Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: Running’s Raisons D’Etre?

AJWs TaproomIn his book “Drive,” Daniel Pink explores motivation, where it comes from, and how it can be fostered. For much of the book he addresses, specifically, motivation in school and in the workplace and, among other things, he seriously questions how much of an impact material rewards have on human motivation. Certainly, in some areas of education and business, there is no question that money, the satisfaction of others and fame, as well as the ego boost that accompanies such things are motivators. But, citing some recent research from a variety of sources, Pink suggests that the desire for material gain may be an overly simplistic rationale for explaining motivation, particularly in the context of 21st century society.

In one of the most thought provoking chapters of the book, Pink explores the importance of three essential factors – autonomy, mastery, and purpose – that have been human “drivers” for centuries and are becoming increasingly relevant today. This notion, not surprisingly, got me to thinking about what motivates us to run. In particular, what motivates us to run long, often in wild places, and frequently alone.

With very few exceptions, most of us do not run for a living. And, while I certainly admire those fortunate few who are able to run full-time and support themselves with running, I would guess that not even those folks are motivated to run by material rewards alone. Rather, as I’ve been around the sport for the last 17 years, it looks to me as though autonomy, mastery, and purpose are as much of a driving force behind what motivates us to run as anything else and may perhaps lend credence to Pink’s observations.

The absolute freedom of running is a topic that arises all the time. How many times have you heard runners talk about how liberating it feels to just lace up their shoes and hit the trail? The autonomy which is engendered in this sport is legendary and not only does it drive the practitioners but it seems to drive the marketers, as well. Next time you’re skimming a running publication take a look at how many advertisements are depicting the rugged individual, free from the restraints of the real world, out there running. Autonomy, certainly, is a motivator.

Additionally, we are a goal-oriented lot! When I think of my running career, it has all been about my own little version of mastery. When I discovered running, I quickly set about running marathons. Back then, my singular goal was to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon. After doing that in 1996, believing in the essential importance of my own little world and thinking that I had mastered the marathon distance, I moved on. The 100-mile trail race quickly started calling and, again, in my narrow view, I sought to achieve the pinnacle of mastery which was, at least for me and for a bunch of people who told me, the Western States 100. Now, I wouldn’t say that I have “mastered” that event but I have finished it eight times and it has found a way into my life that I never expected it to and its taken me places I never thought I would go. Seeking to master that event motivated me, particularly after my very disappointing 2001 experience there, and continues to do so today.

And how about purpose? Well, even in the absence of autonomy and mastery, it is safe to say that purpose plays an absolutely central role in why we run. From the need to drop a few pounds to the seeming obsession some of us have with certain events, those of us who consider ourselves runners, those of us upon whom that label is stuck like glue, derive a sense of purpose from running just about every time we head out the door. And, this is, unfortunately, most noticeable when we are deprived of the opportunity to run due to injury, life choices, time constraints, or just about any other limiting factor. Show me a devoted runner who is forced, against his or her will, to not run and I’ll show you someone who is lacking a bit of purpose.

None of this is to suggest that these are the only motivators for us and certainly Pink’s observations are subject to scrutiny in a variety of areas. Nonetheless, I find it somewhat comforting to know, thinking of my own experience both in running and in the rest of my life, that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are worthy and admirable reasons for doing what I love.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Maritime Pacific Brewing Company Nightwatch Dark Amber AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Seattle where I’ve been for the past few days. I must say, this town has a great selection of craft brews to liven up any occasion. Since I spent a fair amount of time eating seafood, I am going with a smooth, dark amber that goes great with oysters. It’s Maritime Pacific Brewing Company’s Nightwatch Dark Amber Ale. Next time you’re in Seattle, get a few!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
What are your primary motivations for running?

There are 7 comments

  1. Eric Grossman

    You've provided good examples of what motivates us to run. The question I'm left with is why we SHOULD seek autonomy, mastery, and purpose through running (or at all for that matter). Could we just as well value compliance, imperfection, and satisfaction with being? Pursuit of material satisfaction seems to explain itself — we have to make a living after all. Other values need explaining. What's so great about freedom? I like it for myself because it means I can resist temptation: I can't just be baited by life's little goodies. I like it for others because it means I can hold them personally responsible for their behavior. As you note, the pursuit of freedom is pretty evident among ultrarunners — and a good reason to belong to this community. I'd like to go on about mastery and purpose, but this is just a comment…

  2. Joel Aaron

    What about *joy*? And *play*? These too are attributes that I might use to describe my running to non-runners. These are certainly aligned with autonomy, but I'm not sure they are entirely subsumed within autonomy.

