also important to know what question it is you’re answering—because, in some cases, it isn’t the one you were asked or even the one you asked yourself.

In Thinking, Fast and SlowDaniel Kahneman introduced the concept of what he calls “answering an easier question” aka “substitution.”

If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 [the unconscious] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution.

Even with his examples, substitution was nothing but an abstract concept to me until I happened to experience it myself.

Not long after I read this chapter of Kahneman’s book, I was standing in my kitchen looking out the window waiting for water to boil for a cup of tea. It was an overcast and dreary early winter day. I hate winter, and that’s putting it mildly. Gray days are demotivating to begin with, and I already wasn’t interested in any of the work I had to accomplish that particular day. So as I stared out the window, I asked myself a question: If I could do anything right now, what would it be?

Almost immediately, I caught myself in the act of answering a different—and much easier—question: What more enjoyable thing can I do right now that’s practical?

Had I not been reading Kahneman’s book, I would have missed this sleight of mind. Instead, I did notice that I couldn’t answer the original question. I didn’t know what I would do, if I could do anything. Upon further consideration, I realized that I didn’t know what I really wanted, period, which is why I couldn’t answer the question. As someone who usually knows my own mind—or who thinks I do—I was intrigued.

What Do I Really Want?

The result was that I created an exercise for myself so I could discover what I really wanted—not just the small or temporary stuff, but the big stuff—the big picture stuff. I ended up referring to these things as Big Picture Wants, and I created a course (What Do You Want?) so that other people could find out what they really want, too.

You can’t discover Big Picture Wants directly (that’s the hard question). An easier question to answer is what do I want right now? It turns out that by answering the easier question over and over (and over…and over…), you can eventually find the answer to the hard question.

Identifying Big Picture Wants is the “art” part of mastering the art and science of change. If you don’t know what you really want in life, you lack a compelling context for making decisions and setting goals. Knowing where you’re headed—why you’re doing something—helps you keep your eyes on the prize. Otherwise, one path seems to be as good as another, and distraction, procrastination, and self-doubt are your constant companions.

What Impact Do I Want to Make?

The phenomenon of substitution also shows up in my Personal Impact course, which I created after hearing many of my amazing clients talk about wanting to make an impact. When I asked them what impact they wanted to make, they could usually tell me what they were doing or wanted to do, but almost no one could describe the impact they wanted their “doing” to have. I think it’s Dan Ariely who said that thinking is difficult and sometimes unpleasant. Add to that what Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke recently said in their podcast, Two Guys on Your Head: Brains look for efficient ways to get on with it.

It’s no wonder we immediately shift to the question we can answer: because trying to answer the deeper, more difficult question is unpleasant and because our brain wants to get on with it.

And per Daniel Kahneman:

[A] lazy System 2 [consciousness] often follows the path of least effort and endorses a heuristic answer without much scrutiny of whether it is truly appropriate. You will not be stumped, you will not have to work very hard, and you may not even notice that you did not answer the question you were asked. Furthermore, you may not realize that the target question was difficult, because an intuitive answer to it came readily to mind.

We spend two-thirds of the Personal Impact course focusing on the what and the who—and trying to separate them from the how. (Yes, some of our conversations sound like we’re reading Dr. Seuss.)

Making an impact is all about changing the status quo, but on a bigger level than the personal, which makes it even more challenging. That’s why it’s extremely important to be not only clear, but also passionate, about what impact you want to make and why you want to make it.

Asking Why Forward

But asking why questions can be tricky, too. For one thing, we tend to ask them in the wrong direction. We ask why did that happen? Why did that person do what he/she did? Why did I do that? Why am I the way I am? 

Asking why backward is an attempt to find an explanation, rationale, reason, or maybe even an excuse. It’s easy to get stuck in the past searching for answers to questions about the present or the future.

Asking why forward instead of backward, however, is extremely useful. An example is asking why do I want to do this thing or make this impact?  Instead of providing an explanation, which is neither useful nor powerful, the answer to that question can provide definition, motivation, and determination.

The backward why is just a habit of thought. It can’t take you anywhere new—or anywhere at all, really. The forward why is where all the action is. It can break through the limits and barriers imposed by the past. It can open up and expand your world.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.