Today is January 15, 2021. We are about halfway through the typical life expectancy for New Year’s Resolutions so it seems like an appropriate time to write about motivation.
While I have found great enjoyment in approaching weekly newsletter updates in a very eclectic and random fashion, I’m not sure if it’s been very useful to readers who may be interested in one specific theme, such as fitness and health. So for this week’s update I’m providing some breadcrumbs back to the earlier posts in this series regarding my personal journey towards better fitness and health.
In “A Year of Losses and Gains” I share a retrospective about my year of weight loss and fitness improvements: https://woundedwonders.com/2020/11/06/a-year-of-losses-and-gains/
In “The Gospel of Rhythm (part one)” I share some introductory concepts that I believe are essential to pursue your own health and fitness journey: https://woundedwonders.com/2020/11/12/the-gospel-of-rhythm-part-1/
I have, for nearly all of my life, required external motivation to persevere in anything. Fear of being labelled a quitter kept me involved with sports I didn’t enjoy as a kid. Fear of the parental consequences of getting an Asian F (you can google this term if you’re not familiar with it) motivated me to put in whatever last ditch effort was required to ensure at least an A- as a student. OK, at least a B, because I’m half-asian. In college, I vocally pretended to enjoy reading Shakespeare and conspicuously ensured a copy of Ulysses was left out on my dorm room desk in order to make myself appear intellectual and literary. Because I wanted to attract the kind of girl who was into pretentious literary types. Yeah, I was an especially obnoxious kind of poser.
Relatedly, I have only ever been able to stay motivated to train if I have a race on the calendar. There have been multiple sequences of January-May in which I run regularly in readiness for traditional races held in February, April, and May, only to let my fitness completely lapse in (the very best months in my region to run outside) June through September.
So, armed with this self-awareness, I pre-registered for at least one race per month between January – August of 2020, with the intention of signing up for September-December races sometime in June. My 2020 plan was to focus on running events while increasing my training capacity to pursue Olympic and Half Ironman distance triathlons in 2021 and beyond. As you can see below, I only managed to run in three of these races before all the rest were cancelled due to the global pandemic.
- January 4, 2020 FSRC Resolution Run Series 5k: 24:18, 2nd in age group (it’s a small field)
- January 25, 2020 FSRC Resolution Run Series 10k: 51:24, 2nd in age group
- February 22, 2020 FSRC Resolution Run Series 15k: 1:15:16, 3rd in age group
March 21, 2020 FSRC Resolution Run Series 20k: cancelled due to pandemic April 4, 2020 Run Super Ancient Lakes 25k Trail Race: cancelled due to pandemic May 3, 2020 Bloomsday 12k: cancelled due to pandemic May 17, 2020 Capitol City Half Marathon: cancelled due to pandemic June 7, 2020 Seattle Rock n Roll Half Marathon: cancelled due to pandemic August 1, 2020 Volcanic 25 Rail Race: cancelled due to pandemic August 15, 2020 Tacoma Narrows Half Marathon: cancelled due to pandemic
If, in 2020, I had remained motivated to train primarily by upcoming races, I should have lost interest in regular running sometime around April or May, based on my prior history of demotivation. Instead, my training volume steadily increased throughout the spring and summer. And I’m pleased to report that at the conclusion of 2020 and commencement of 2021, daily exercise feels more like healthy habit than a dutiful effort of will. I’ve found my rhythm, and I believe it has a lot to do with motivation, both extrinsic and intrinsic.
During my teenaged years, one of my closest friends had a dad who was good with philosophical banter and using word pictures to help us understand a concept. One of my favorites was his example of a donkey carrying a bunch of cargo lashed together by a rope. He used this illustration whenever one of us (usually it was me) tried to create a false dichotomy or, through intellectual laziness (again, usually me), tried to force an either-or upon circumstances better suited to both-and.
My friend’s dad would stroke his beard and compel us to “Think of a donkey carrying a tremendous burden over a precarious mountain pass.”
Now, if you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s adaption of The Fellowship of the Ring and can remember the scene where The Fellowship attempts to cross The Pass of Caradhras, you’ve seen exactly the scene that my imagination would conjure in response to this invitation. Even though I was in high school several years prior to Peter Jackson realizing the imaginations of Tolkien nerds upon the silver screen.
“The burden on the donkey’s back has to be tied down by a rope, yes?” He would usually lick his lips in anticipation at this point. Not in a creepy way, although I fear I’ve written it that way. More of a quick moistening like a trumpet player getting ready to play reveille.
“In order for the burden to be secure, the rope must be taut… it must have tension in it, tied down at opposite ends of the load.” He always paused here and held our gaze, to ensure we were fully engaged in the discussion. We always were, whether it be over a bonfire or across the dining room table.
He would hold out his left hand and announce “this end of the rope is your interpretation.” Then he would hold out his right hand, spread as far apart from the left as his arms would allow, and proclaim “this end of the rope is my interpretation.” Then, he would pantomime pulling two ends of a rope apart: “And it is only when these two ends are in tension that the donkey’s burden holds together. We need both ends in tension, you see? It is only with both that things hold together. It is only with both points that we may find what is true.”
