What is The Want Gap and How Do I Use It?

Beth E Lee MBA MSc
6 min readMar 24, 2023

The Want Gap is the space between where you are now and where you want to be. But how do you use it?

At the moment, I want a house. It’s a “having” want, (from my created want list) but it goes so much deeper than just having a roof and four walls. A house, to me, means a home, a place of safety, warmth, and love. I’m not in a position to buy a house, just yet, so I am forced to sit here and think about the want. I am stuck in what I call, The Want Gap. It’s the space in between two cliffs. The place where we compare where we are now with the future, or where you want to be.

In my head, I visualise the want gap as me sitting on the ground in between one cliff, that Coyote from the Loony Toons stands on top of, and another cliff where his nemesis, Roadrunner stands. Coyote’s cliff represents where you are now, or the recent past. Roadrunners cliff represents where you want to be. And then there’s you, sitting in the space between the two cliffs.

Here’s an example of thinking in the want gap. Let’s say you want to be president of a company, but you’re just starting out in your career. You may be an account manager sitting on the ground in between the two cliffs. Coyote’s cliff is the account manager position and Roadrunners cliff is the CEO position. There’s a sizeable gap from one cliff to the other. There is a long way from where you are now to where you want to be and so you think about your want, you plan, and you make choices to move you towards getting what you want. But while you’re stuck in the want gap, your thinking starts to take hold and it can become a place of struggle, of uncertainty, of uncomfortableness.

Photo Credit: Unsplash: jordan-mcqueen-ido_zlFUFlc-unsplash

Internal Comparisons: Comparing YourSELF

Everyone has their own Want Gap. The question is, are you comfortable in your gap — or do you feel like everything you want is miles away, unattainable and, frankly, too hard to go after? Only you can answer that question, but psychologists have looked into some reasons why we often feel that our wants are out of reach.

In the 1980s, psychologist Edward Tory Higgins, a professor at Columbia University, developed the self-discrepancy theory, which explains how we compare ourselves to internalised standards called “self guides”. These self guides are comparisons relating to three internal areas of the self:

Comparing your ought self (which is based on your obligations and sense of duty — now) with your ideal self (based on what you want, hope, and wish for in the future).

Comparing your individual attributes (the characteristics you have now) with your ideal attributes (those characteristics you want to have in the future).

Comparing your self concept of who you are (now) with who you want to be (your ideal self in the future).

Everyone has expectations, perceptions and beliefs about who they ought to be versus who they want to be. But where do those expectations, perceptions and beliefs come from? Are they your parents ideas? Perhaps they expect(ed) you to become, say, a doctor, when really you want to be an actor/actress? When you compare yourself now, maybe you have the skills to be a doctor but you really want to build your skills to be an artist. Then perhaps you start thinking about, labelling yourself Dr when really you want to be Artist. All of these expectations, perceptions and beliefs can get muddled in the want gap. It’s the disparity of reality between who you are now versus who you want to be which can conjure up negative feelings that can stay with you throughout your life.

Comparative thinking explains a lot of my thinking in my 20s. I struggled with the idea of living in rented accommodation. I would compare myself, my self concept of who I was in the now, as an individual renting an apartment, to my ideal self of being a property owner who is responsible and grown up. My expectation was that I would never be an adult until I owned an apartment. It sounds ridiculous when I write about it now, but when I was 25, it was extremely important that I worked toward fulfilling this want. This is a positive example of how my constant comparisons infiltrated my thinking and steered my behaviour and motivation toward purchasing a property while I was in the want gap.

Here’s another example of comparative thinking in the want gap. Let’s say you want to be fluent in French. You begin to think and visualise how you will go to France, converse with shopkeepers and live the French lifestyle, or maybe being fluent in French will get you a promotion at work. These ideas are exciting, energising and motivating. But as you think further and picture what it will take to become fluent in French, you start to compare yourself to the fact that you aren’t fluent right now. Perhaps you’re finding it hard to remember even the French you learned at school. You think about how much time it’s going to take to learn French properly and you don’t feel you can do it. You can picture yourself in the future, but there are a lot of barriers in the way. Now you’re feeling a bit deflated and dejected. It all seems too hard. Your thinking is muddled in the want gap.

If this seems familiar, don’t worry: this type of thinking is normal. Everyone’s brain is wired to be negative and to find problems — because if we can solve the problem, we’ll be safe. But it’s not just your internal comparisons of thoughts, visualisations, or emotions affecting what you want. There are outside factors too.

Outside Comparisons

Your environment, culture and the people you surround yourself with also offer comparisons to add to your thinking in the want gap.

I spent my 20s and 30s “wanting it all”. So, I created a plan that thought would give me all that I wanted. And it did, to some extent. Although I achieved the big job, travelled the world, and married an amazing husband, I wanted more. But why? Because none of what I had achieved felt satisfying. It just led to more wanting. I was going nowhere within myself, because I focused my thinking on all the internal, external, and social comparisons that I thought would provide me with what… happiness?

When you compare your ideas, actions, and wants with other people’s ideas, actions and wants, usually you compare them with people who are “superior” to yourself[ https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000127]. Unfortunately, when these outside comparisons take place, they result in a lower mood and a lower ability appraisal, meaning you believe you’re not as good as you really are.

Being able to notice, appraise, and reflect on what’s affecting you from the outside and the comparisons you make from those influences plays a huge role in how you want. Appraising your internal and external comparative thinking can help you unpick your wanting choices to help you evaluate what to do next time. For example, when I went for my MSc, I had direct experience in what would be involved after my MBA experience, but this time, I wanted to study, to learn, and to understand. It wasn’t because I wanted another three little letters after my name.

Understanding that there are both internal and external influences in your conscious and subconscious mind that are constantly trying to guide you will help you develop more intentional wanting.

The Want Gap Opportunity

The Want Gap may seem like a place of despair filled with internal and external comparisons. However, it’s actually a place of opportunity. A place for you to discover the important pieces of your want and…..

References:

Gerber, J. P., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological Bulletin, 144(2), 177–197. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000127

About the author:

With an MBA in Marketing, Beth E. Lee spent 20 years working within global corporations, NGO’s and SME’s in the marketing, advertising, and branding industries. In 2019 Beth received an MSc in Psychology & Neuroscience of Mental Health and a British Psychological Society approved Psychological Coaching Certification. She hails from Boston but has lived in 5 countries, currently residing in Dublin where she inspires and promotes creating an intentional life.

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Beth E Lee MBA MSc

Psych skills and discussions to develop an intentional mind.