  3. art

    if you're talking about pure mountain running then autonomy … yes

    if you're talking about racing, no matter the distance or the course,

    then autonomy … no … I don't view any race setting as autonomous.

    1. Reid L.

      Curious: Where would street (non-race) running fall in a continuum of autonomy? And how about low-land trail running? (<– no negative intentions here… we just don't have any mountains close by.)

      1. art

        ok so the term "mountain running" was simply an all encompassing term for a totally on your own self-contained run of indefinite duration for indefinite purpose.

        1. art

          … well except that the term autonomy says, to me at least, minimal or no "chance of support" from the outside world. running in the mountains (or prairie, or jungle) seems to fit this bill much more than an urban run.

    2. Anonymous

      I think there's an overly literal interpretation of "autonomous" here. True, self-supported ultra-distance runs in the wilderness are more independent (and thus perhaps in some way more pure in their reward) than a well-supported race in any setting. But running is ultimately an "autonomous" act no matter how much support you have — it's your own two legs transporting you through time and distance. I think this is the essential autonomy of running that drives us, no matter how many aid stations you have.

        1. Andy

          maybe, but breathing without assistance is easier than running any ultra distance even with a crew vehicle behind you ;-)

        2. James Arnold

          art, with your strict definition the use of a trail (that others made) would be devoid of independence. Or using a water bottle or running shorts that were not made by your own hands. Lets not be zealots.

  4. Van Horn

    I run so I can go to places and back – like deep into the Wind River mountains, in one day – and not have to carry a heavy backpack.

  5. Rolland

    I too resonated with Pink's book and the a/m/p description of fundamental motivators. When thinking about running (and Nordic skiing, for me) it is the autonomy of the singularity of the effort, the continued work toward mastery of technique and pacing, and the purpose (for me) of staying intimately in contact with the natural environment that define my drive.

  6. Mary Ellen

    I am 57 years old and have run most of my life. Three months ago, I herniated a disc doing something stupid, and although I am recovering, have not been able to run yet. I do not fully understand it, but I feel better about myself when I run, especially long challenging trail runs. I think there is something empowering about being able to run far. Even though training can be serious, there is a certain joy and play to it, as has already been mentioned. It also provides a time when I can think and let my mind wander without all of the distractions found in a typical day….a kind of mental renewal. As an older runner, I think running sort of erases the years…allows me to feel young and happy :-)

    1. ric

      As an over-50 runner, Mary Ellen, I totally concur with your thoughts on this.

      I "get" the big three motivations around which this article is written — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — but how I interpreted the purpose part of that is different, or at least hides another purpose motive not mentioned — the ability to label oneself as a distance runner or trail runner. I think we all, perhaps subconsciously usually, define ourselves around labels: categorizations. I'm an over-50 runner, for instance. :-) But for me, it ties to motive too; my non-running friends know me as a distance runner, which I feel — again, subconsciously normally — motivated to fulfill. My fellow runners on know me as "one of them" so to speak. And sometimes my motivation to hit the trail is boosted by the knowledge that I sorta need to do it because of the expectations of my running peers — that if i don't keep my total weekly miles up, i won't belong to the pack any more.

      So is this just me, or do you any of you find motivation from defining your purpose in life to be, at least in part, to be a runner and to live up to that label, whether for yourself or for others?

  7. Seamus Foy

    When Pink talks about autonomy, he means having the freedom to choose a course of action that interests you and pursuing it. So, choosing to run a road marathon is definitely an act of autonomy. It is the individual willing himself to pursue a challenge that the vast majority of the population finds crazy. Nobody is telling you to do it except yourself.

    Here is an excellent video that literally illustrates the content of Ben's link:

    I explored Pink's ideas in a Teacher Research project last year. Most students produced their best work of the year when they were given the autonomy to write about anything in any form. They didn't all go for easy and obvious; many wrote sophisticated original works that demonstrated the understanding of form that they would usually analyze in an essay.

  8. Randy

    My head hurts from trying to understand why i run,like brushing my teeth,i'm sure i do it for a reason,just been doing it so long the reason doesn't matter,it just is!

  9. mtnrunner2

    Interesting post. I definitely get the autonomy part. And mastery to some extent, on my own terms.

    One thing that also seems to impact purpose is singularity of purpose vs. combining a bunch of different purposes into running. I take the latter approach: I run for the enjoyment of the moment, for photography, to go places I have not been, and to do things that are different and varied compared to the rest of my life.

    On the other hand, those who race and value competition highly may be very singular in pursuing that purpose only, and be unwilling to mix in other activities and motivations like I do.

    I'm just offering that as an observation on why some people seem to differ in their motivation and intensity with which they pursue their purpose: it's not only intensity but focus.

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