Despite having a low income, my father proposed that for every “A” I earned, he’d give me $20. I interpreted this in two ways:
- It had to be important to do well in school if he’d pay me the little money he had for good grades, and
- I was more motivated to learn when there was a price attached.
Pay-for-A’s is external motivation. It’s easier to get driven by external motivation whether in school (grades or praise), sports (place or time), relationships (affection or sex), or work (raises, status, or titles). But the sense of achievement you feel from within when internal motivation is what drives you is a harder thing to measure, yet much more long-lasting once felt.
Most runners, it seems, are externally motivated, a constant well unfilled: on to the next goal, the next race, the next stage of fitness.
On a run last week I listened to Michael Gervais’ Finding Mastery Podcast, Episode 042 – Dan Harris: Authenticity, Panic, Mindfulness. If you haven’t listened to Finding Mastery, you must. It is one seriously valuable source of information for the competitive athlete specifically or the evolving human generally. Gervais sums up the tension between being externally motivated, but longing for the satisfaction that only internal motivation can bring.
[It’s] the tension between ambition, restlessness, and being way out of balance – and – at the same time – pushing harder for achievement at the cost of meaning – and at the same time – wanting to have a meaningful and achievement-rich way of living …
Ok, let’s translate this talk about external versus internal rewards in the context of running. It’s common that when we choose a running goal, we’ll ask ourselves, whether knowingly or unknowingly, what external pay-off is available to us before we’ll move forward, or move at all. Is the course fast? Will I get the time I want? Will I be able to finish in the money? Or, those designed to offset risk, as in: Will I look silly? Will I finish? Which really all comes down to this: Will I be secure?
It’s easy to disconnect from ourselves and from what makes us feel truly, deeply good. Somewhere along the way, when it comes to decision making many of us opt for making decisions based on best proffer, best advancement and best success rate over listening to our guts or our hearts. I think often we forget that if we follow dreams motivated by internal rewards, that those external rewards will follow, not the other way around. It is only through taking risks that we can find the meaning we desire. Say yes to sidestepping, to undulations, to two-steps-back-one-step-forward, to emotional rollercoasters, because these movements can motivate us, if only we let them.
When it comes to finding a lasting and real sense of satisfaction from running, seeking internal over external rewards can make the difference. Here are some tools to use in building on more longevous motivation:
1. Focus on today
Often our desire for external validation occurs when we are over-concerned about our future. If we honor what is currently relevant, what our bodies are currently capable of, we will better nourish our internal well.
2. Make sure your baseline expectations are authentic and realistic.
As Harris says, “We’re constantly in the hunt for the next hint of pleasure. We have hedonic adaptation where you can have all this great stuff in your life but you take it for granted very quickly and bake it into your baseline expectations.” One way to help make sure your baseline expectations are authentic would be to focus on realistic feedback. “Being honest with yourself about your own bullshit is easier,” Harris says, but also, having friends, teammates and/or a coach who are honest with you will help you connect with your intrinsic values and develop more authentic goals.
3. Make SMARTER goals.
Using the SMART or SMARTER method of goal-making can help you make goals that are less about achieving external validation and instead internally rewarding. And by SMARTER I mean: are your running goals Specific? Measurable? Attainable? Realistic? Timely? Enthusiastic? Or attached to Rewards?
4. Regularly write down the things you are grateful for.
“As I’m going to bed I make a list of the things I’m grateful for. Many of which are not new and shiny,” says Harris. If you focus on the things that have served you well, internally, you can tap into developing upon ones that follow in trend.
There is benefit in seeking both internal and external goals in your training, but if you’ve ever felt like something is missing, it’s likely because you’re putting more effort into that which is externally gratifying over that which truly satisfies you internally. Pay-for-A’s, or other such external reward systems can be an incredible first spark, an external validation that can build on internally-satisfying endeavors, like the desire to advance in education. Yet, without your motivational system evolving from extrinsic to internal, seeking external rewards alone will always leave you seeking the next thing, both shiny and new. That is to say, never fully satisfied.
Do you struggle with extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation? Have you struck the right balance?