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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Mind the Gap

  Maybeth Conway
  Maybeth Conway
Senior Associate

Gap minding—what a noble and challenging endeavor!

My first adventure as a gap minder occurred at Piccadilly Circus in London in the late 1960’s. Two of my college friends and I braced ourselves for a “go” at the British underground. With the superficial bravado of a confident collegiate and the deeper timidity of a Tube novice, we descended below ground to search for our train. A few flights of stairs and many twists and turns later, we arrived at the platform and were greeted by a mysterious message painted in bold letters on the floor of the station: “Mind the Gap.” We were clueless but far too concerned about our tissue-paper-thin veneer of worldly sophistication to ask what it meant to mind the gap. Instead, we simply hoped for the best and hopped on the next train that entered the station. When we eventually arrived safely at our destination, we deduced that we must have successfully minded the gap.

On a return trip to Great Britain a few years later, my curiosity outstripped my vanity and I learned the literal meaning of “Mind the Gap.” In the London subway, many of the platforms are curved, but the train cars are straight. This creates uneven spacing and a potentially dangerous opening between the platform and the train. With characteristic politeness, the British transportation authorities gently remind riders to be aware of this uneven spacing. As they leave the platform to enter the train, riders are cautioned to Mind the Gap.

In the years that followed my London escapade, I’ve developed a fondness for this peculiar phrase. I’ve also found plenty of opportunities to hone my skills as a gap minder. When I returned to the United States and entered graduate school, I quickly became aware of the gap between my grandiose notions of a scholar’s life and the often tedious reality of educational research. As a fledging teacher of high school English, I instantly became mindful of the gap between my passion for 19th-century American literature and my students’ zeal for the upcoming football game. Throughout my adult life, the gap between those ideal weight charts and my home scale has been a constant source of torture. And now, as I strive to craft a meaningful retirement, my awareness turns to the gap between my endless bucket list and some very realistic limitations of time, money, and energy. Minding this gap will require new skills and insights.

Throughout the decades, one gap has endured and probably flavored all others: the gap between intention and action. Try as I might, it seems that I repeatedly stumble into the space that lies between my idealized self and the real deal. Sometimes it’s a narrow crevice; too often, however, it’s a precipice. I have more than my share of scars and bruises that confirm my gap-minding clumsiness.

As I reflect on this topic with the assistance of well-respected experts on the subject of intentionality, I have a growing appreciation for the complex art of gap minding. Many of these experts—leaders in the fields of science, business, health care, philosophy, and spirituality—focus on the importance of our minds and our cognitive processing as a key variable in the intention-to-action equation. They view clear thinking as the crucial prerequisite to right action and remind us to keep our most lucid intentions in the forefront of our minds. Other experts focus on the action element of the equation. They suggest that once our intention is set, our focus should move to a highly structured goal-setting strategy that will operationalize our theoretical intentions. They definitely hold to the adage that the proof lies in the performance. While I find nothing objectionable about either of these approaches, I must admit that as often as I’ve tried them, I still seem to find myself dangling in the gap.

The most intriguing concepts and hopeful new insights that I have gleaned on the topic of intentionality come from philosophers and meditation teachers such as Sharon Salzberg and Phillip Moffitt, who suggest that the solution to this challenging equation actually lies within the heart. They hold that our deepest intentions find their roots well beneath our thoughts and actions. These intentions flow from the heart space where our vision and values abide. Honesty, compassion, generosity, and integrity arise from this space; to the extent that we are wholeheartedly committed to these values, they will guide our thoughts and actions.

Moffitt draws an important distinction between our goals and our intentions when he writes, “Goals never fulfill you in an ongoing way; they either beget another goal or else collapse. They provide excitement—the ups and downs of life—but intention is what provides you with self-respect and peace of mind.”  

Salzberg strongly recommends that we engage in mindful reflection to learn more about our personal intentions. She suggests that we must be able to answer such questions as “What matters most to you?” and “What do you deeply value?’’ as the first step in the process of aligning our intentions and our actions. She also reminds us about the complexity of intentions and warns us to be vigilant for signs of intentional hijacking:

“There are times when our 'well-meaning' actions arise from a complex set of intentions that we aren’t aware of. A seemingly generous act born out of a tangled skein of self-hatred, feeling, I don’t deserve to have anything so I might as well give it away, is more a kind of martyrdom. An act that appears to be ethical but is really born out of fear has its center in rigid repression. Professing love for someone else through giving a gift when, deep down, we can’t easily love ourselves becomes codependency, a loss of boundaries, and a painful and fruitless search for intimacy.”  

No wonder it’s so tricky to mind the gap!

So what instructions might these wise teachers give me to improve my own gap-minding skills? I’m sure they’d encourage me to spend some quiet time exploring my most authentic visions and values so that I’ll know my deepest intentions before I embark on a new adventure. Then I think they’d caution me to remain vigilant to the hazards of conflicted intentions. They might remind me to focus more of my attention on process and less on immediate outcomes while I make certain to keep my purest intentions in the forefront of my consciousness. Finally, I think they just might give me some gentle encouragement, remind me again to trust my intentions, and joyfully tell me to jump on the train and enjoy the ride.

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