I’m reminded of this illustration when I think about the evolution of my extrinsic and intrinsic motivations to train.
I’ve often believed that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivations. That doing something from external motivation is less authentic, less durable, less meaningful. And so I feel guilty when I act out of extrinsic motivation.
I’ve often held up intrinsic motivation as the utopian ideal, the form of motivation that we ought to have for anything that is worthwhile.
Here’s what I discovered for myself. I hope it may be of use to you, either to adopt for yourself or as a launchpad for your own examination of how and why to motivate yourself to persevere in anything worth sticking with.
In case my clumsy attempt to relay the donkey’s burden illustration didn’t make it clear, I believe there are many ideas and circumstances that are best considered holistically. I believe there’s something about the way many of us in Eurocentric cultures think that defaults too easily into Either/Or fallacies, that forces one thing to be false in order for another to be true. Just as man cannot live by bread alone, I believe humans cannot persevere by one motivation alone. I believe the pursuit of perseverance must include an embrace of the both-and. We need both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation to really stick to something when it becomes difficult to stick with. To try to level up beyond one form of motivation is a fool’s errand. To try to remain stagnant with only one form of motivation is also folly. I believe we need to take advantage of motivations that work right now while remaining curious and receptive to new forms of motivation.
The Voice of God
I’m not sure exactly when I first discovered this experience, but it must have been at whatever point in my fitness journey that I was healthy enough to get out and run for more than an hour at a time. One component of my shift from extrinsic-only motivation into both extrinsic and intrinsically motivated training is the meditative state that longer aerobic zone workouts can induce for me. I feel like I can hear the voice of god in this state.
Alright, I don’t actually hear a voice. Ever. But I have to say that when I’m out on a long run (or long ride or long swim) and allow myself to do it completely free of other stimulus/distractions such as music, podcasts, training computer, I experience transcendence and clarity. I experience what I think of, what I believe to be, the voice of God. It takes at least an hour of aerobic effort, typically at a steady, rhythmic pace before this begins to take effect. By about minute 70 of a longer run I start to experience flashes of creative inspiration for a new story to write. I begin to recognize thinking errors from earlier in the day. Examples of miscommunication in which I assumed or inferred poorly about another person flash to mind accompanied by a deep conviction to reach out to apologize or seek understanding or express gratitude. Brainstorm inspirations to write a thank-you note or to check in on a friend throb through my consciousness in tempo with the beat of my feet upon the pavement (or trail). Wonderings and exaltations about beauty and meaning and purpose pulse in and out with each breath as I glide through the water or pedal up another hill.
It all evaporates within an hour of getting home, cooling off, taking a shower. But if I can make a note of even just one thought that occurred during that transcendent workout, it is always completely aligned with the person I believe I was made to be, the person I hope to someday become more like.
The Wanna-Be Influencer
Friends and family members have given me a hard time for some of my habits on social media. For example, I love to take and share pictures of my food. Yes, I’m that guy. Early in my fitness journey of 2020 I began to regularly post updates about various workouts to social media. This drew the sardonic ire of some of my perpetually unimpressed friends. My kids laugh at me: “Dad you post to instagram like you wanna be an influencer.” Here are some examples:
A facebook post in which I combine 2 screenshots from my Strava app to brag about the day’s workouts (as well as evangelize for intermittent fasting). I’m fully aware of the memes and mockery for the way crossfitters love to post their WOD to social media and while I’m not doing crossfit, I think I’m doing the same thing here. I find I am personally motivated by the sense of accountability I create for myself by sharing what I’m doing.
An instagram post in which I tag my favorite local bike shop and favorite maker of cycling shoes. I’m sure this is exactly the sort of post that makes my social-media-savvy teens cringe on my behalf. And I don’t care! I like the idea that a celebration and gratitude message might wind up on the feed of a business whose services I appreciate and enjoy. The more I publicly embrace my inner dork, the more free I feel to revel in the joys of healthy hobbies.
I don’t have a magic number of days for when the practice of physical exercise became like breathing for me in 2020. I know that I started the year leaning heavily on the support of a monthly race calendar that I believed would keep me accountable to maintaining a regular exercise schedule. I know that by the time races started being postponed/cancelled due to COVID in March, I was a good 3+ solid months in to a weekly schedule of running 2-4 days per week and spinning/cycling 3-5 days per week. I honestly didn’t examine my motivations too closely until November of 2020 when I started to write about this journey. That was when I discovered that moving while sweating had become a lot like breathing for me. It’s just something I do now. Every once in a while something comes up that pushes me beyond the scheduled 1 day/week of rest. And when I get to the end of that second day of rest in a week and get back on my bike it feels like I’ve been holding my breath and can finally exhale-inhale again.
I’d love to try to force a perfect analogy between exhale-inhale and intrinsic-extrinsic motivation here. But I suppose that would defeat the point of the donkey’s burden illustration. We don’t need a perfect analogy. We do need to breathe. Oh, and as of January 15, 2021 I am registered for exactly zero races in 2021. And I’ll be ready to conquer the 70.3 the moment races become a thing we do together again!