Running for Results

Two weeks ago, I talked about how soccer fans distinguish between “The Game of Art” and “The Game of Results.” In Brazil and Argentina, the Game of Art (AKA, the Beautiful Game) brought those countries great success. When their best players were wooed away by European pro teams, the Brazilians and Argentineans panicked, resorting to the Game of Results, a violent, win-at-all-costs brand of soccer. And the results were disastrous.

Alfie Kohn, a writer in Cambridge, Massachussetts, is the author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, Punished by Rewards, and The Schools Our Children Deserve.

In a 1987 Boston Globe article, “Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator,” Kohn reviewed research studies that explain why Brazil and Argentina flopped when they began to emphasize results:

In the laboratory, rats get Rice Krispies. In the classroom the top students get A’s, and in the factory or office the best workers get raises. It’s an article of faith for most of us that rewards promote better performance.

But a growing body of research suggests that this law is not nearly as ironclad as was once thought. Psychologists have been finding that rewards can lower performance levels, especially when the performance involves creativity.

A related series of studies shows that intrinsic interest in a task — the sense that something is worth doing for its own sake — typically declines when someone is rewarded for doing it.

If a reward — money, awards, praise, or winning a contest — comes to be seen as the reason one is engaging in an activity, that activity will be viewed as less enjoyable in its own right….

Young children who are rewarded for drawing are less likely to draw on their own than are children who draw just for the fun of it. Teenagers offered rewards for playing word games enjoy the games less and do not do as well as those who play with no rewards. Employees who are praised for meeting a manager’s expectations suffer a drop in motivation.

Am I the only runner who’s pondered the choice between training brutally hard for results, or running for pure joy?

Long ago, I answered that question for myself: when I train for joy, I get the best results. I realized that joy is a crystal-clear barometer for good training. Joyful runners get good results, according to their talents.

Kohn cites studies by Theresa Amabile, at the time an associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University.

In a paper published early last year on her most recent study, she reported on experiments involving elementary school and college students. Both groups were asked to make “silly” collages. The young children were also asked to invent stories.

The least-creative projects, as rated by several teachers, were done by those students who had contracted for rewards. “It may be that commissioned work will, in general, be less creative than work that is done out of pure interest,” Amabile said.

In 1985, Amabile asked 72 creative writers at Brandeis and at Boston University to write poetry. Some students then were given a list of extrinsic (external) reasons for writing, such as impressing teachers, making money and getting into graduate school, and were asked to think about their own writing with respect to these reasons. Others were given a list of intrinsic reasons: the enjoyment of playing with words, satisfaction from self-expression, and so forth. A third group was not given any list. All were then asked to do more writing.

The results were clear. Students given the extrinsic reasons not only wrote less creatively than the others, as judged by 12 independent poets, but the quality of their work dropped significantly. Rewards, Amabile says, have this destructive effect primarily with creative tasks, including higher-level problem-solving. ”The more complex the activity, the more it’s hurt by extrinsic reward,” she said.

I’ve been fortunate to have met people who stood at the top of their fields, in business, sports, science, and spirituality. Without exception, they shared the following qualities:

  • They had tremendous energy.
  • They had intense, laser-like concentration.
  • They were boundlessly enthusiastic.

In his wonderful book, Education for Life, author J. Donald Walters argues for educating children’s hearts as well as their minds. I interviewed the teachers at a small private school where the methods in the book are practiced, and where the children were very successful in academics. Why? A teacher explained it like this: “Children who learn to love, lover learning.”

Learning takes energy and concentration. And what is concentration? It’s synonymous with interest. When we’re interested in something, we don’t say, “My mind became attached to such-and-such.” — we talk about how we were really turned on, and how our feelings were touched.

That’s the problem with the Game of Results: it dries the heart.

Feeling is at the core of all accomplishment. You can’t have dynamic energy without positive feeling. When the feeling’s right, you can know, without a lot of logical analysis, that your training is going well, if the feeling is positive and expansive; if there’s a deep sense of rightness, and joy.

Kohn describes the joy-killing effects of the Game of Results:

Researchers offer several explanations for their surprising findings about rewards and performance.

First, rewards encourage people to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as possible and to take few risks. “If they feel that ‘this is something I have to get through to get the prize,’ they’re going to be less creative,” Amabile said.

Second, people come to see themselves as being controlled by the reward. They feel less autonomous, and this may interfere with performance. “To the extent one’s experience of being self-determined is limited,” said Richard Ryan, associate psychology professor at the University of Rochester, “one’s creativity will be reduced as well.”

Finally, extrinsic rewards can erode intrinsic interest. People who see themselves as working for money, approval or competitive success find their tasks less pleasurable, and therefore do not do them as well.

This is good, ripe stuff for runners. It confirms what we discover in our own hearts when we run. Running for results, the feeling’s contractive – “Get for me, yeah” – the flow of energy gets cut off and joy goes away. Run expansively, lost in the creative joy of the moment, and energy builds.

The running magazines are filled with articles by people with PhDs telling us about the mechanics of running — diet, intervals, and so on. But that’s just the surface — it’s the physical stuff you must do to get a result. An equally useful science would tell us about the liberating art of “just running.”

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