Wouldn’t it be great if you could always feel like you’re succeeding, no matter what changes are taking place around you?

Successful and unhappy, or successful and happy.

There are so many people in the world who live in wonderful circumstances and have extraordinary opportunities, yet they’re unhappy. Even the most successful entrepreneurs — those who are at the top of their game, with tremendous achievements and all the benefits that brings to their lives — can feel like failures. Their perception of themselves is one of failure, low self-esteem, and disappointment, even though everyone around them thinks they’re amazing and looks up to them as role models.

At the same time, there are others with all of these same achievements and advantages who are happy – increasingly so. If you think of the all the amazingly successful entrepreneurs you’ve met over the course of your career, you’ve likely seen both types. So, why the difference? Why are some successful people happy and others not?

It took me a couple years to get a handle on the difference I was seeing between these two types of highly successful entrepreneurs. I discovered that the key difference is how they look at life.

The “ideal” — for inspiration only.

The brain has a great ability to see a vision, or ideal, of how things could be in the future. The trick is to use that “ideal” as inspiration, and not to measure your progress against it because it will always continue to change and evolve as you do.

Consider this: When we’re outdoors and look ahead to where land ends and the sky begins, there’s a line we call the horizon. At a very early age, we learn the horizon doesn’t actually exist outside our minds. We accept, both intellectually and emotionally, that the horizon isn’t reachable.

Why is it, then, that virtually everyone can accept the horizon as a mental construct, but many people have lifelong difficulty in accepting that the ideal is also a mental construct?

The most obvious answer is that we can see physical space (the horizon), but we cannot “see” future time (the ideal) in the same way. Learning about the horizon comes naturally, but understanding the proper role of the ideal, one of life’s most crucial lessons, often needs a bit more explanation.

Ideals are the brain’s version of the horizon. An ideal is a picture of a bigger and better future, and, like the horizon, it moves with you, always out of reach. Why? Because the scope of your expectations and imagination expands in pace with your achievements.

The risk of falling into “The Gap.”

If you use your ideals to measure your progress, there’s a natural tendency to fall into a negativity trap that I call “The Gap.”­ This is the distance between what you’ve actually achieved and the ideal you’ve created. When you’re in this negative zone, you always feel a twinge of dissatisfaction, and you can’t see your accomplishments even though they’re obvious to everyone around you. It’s not a nice place to spend your time.

This isn’t a theoretical exercise, but a real, day-to-day experience for people who measure themselves against their ideal. They’re perpetually discouraged and disappointed, and always judge themselves as falling short of the mark. Needless to say, nobody else measures up to their standards either.

Don’t get me wrong: Ideals are absolutely essential. Both your motivation and inspiration are derived from your excitement about imagining that you really can improve and you really can surpass everything you’ve done before. That future ideal helps you to identify and choose your goals. When it comes to measuring your progress, though, ideals are no help at all.

As soon as you have a goal, and get in motion, you start making progress. The trick? Inspire yourself forward and measure backward. If you want to track your progress in a useful way, look back. Measure from where you started, and you’ll immediately be able to see, appreciate, and enjoy your achievements, then build on them.

Worst possible scenario.

For an entrepreneur, getting stuck in a negative zone is the worst possible scenario. I’ve often said that I start to go into The Gap several times a day, mostly when I’m creating something new and I’m not sure how it’s going to land with people. It’s a natural result of the negative aspect of the brain kicking in. But what saves me is that I realize it’s happening, I know how to get myself out, and I’ve created habits to keep me in a positive headspace.

About 15 years ago, I realized that how the day went was entirely up to me, so I created a quick exercise to make sure I would start and finish each day in the confident, positive mindset that’s most useful to me – and keeps me out of the negative zone.

Acknowledging today’s wins and planning for tomorrow’s.

Just before I go to bed, I review my day and decide what my three wins were. Regardless of anything else that happened during the day, I had three wins, and I visualize each of them in turn.

The second part of the exercise is to imagine the day ahead and choose what my three biggest wins will be tomorrow.

Doing this lets me fall asleep feeling good about the day I’ve just had and wake up excited about the day ahead. I go out and try to have the three wins I imagined, but I often have even bigger ones—which just gives me great material to work with when I do the exercise again that night.

What a phenomenal breakthrough to realize that you have absolute say-so about the meaning of your past and your future. You’re telling the story of your life—the story you’ve already lived and the story you’re going to live tomorrow.

You can strengthen this ability, too, through daily practice, and share it with your spouse, your children, your clientele, and your team: three wins for today, three wins for tomorrow. Anyone can benefit from this three-wins-a-day strategy.

Living life on a winning streak.

We’ve created a great app called WinStreak® to help you make a daily habit of this exercise. Log your three (or more) wins from today, then the wins you want to have tomorrow, and the app will track your winning streak, showing your progress on a calendar. Make this activity a regular part of your day, and you’ll have an endless source of confidence, achievement, and satisfaction.

About the Author

Dan Sullivan

Dan Sullivan is the founder and president of The Strategic Coach Inc. and creator of the Strategic Coach® program, which works with entrepreneurs to reach new heights of success and happiness. He has authored over 30 publications over his 42 years as a highly-regarded speaker, consultant, strategic planner, and coach to entrepreneurial individuals and groups.