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

AJW takes a look into what motivates runners to run.

By on March 2, 2012 | 21 comments

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?

Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.