Every so often I read a book expecting one thing but finding something completely different. Or I come across advice that I need at a specific low moment. Dan Sullivan’s book, The Gap and The Gain: High Achievers’ Guide to Happiness, Confidence, and Success, delivered both. It provided a powerful paradigm shift decades overdue and inspired me to pursue the “Gainer’s mentality” rather than the “Gapper’s.”

Island Lake July 6, 2021. Before my injury, hiking 12-15 miles was just what Ajax and I did. Now I've had to reset my expectations. Touching right thumb to pinkie is a major win. I choose to see the GAIN rather than live in the GAP.
Island Lake July 6, 2021. Before my injury, hiking 12-15 miles was just what Ajax and I did. Now I’ve had to reset my expectations. Touching right thumb to pinkie is a major win. I choose to see the GAIN rather than live in the GAP.

The GAP and GAIN Defined

Mountain lovers might open Sullivan’s book expecting a discussion about peaks and valleys. Instead, it addresses what we choose to compare ourselves to: an impossible ideal that is constantly changing (GAP), or your starting point (GAIN).

The GAP

“You’re in the GAP every time you measure yourself or your situation against an ideal,” (p. xxiii.) If you identify with setting a goal and then, as soon as you reach it, setting another, harder goal that will require more from you and is farther away, you may be a “Gapper.” If you pursue something for many years but never quite attain it, and you feel like your very happiness depends on reaching it, you may be in the GAP. When I started studying children’s fiction in 2014, I decided to write a novel. I have penned five over the last eight years. Happiness and bliss, right? Writing for kids should bring me joy, right?

Hmm. Not exactly.

Being in the GAP

It turns out I have probably been “in the GAP” most of my adult life. When I first had a client reach the summit of Mt. Everest, I was thrilled. Until I wanted more. I coached a woman to reach each of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. And wondered where to find more. When I reached twelve pullups, surely I could get to twenty-five. When I climbed Rainier, that was enough… for two days, when I decided I had to go back. Now, eight summits later, I want to reach ten. Nice round number, right? So what?

Gap and Gain a Powerful Paradigm Shift for the Brain
Mt. Rainier seen from the trail at Exit 42 toward Rainbow and Island Lakes.

I even had goals around raising my daughter! (She is doing just fine, by the way.) Will the same thing happen when I reach my goal of fifty blog posts in fifty weeks? Or will that be enough to spark joy, happiness and bliss?

As soon as I reach a goal, I arbitrarily move my finish line. Sound familiar? I am never quite satisfied; I keep wanting more. Sullivan points out that Americans are chasing the wrong goal in our endless “pursuit of happiness.” (Thanks, Thomas Jefferson. Turns out he was in the GAP.) We are using the wrong metric. We are measuring the gap when we should be measuring the GAIN.

The GAIN

I help clients set realistic goals for what they want to accomplish in the mountains. Since getting to the final destination is outside our control, I try to teach them about enjoying the journey. We might run into bad weather, obstacles, illness, or injuries before we even start. But we can enjoy the training hikes, the strength we feel in the gym, the ways our bodies react to increased flexibility or better sleep and nutrition. I ask clients to track their progress so they can see where they started and how far they’ve come. I ask them to track their GAINS.

Slipping out of the GAIN

Like everyone else, I set high expectations for myself. Such as going on thirty hikes a year, something I did in both 2020 and 2021. But when I broke my wrist in February, I had to reset all this year’s expectations. I had trouble doing the simplest hiking-related tasks, such as lacing boots, fastening my dog’s harness, shouldering and loading a pack, and even driving a car.

For weeks, I wondered whether I’d ever get back to where I was in October of 2021 — I couldn’t even pick up trash anymore. I sank deeper into THE GAP, comparing myself to an ideal that no longer fit my situation. When I thought I would need surgery, I got depressed. For four days I didn’t want to do anything.

Will I see signs like this again? Absolutely. But they don't define my happiness. I can find happiness within me, around anything. By focusing on the right things.
Will I see signs like this again? Absolutely. But they don’t define my happiness. I can find happiness within me, around anything. By focusing on the right things.

Powerful Paradigm Shift Toward Happiness

That is when I started reviewing Ingrid Fetell Lee’s book on joy. Wherever possible, I lined up people who could help me heal, repair, and rebuild my wrist. I diligently applied myself to the physical therapy exercises and little by little, I noticed changes. As soon as I could zip my coat (it was winter, after all), I smiled. Securing my dog’s favorite harness nearly made me cry. And the freedom I felt from finally doing my hair and clipping my nails was huge. Last week I returned to the mountains to hike — twice. I am BACK.

