The aspirational gap—the gap between what you are and want to be—can be closed four ways:
- Real progress toward your ideals
- Real lowering of your ideals
- Pretending you’ve made progress when you haven’t.
- Pretending you’ve lowered your ideals when you haven’t.
If, for example, you aspire to be a great athlete you can:
- Practice hard and progress toward athletic stardom.
- Settle for being less than a star.
- Pretend you’re a star when you aren’t.
- Pretend you don’t really care about being a star when really you do.
All of these approaches to gap-closing have their place. Obviously, it’s productive to really work to reach our goals, and to really lower our sights when a goal is proving unattainable.
Less obviously there are advantages to pretending. Sometimes claiming to have attained more than we have encourages us to try harder. That’s what personal pep talks are for. (“Wow, I’m doing great, so I’ll keep up the effort!”) And sometimes we motivate more relaxed focus by pretending we don’t care about reaching a goal. (“Who cares if I become great? I’ll just relax and give it my best shot.”)
Motivational therapies including religious faith include mixtures of all four. For example, religions mix and match effort and surrender, striving and detachment, claims of sudden attainment (For instance, being born again) and claims of letting go (For instance, in Buddhist aspirants). Think of the pretending as a fake-it-til-you-make-it or kick-starting strategy. Go through the motions of have attained or let go and soon you’ll be there more authentically.
Such gap closing optimism is famously good for resilience and even long-term health. But it has its negative side effects. An important one is to your gap cred, your credibility in self-reporting accurately about your goals and your progress toward them.
All of us intuit who to trust in their claims about their effort and success. We all know people who we intuit are more gap-posers than gap-closers, legends in their own minds, people who think they’ve closed more gap than we think they have.
No matter how earnestly they claim to have closed the gap, we don’t buy it. We judge them as not great judges of their own character.
One version of gap-posing is what I’ve called Talkiswalkism, the belief that whatever they declare about themselves must be true. When they say, “I believe honesty is always the best policy so of course I’m always honest,” they take their own word for it, even though you don’t. They think declaring it makes it so and yet you know better.
They say “Look I’m trying,” and you think, “not as much as you think you are.” They say “How dare you doubt my progress,” and you think, “alright, so they reject my opinion. That doesn’t make me change it. I’ll just keep it to myself.”
They speak with finality as though giving you their word should be enough to change your opinion. They don’t realize that the main effect of their finality is to shut you up, not change your mind. They cause themselves a news blackout, losing access to your feedback. Gap posers declare their own gap-closing virtues and you mutter “yeah, right,” under your breath.
Any of us can become a gap poser in a pinch. When we feel threatened we get defensive. When we hear discouragement we give ourselves a gap poser’s pep talk, out loud hoping for affirmation.
We humor each other some, but too much gap-posing reduces our gap cred.
Your gap cred matters to your success. Think of the time it saves. When you’ve got high-gap cred people take you at your word. When you don’t have it, people say “yeah, right. I’ll believe it when I see it,” forcing you to prove your ability. Gap cred is what people mean by integrity, being as good as one’s word so your talk really can stand in efficiently for the walk, because people believe you’ll follow through on your word. Having low gap cred means having high self-deceptability. People think you’re too much of a BS artist about yourself. Not good at home, at the office or anywhere. In politics, as with Chris Christy these days, it will get you kicked out of office.
If you want to maintain your gap cred, it’s crucial to correct inaccurate self-reporting once you relax enough to be able to look at the true state of your progress. People will allow you to pose some every once in a while in short self-defensive outbursts, but intuitively they’re minding the gap cred and if you allow yourselves too much loose interpretation of your own successes you’ll pay the price.
It’s best to assume everyone’s intuitive powers are precious to them. They’re hard earned, the product of life long learning in the school of hard knocks. It’s best not to pretend you can override people’s intuitions on command. If someone doubts that your gap is as closed as you claim it to be, don’t pretend you can simply will them into believing you.
To mollify you, they might pretend they’re surrendering their intuited doubts about your gap cred, but that doesn’t really work, any more than pretending any of us can be born again in an instant, reaching our goals by a shortcut act of momentarily wishful will.
You’ll remember Ted Haggard, the Born Again anti-gay, anti-drug mega-church preacher caught buying drugs from his gay partner? He claimed to have been cured by a three-week counseling intensive. “Believe me, I’ve closed the gap, just like that!” he said in so many words. “So don’t trust your intuitions about me. Be born again into trust in me.”
Don’t be like that. If your gap cred matters to you, mind the gap accurately, even if sometimes you give yourself an outside-voice pep talk about having closed it when you haven’t.
One secret to maintaining high gap cred is getting comfortable with the discomfort of the aspirational gap. The gap stings. The wider the gap between what you are and what you want to be, the more it stretches you, fraying the fibers of your self-esteem. Do gap yoga. Get good and limber to where you can stand a big gap without giving up and claiming victory. The better you are at admitting you’re not the best, the better you’ll become.
People with low gap cred are often those who can’t bear to feel the gap, and have to close it immediately even if just by pretending its closed. Their self-declared virtue is like Ben Gay on a strained hamstring, a temporary palliative. For real healing, limber up. Find dignity in your imperfections and aspirations, not in the image of yourself as practically perfect already.
There are get-rich-quick schemes, but there are also get perfect-rich-schemes. Neither tend to do much for the bottom line. Neither do much to close the gap between budget an actual, ideal and real. Both leave the people around you muttering just out of earshot, “yeah, right.”