Our Career is a RACE… but Why are we RUNNING?

Run Forrest Run

Running…  I will be honest, I am not a fan.  My wife is an outstanding marathoner (although she considers herself an avid runner who merely dabbles in marathons… which is a remarkably consistent distinction with the remainder of this paragraph), and truly enjoys just “going out for a run”.  Her passion is not driven by winning, succeeding, or a sense of accomplishment- it is truly about a feeling of enjoyment and fulfillment (of course… getting out of the house for awhile, away from me and the kids, probably doesn’t hurt either!).  It is not that she doesn’t want to excel in her races- she does have aspirational goals and has received a lot of accolades- but that is not what drives her.  She really seems to enjoy lacing up the running shoes, getting out and filling her lungs with the brisk winter air, and driving her legs up and down the Cincinnati hills.  Her love for running drives her, and any success that follows is a bonus… and not the other way around.

For me, if there were a four-letter word to describe my emotion toward running for the sake of running, it would not be “love”.  Don’t get me wrong, I do actually quite enjoy a good run at times… but as a means to an ends and not as a joyful event in itself.  If I have a ball and am trying to score, if there is a finish line that I am racing toward, or if there is some wild animal chasing me, then I am “all in” to exert myself fully and completely.  But the thought of lacing up my old running shoes, contracting my lungs with the icy winter wind, and limping up and down steep inclines around the neighborhood feels more like work than it does fun.  If there is an objective or goal to chase, then that is what will drive me… and any “love” or “joy” will be driven by the success at the end far moreso than the act of running in itself.

Our jobs and our careers are also a type of race… often more grueling than a 26.2 mile marathon (for many, this race lasts more than 30 years!).  There is always some sort of goal that we are pursuing, whether it be a project milestone, career advancement, the meeting of someone’s expectations, or even simply a paycheck.  We invest our time, passion, and energy into this race, and we spend more time “running” through our careers than we do with our families, our friends, and our hobbies?  But why?  What is our motivation?  I am not suggesting, by any means, that we should stop running the “rat race” altogether, but as we fly through our jobs and our lives, do we truly understand what is motivating us to keep propelling ourselves forward, fast, and furious?

We may race for months, years, or even decades without taking the time to stop and remember why we started to run in the first place… and whether that same motivation holds true today.  Sadly, it is usually something “bad” that happens, like a “monumental” failure at work, a funeral of a friend, or a trouble at home that stops us in our tracks and forces some introspection.  Most of us have been running for a long time and plan to keep running well into the future, but when push comes to shove, we may not really comprehend why.  And I am not saying that one way is better than the other… whether we run primarily for “the love of running” or for the accolades of the “win” are both fine reasons to stay in the race.  It is, however, important to understand what our true motivation is and to insure that we are making choices accordingly… and not just running blindly.


1) Racing for the Finish Line:  Is there some goal, deadline, or prize that we are chasing that has a defined course, duration, and finish line?  Do we know when to sprint, when to pace ourselves, and when we can accept our “award” and relish the accomplishment?

2) Chasing a Carrot:  Are we chasing a moving target, sprinting toward some “opportunity” not knowing when and if we will actually catch it?  Do we know how long we will need to sprint or what we will do if we get tired of running?  Do we even like “carrots” enough to continue running when the “award” is uncertain?

3) Being Chased by a “Ghost”:  Rather than running toward a goal are we running away from something or someone?  Are we driven by a fear of failure to ourselves, to our missions, or to someone else?  Do someone else’s expectations or our own outdated demands upon ourselves cause us to run from something irrational and unimportant rather than toward something real and fulfilling?

4) Stuck on a Treadmill and afraid to Fall Off:  Have we been running and running, like a hamster in its wheel, while going nowhere?  Are we tired of running but afraid that if we stop that we will fall off and get hurt?  Do we enjoy the exercise of the treadmill but yearn to get outside and into a real race?

5) Everyone Else is Running, and We Don’t Want to be Left Behind:  Are we surrounded by motivated runners and afraid of “losing”?  Does everyone else seem to have a finish line that they are chasing, so we feel like we must chase it too?  Are we searching for internal fulfillment or for external validation from benchmarking versus others?

6) No Freaking Idea… Just Started Running and Never Stopped:  Like the iconic image of Forrest Gump, running from coast-to-coast… have we been running for so long that we have forgotten where we are going or why we started in the first place?  Has running just become “normal” with the assumption that life / results / next steps will just happen naturally along the way?

7) The Building is On Fire:  Is there a sense of danger and panic all around us so we feel the need to run just to survive?  Is there a culture of fear and urgency that results in frantic activity?  Is there a perception that if we are not running then we must not sufficiently appreciate the “crisis” that we are in?

8) Need the “Runner’s High”:  I have talked previously about the “Adrenaline Addiction“… are we hooked on the excitement and exhiliration that comes from a good, hard run?  Does the fix we get from running keep us going quickly, whether or not we truly need to be moving so fast?

9) Knowledge/Belief of Having the “Talent” to be the Fastest Runner and Want (NEED) Everyone Else to Know it Too:  Are we trying to win the race because we want to or rather because we feel like we can or should?  Are we trying to live up to either self-inflicted or externally-accepted expectations, and competing so that we have “proof” that we are the best?  Are we prioritizing validation from the outside over self-assurance from the inside?

10) Simply Love to Run:  Are we running because we undoubtedly, undeniably, and uncontrollably enjoy it?  Are we immune to the expectations of others, the addiction of accomplishment, and the seduction of success, and solely doing what we love, because we love to do it.  Does the work itself provide enough joy in itself that we don’t need a finish line, a pat on the back, or a medal?  Do we run because we want to and not because we have to?

Running through our career is inevitable and can be a very healthy activity.  It is important to maintain an optimal balance of fulfillment in the moment as well as satisfaction in chasing a goal… and that balance will be different for each one of us.  Even individually, the scales may sway dramatically over the course of a career.  If our primary goal in the moment is to get promoted, then we should likely be willing to trade off some “fun” and choose to work a more grueling schedule.  If our top driver is in “enjoying a run for the sake of running”, then we can likely choose not to “play the game” and to do less activities out of a sense of obligation and more out of a sense of passion.  The important part is not to have a certain “correct” motivation, but rather to stop running long enough to understand what our true, personal objective is, to make choices and commitments to support that objective, and to then chart a course to restart the race.  We are going to run in our careers, but we shouldn’t run blindly or we will end up tired, unfulfilled, and far away from our true “finish line”.  Life is a race, and before we sprint out of the gates we need to understand why we are running.


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

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