Joy - the ultimate incentive

My weight loss challenge ended in March, so I've set a new goal for myself, to run the San Francisco half marathon.  I ran the Boston marathon (without qualifying) the year after I graduated college, so I don't have to prove I can run a full one, and quite honestly, I don't enjoy running enough to suffer through weeks of 2-3 hour training runs.  But I know myself, and without a goal I have trouble motivating.

At the same time, I've been reading "Born to Run," a book describing  a tribe in northern Mexico called the Tarahumara.  This tribe has some amazing athletic ultra distance prowess as they regularly have races where they kick a ball from one person to another in a relay over a race that goes over 100 miles and lasts for several days.  Their approach to these races is amazing as instead of resting up, they party all night the night before the race, getting absolutely smashed on their corn based beer, and then shake off the beer an run miles and miles for several days straight.  The book chronicles how some enterprising Americans got them to come to the US to compete in ultra-marathon events like the Leadville 100, a grueling 100 mile race that hits two mountain summits.  The second year they entered, a 52 year old Tarahumara runner won the race, and the year after that a 25 year old Tarahumara set the course record that held up for 11 years.  And just as quickly as they dominated the race, they stopped participating in it.

As amazing as these people are, the book digs into the motivation of them, and in particular notes how much they laugh and smile, even as they finish the last marathon of an almost 4 consecutive marathon 100 mile race. Their spirit is often a crushing blow to their competitors who see the Tarahumara running lightly and with ease after 75+ miles, while the competitor themselves is struggling to remain upright.  The passage in the book that caught me talked about the motivation to run and how we as Americans have lost the joy of running.  We run to lose weight, to achieve a certain distance, to hit a particular time.  Much of the time running is spent wishing it was over.  The Tarahumara, on the other hand, run as a social event, the elders in front leading the way, and the young bucks chasing them down and pushing them faster.  It's more than fun, it's joy.  And when you run for joy and forget about the competition, it's easy and you actually go faster.

Ok, so there's a bunch of new-age hokum in there.  I don't subscribe to how much American's have lost the joy of running, and I also think some of the glorification of the Tarahumara is exaggerated.  But for kicks, on my 9 mile run this weekend, every time I started lagging a bit, I tried smiling and imagining running lighter on my feet.  Running lighter will force you onto your toes and generally quicken the pace.  And the positive effects of smiling are quite well known.  So how'd it go?  Well, 9 miles is still no picnic for me, but it definitely felt easier and at the same pace as some of my previous grinds had been.

This thought comes to me at the same time as I've had these couple of lectures by Dan Pink sent to me.  The first is a Ted Talk describing how using money as a motivation works well for tasks that are primarily physical in nature, but is actually negatively correlated to tasks where even minimal creativity or higher thought is required.  The second talk is an RSA Animate covering the same material.  I preferred the first as the examples are a little better, but the style of RSA Animate is hard to beat for entertainment value.

Dan's point is to get us to rethink our management practices where we rely on what economists have taught us for decades, that if we want to incent certain behavior, we incent it with money.  Dan's point is that the science doesn't back that up, and that instead, we should focus more on intrinsic motivation.  That people want to work on things because they matter, because they're interesting, because they're important.  Dan suggests we focus on three things:

  1. Autonomy - The idea that individuals should control what they work on as opposed to being directed by management.
  2. Mastery - The desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  3. Purpose - The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.
I think Dan's dead on the money, and he's got the management science to back himself up.  I do see the gap in my own thinking.  I try to direct my teams to have Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, but what I teach managers who work for me, and what I talk most about is incentives and overcompensating stars and cutting off underperformers.  

I find a strange parallel to the Tarahumara.  They have Autonomy.  They run because they want to and because their social circle wants to.  They have Mastery.  Running is something that matters in their society, and they are some of the best runners in the world.  They have Purpose.  They are serving the society, something larger than themselves.  And doing those three things brings them joy.

Can I possibly run my teams so they find joy in their work?  A tall order, but I'm a believer that it'll produce the best performers.  

As for my running, I still need my goal, and I still long more for the run to be over.  But I'm trying harder to find the joy in the moment.