Are you Motivated or Obligated?

On Saturday mornings my running group meets at exactly 6:30am to run seven miles. This same running group usually gathers on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays between 5:45am and 6:00am but on Saturdays we get a little more snooze time. Despite the half hour reprieve, I could not get up this Saturday. I heard the alarm. I acknowledged that it was time to get up and run, but I made a conscious choice to sleep rather than run. I had not run on Thursday either because I had to be in court at 8a.m. for a hearing. I have had hearings at 8a.m. before when I did not skip my run, but not that day.

On Saturday, I woke up around 7:30am and, out of sheer guilt, I put my workout clothes and headed outside. Instead of running seven miles, I ran four and a half. Well at least I did something. 

During my run I got to thinking. Why couldn’t I wake up this morning? I retraced my steps.

Went to bed at 10:30pm. Well that’s not that late for a Friday evening family night. I’ve run with less sleep.

I had a tough week at work. Oh please that’s never stopped me before.

No matter what excuse I came up with, I could identify a handful of times I had run in spite of that excuse. What was different?


There are two kinds of motivation. Push or pull. When you have to push yourself to do something, you perceive it as an obligation. But when something greater than you pulls you do to something, you view that as motivation.

Two years ago, my husband, Orlando, was working for a law firm he had been with for 8 years. At the time, he thought he hated being a lawyer. I used to think it was such a shame that he despised his profession. Such an intelligent, witty man; an extraordinary trial lawyer; talent wasted on a person who didn’t care for it. He spent years thinking of a way out of his career. Maybe he could become a teacher or a judge. He branched out into a new field of law hoping that would reignite some passion in his the profession. No luck. He hated being a lawyer. But he had a wife, kids, a dog and a mortgage. Fear of the unknown kept him prisoner in his circumstances.

Until the day things got so bad that he had no choice but to leave. We still had a dog, three small boys, and had just bought a house increasing our overhead by 30%.

The difference was that the fear of the unknown was not nearly as bad as the fear of staying where he was.

On one November evening, Orlando walked into our bedroom and told me he was quitting his job. At the time I thought this might be a good opportunity for my husband to find what he was looking for. He could apply for a teaching position, or start campaigning for a judicial election. Despite being terrified of what awaited us, I held Orlando’s hand and took the leap with him. I knew that as his wife, I had to believe in him even more than he believed in himself. I understood the risks but I behaved as if we couldn’t fail.

Orlando decided to move into my current office as a sole practitioner. If he could get a few cases a month, we would at least stay afloat until he figured things out. Through word of mouth, he picked up a couple of cases, and his law practice began. Then the craziest thing happened. My husband found happiness. He did things he couldn’t do before like wear jeans and a polo to the office. If at 3:00pm he was not swamped with work, he picked his kids up from school. When taking a case he determined the price he would charge for his services, not what he was told to charge. He worked on his own terms. A flame ignited within his soul and suddenly he was hungry, passionate and alive.

He discovered that he did not hate the practice of law, he just hated his previous job. Since then my husband has more than tripled his income. I used to think Orlando only cared about being with his family and having fun. Not that that is a bad thing, but “Ambitious” and “hard working” were not adjectives that I thought defined him. What we didn’t know then, that we know now, is that at his previous employment Orlando wasn’t motivated to work, he was obligated to work.

He always did what he had to do. He went to work every day. He paid the bills. For years Orlando met his obligations. But he was mediocre despite raw talent and potential. That sense of obligation stifled and depressed him. Once Orlando had the courage to break free from that environment, his life changed. Orlando discovered the most powerful form of motivation. The pull.

Orlando is now pulled by something that is greater than him. His undying commitment to his family, his desire to thrive financially, and his need to fiercely advocate for his clients. Suddenly he doesn’t mind the things about his job that he complained of before, such as wearing a suit or having to go to court everyday. Instead he is grateful to be a lawyer. I am mesmerized by his creative arguments, his negotiation skills and his ethics. Orlando didn’t need a career change, he needed the right kind of motivation. Orlando actually loves the law. Who knew?

My running is no different. When I began running, I did it as a way to support my girlfriend who wanted to run a half marathon in honor of her daughter who passed away. I ran next to her. I ran because she needed the push. I ran as a way to say to her “I’m sorry this happened to you. I love you and I am here for you.” I was being pulled by something greater than me. Somehow I always found the energy. Even if I was tired, I showed up. Even if I had to work, I showed up. I had no excuses, I just showed up. I found love in running and all the other benefits it bestowed on me. I felt healthier and stronger. I became an athlete which I had never been before. I made new friendships that I cherish. I decided I was a runner. That pull, that motivation, stayed with me for a long time. But recently things changed without me noticing. At night when i’m getting ready for bed, I tell my husband “I have to run tomorrow.” I don’t say “I get to run tomorrow.” I have not been feeling that pull. Instead I’ve been pushing myself to keep going. When the motive switches from motivation to obligation, the energy changes. Then it is easier to skip the run when you didn’t get a good night’s rest. It’s easier to push it off until tomorrow.

Same goes for eating healthy. Its no fun to eat healthy when you’re on a diet and have to lose weight. Then one day you watch a documentary about the food industry which inspires you or angers you, and suddenly you feel a pull. The energy changes. Something inside you desires to be a part of the solution and you find yourself making dietary changes you could not have fathomed before. Weight loss follows suit as if the universe is rewarding you for your cause. You wonder why it took you so long to get here or why changing your diet seemed so impossible before. The food didn’t change. Your perception of what you’re doing changed. You don’t have to eat healthy, you want to eat healthy.

Some of you know exactly what pull is because you have a calling, a passion that drives you. That calling pulls you through the thick of it and you can’t imagine not doing it, even when it’s hard.  On the other hand, some of us have not been lucky enough to be pulled in certain areas of our lives and therefore we push and we push and, consequently, we struggle. Motivation varies from person to person and what pulls me may not pull you. There is no formula for this or right or wrong. The best way to identify what motivates you is to gauge what has pulled you in the past. In my case, I’ve realized that I love inspiring others to create meaningful change in their lives. It fuels me to be accountable and hold others accountable. I am most driven when I can be used as a vehicle to push someone else ahead in their journey.

Knowing this about myself, I know I need to find purpose in my running. We need purpose to truly be motivated. But purpose doesn’t always fall on our laps. We have to look for the pull. Don’t get me wrong, obligation is not a bad thing. We gotta do what we gotta do. But when we are operating solely out of obligation, the energy runs out.

When things aren’t working, or when what you’re doing seems harder than it should be, take a look at what’s driving you. Are you doing something out of obligation or motivation? Are you pushing yourself or is something greater than you pulling you? The beauty of this life is that we have the capacity to change. No matter what circumstance you’re in now it is not permanent. Take the time to evaluate, assess, and seek that pull. You will be amazed the energy inside you when you start doing things because you want to, instead of because you have to.