They say hindsight is 20/20 and as soon as I read the prologue to Sullivan’s book, I knew instantly I had to share it with readers. It’s that profound. True, what I hiked was not Mount Rainier. Not even close. It was not even the distance or gain of Pratt, Melakwa, Island, or Rainbow Lakes, all hikes I did last summer without thinking much about the mileage. But using Sullivan’s approach, I now compare myself to where I was at ground zero eleven weeks ago when I struggled to touch my right thumb and index finger together.

Crossing the bridge back from Talapus and Olallie Lakes, July 2021. We will return this year, I guarantee it. I never quit. Powerful paradigm shift.
Crossing the bridge back from Talapus and Olallie Lakes, July 2021. We will return this year, I guarantee it. I never quit.

Choosing the Gain

Now, I can cut an apple or potato with a knife. I can see the palm of my hand without needing a pair of mirrors. Before starting The Gap and The Gain, my thoughts still went to where I was prior to eleven weeks ago.

No more. I choose not to return to THE GAP as it no longer serves me. I see a better way. Will I get where I was again? Absolutely, someday. That’s another lesson I have learned since December 13: I never give up.

But right now, I choose happiness. I choose to look at how far I’ve come and celebrate that, not what I perceive as loss. So can you.

And I choose to read on. Who knows what other insights I will glean if I got this much out of Sullivan’s prologue?

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

Join the Conversation

4 Comments

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Oh My, did I live a good chunk of my life as an inveterate “GAPer”! I will however not plead guilty but instead put forward extenuating circumstances. The “world” in which I grew up and then spent most of my productive life (hmmm…funny word that “productive” one) was nothing if not “goal oriented”. The prevailing messaging seemed to mostly be all about “succeeding” vs. “failing”, with little focus on defining that as a multi-faceted “shades of… pink” paradigm instead of a stark black-and-white dichotomy. So, it took time for me to develop the attitude that Silvie Marie summarizes so well: <>. I am nowhere near black belt level in that particular art… but I try and make constant progress towards GAINhood! A vignette about my latest success (fresh off the… trail). Due to injury, my personally-lofty goal of a 280 miles hike in early June has rapidly become highly unlikely. Brain-jerk-reaction: another failure, I have to give up my goal!! A couple deep breaths later: I can’t fully control my recovery (it will take the time the body needs). So what CAN I aim for under the new circumstances? Shorter distance, slower pace, more stops/resupplies and therefore less pack weight, etc. Enter the Revised Goal that I can believe in and FEEL is still a great one (the “magic” formula being: worthiness of 280 w/o injury = worthiness of half of that or possibly even less, baby-sitting my injury via care and modified logistics). Part of the revised plan is TESTING my progress and physical ability before I start. I did that yesterday with a very short 4 miles stroll with no pack… and my injured foot did not scream UNCLE. This small progress felt like such a big VICTORY, in part because it involved “customizing” a shoe insert using a felt pad, a box cutter and duct tape! I may end up just doing 40 miles or less, I can’t know right now… but I (the allegedly sentient part) will have done my best to allow my body to support my quest. Beyond the gain I will “rack-up” on the trail itself, I have come to truly consider all aspects of the preparation leading to “the adventure” itself as gains of their own, especially when it comes to PLANNING, TRAINING and DEALING WITH SETBACKS before I even lace my boots on day 1. With all this… I often still feel the “pull” of the GAP… not totally unlike the one an addict must feel when needing a “hit”. But, when I do, I am getting better and better at stopping to, as you say, “choose to look at how far I’ve come and celebrate that, not what I perceive as loss”. It is such a powerful way to get the most from the hand we are dealt.

    1. Yes, you are so right about the “pull of the GAP” and I hope by continuing to read the book I will find suggestions for how to deal with such side-stepping allure. The mystique of the GAP. Sounds like another book title. Even looking at my own daughter’s fabulous successes I found the GAP calling my name (take THAT you beast!), but the GAIN won out when I looked at all my OWN successes and how far I’ve come and remembered that she is her own person, and every success she has reflects in a tiny way on how we have supported her as her parents. The GAP is not a good place to live, but with effort, we can flex our GAIN muscles just like you mention with PLANNING, TRAINING, and DEALING WITH SETBACKS. I might add LEARNING and PUTTING KNOWLEDGE INTO PLAY. We are all Works in Progress (WIP’s) and anytime we can take a moment to reflect and steer in a new direction that better serves us and those we hold dear, let’s count as a win! Thanks as always for the comment and good luck celebrating those wins!

  2. GAP vs GAIN. I am more on the GAIN side. I love to focus on the “now” happiness. When I don’t reach a goal, I am disappointed but I don’t get discouraged, I will just refocus. Nothing is the end of the world. I truly live for the present moment and I love taking small steps and they are getting smaller.