Skillsoft Blog

Surprising lessons in motivation

Over five years ago my cycling
partner and friend Erich contacted me and suggested we should ride in the
three-day, 180-mile Trek
Across Maine
. It seemed like a reasonable and fun challenge, and all for a
good cause to fight lung cancer. I was in. Then he added, “We’re taking the

He had two boys just about the
same age as our two boys (five and seven years old at the time) and I realized
immediately this whole expedition had multiplied in complexity. Understand that
Erich is a friend whose intensity and drive is higher than most people I know.
When invited to ride with him I learned early on a “ride” often meant about
twice as far and twice as intense as I was envisioning. I learned to calibrate
expectations to Erich’s world, but this audacious challenge was something new.

We rigged up bicycle contraptions
featuring a tandem bicycle, plus a “tag-along” (pictured) to accommodate the
three of us. The machine, plus the bicycle bags, known as panniers – loaded
with rain gear, snacks, water, and probably a few miscellaneous things the kids
claimed to need, all weighed in at over 400 pounds with us on board. This was
our “triple-bike.”

My mental orientation going into
this venture was that it was my job to do the work, and make sure the kids were
safe, fed, dry, and hopefully having fun on this expedition. But over sixty
miles per day throughout the hills across Maine it became quickly clear that
their effort was valuable indeed. While small, when they chose to work and push
the pedals over, from my seat I could definitely feel a difference. So while in
my mind the journey started on the strength of my efforts alone, it quickly
became clear that the difference in not only speed and energy conservation, but
also camaraderie and real teamwork, came down to how well we worked as a team
to push through hill after hill on these three days.

For example, if approaching a
hill, as my son Will was back there throwing water on his brother and generally
goofing off, I could say sternly, “If you don’t pedal now, then at the top of
this hill I’m going to put you in the Sag wagon and you can ride the rest of
the say in the wagon of shame!” (“Sag” is as in “sagging behind.”)  In
events with lots of non-professionals, the sag wagon picks up people who have
fallen behind or are dropping out. This terse warning got him to pedal harder
for perhaps thirty or sixty seconds. Or inversely, I could urge my son Charlie
on by saying, “Buddy, if you pedal really hard we’ll get to the top quicker and
I think they are serving ice cream at the next rest stop.” And this might bring
about an energetic minute or so of focused pedaling.

Neither negative or positive
immediate encouragement yielded any long term motivation. It became clear as
the hours went by and the ride went on that there were a number of much more
powerful motivators that were much more effective, and fun.

Engaged with
other cycling teams

It turned out what I had vastly underestimated – completely overlooked actually
– was the importance of doing this journey with Erich and his boys, their
friends. They would constantly be aware of where our friends were on the road –
either ahead or behind – and we would create ways to interact by riding along
side and chatting, or goading each other up the hills. And often we would
encounter, and ride, with other participants in the event, which fostered a
great sense of communal participation in the event.

with the why

After the first year we participated in the Trek Across Maine when the boys
were then five and seven years old, I decided they needed a greater and more
direct understanding of why we were doing the event. In advance of the next
year’s event we rode the triple bike around the neighborhood, and the boys
would knock on doors, tell the story about what we were doing, and ask for
donations to help fight lung cancer. That active participation in gathering
donations for the event connected the boys, and our family, with the deeper
reason of why we were participating.

These two small and simple
changes in mental orientation – collaborating with others and connecting with
purpose – created a powerful sense of engagement in the event, and translated
into big pedal power (read: team performance gains).

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