Stanford professor of organizational behavior, Robert Sutton, says, “The gap between knowing and doing is larger than the gap between ignorance and knowledge.” I can’t verify Sutton’s observation empirically, but experience seems to bear this out. We are prone to cram our minds full of new things to know, yet fail to put into practice those few important things we need to do.


Let’s call this problem of knowing but not doing the “application gap.” Every one of us experiences this challenge, especially in our information-driven work world. While it’s true that there’s an ongoing need to learn and know more – you’ve heard the lament, “if I had only known!” – implementing what is already clear is our greater need.

Let me share three quick insights I’ve learned from others that have helped me close the application gap:

  1. “Succeed in a few.” This quote comes from one of my close mentors, Bruce Bickel. He said this to me in the summer of 1993 in the very first meeting I ever had with him. I was 34 years old (how’s your math?), and launching the first of my enterprises, the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE, now at What’s the point? If you have dozens of must-do’s or could-do’s staring at your day, your week, your month, your quarter, your year, it matters that you know which ones to implement with determination. Everything doesn’t matter equally. A few things matter a great deal. Chasing every opportunity assures a major application gap. I’m reminding myself of this as I see opportunities multiplying, and because I’m seeking focus on those few things I must successfully accomplish.
  1. “Little is big.” A few years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a class on Serving Leadership to doctoral students in Hong Kong. Over the course of the class, I gave the students the assignment to put into practice the lessons they learned. One student, a president of a large, national Chinese bank, focused his work on two principles: “Serve Others First,” and “Build on Strength.” I was deeply moved as I read through his project. Though his duties were crushingly large, he worked with great care and intentionality on improving his supervisory relationships with three of his inner staff. The impact on them and his bank was both big and beautiful.
  1. “Mind the gap.” Dan Sullivan ( taught thousands of us that we need encouragement in our goal achievement work. If we continuously stare at the gap between where we are and where we think we should be, we live in debilitating discouragement. Instead, he taught us to observe and appreciate how far you’ve come! You aren’t where you want to be, but you aren’t where you were, either. The great insight by Dan is this: the destination we seek will recede into the horizon as we approach it. In one sense, the purpose of a destination is to pull us forward by always moving ahead of us. As we make progress, our destination asks us to regroup and to stretch further. Life, all evidence seems to suggest, is not so much interested in our arriving as it is in our movement forward in the journey. So, celebrate the progress. Be thankful for how far you’ve come. Recognize, and appreciate the growth.

We need all three of these insights as we “mind the gap.” I can do some things but not all things. I need the encouragement to stay focused. Little things are big; closing the gap on the small things is often the most solid way we have to make progress. And, progress is actually being made! We’re not where we will be tomorrow, true enough, but we’re also not where we were yesterday.

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How do you handle the application gap in your life? Do you know where it’s most important for you to apply yourself? And do you give enough credit to the small things that you can do? And how about your progress? Do you see how far you’ve come? Celebrate that! Give thanks and be strengthened for the next leg on your journey!

John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader.” He serves as President of Newton Institute and Director of its Center for Serving Leadership. Learn more at

Photo by Joshua Earle (