Where Does Your Motivation Come From?



In 1981 the Academy Award for Best Picture went to an unusual British film that had no sex, no violence, and no car chases.

It was called Chariots of Fire.

The movie tells the true story of two world class athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.  Both compete as sprinters for the British track and field team at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.  Both dramatically win gold medals in their feature events.

But underneath it all they are spurred by startlingly different motivations.

Abrahams, a Jew of Lithuanian background, feels snubbed by the power structures of the day.

At every turn he has to prove himself.  The rage inside him compels him to train harder and run faster.  “Running is an addiction, a compulsion,” he says.  “It is a weapon.”  He admits that he needs to triumph in the Olympics to justify his own existence.

Even after winning the 100 meters, making him the so-called Fastest Man Alive, he feels strangely alone and unfulfilled.

Liddell was supposed to have been his primary competition.  But the qualifying trials for the 100 meters had been scheduled for Sunday.  Because of his spiritual convictions, Liddell had refused to run on the Sabbath, thus surrendering his chance to compete.

To observers around the world, this seemed like madness.  Why throw away your best chance for glory?

Liddell is unfazed by public opinion.  He decides to run in the 400 meters, even though he has competed at that distance only four times in his life.

The experts give him no chance to win.  He isn’t trained.  He’s used to short bursts, not middle length grinds.

And his running style, to put it gently, is absurd.  He breaks every aerodynamic rule.  His arms flail.  He even sometimes throws back his head and looks upward while running.

But for Eric Liddell, running is an act of joy.

It is an explosive release of gratitude that is deep inside him.  Liddell doesn’t need a gold medal to justify his existence.  He already knows who he is.

The son of Scottish missionary parents, he is on his way to China where he himself will be a mission worker, and where he will ultimately give his life serving others in a Japanese detention camp in World War II.

His sister Jenny doesn’t even know why he bothers with athletic competition.

“Jenny,” he explains, “I believe God made me for a purpose – for China.  But he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Competing against the best 400 meter runners in the world, Liddell throws back his head and wins the gold.  Here’s how Chariots of Fire depicts the climactic race.

Abrahams and Liddell embody two classic motivations.  We either achieve in order to become somebody, or we achieve as a way to express our gratitude that our status as a somebody has long been settled.

The first strategy is fueled by fear and springs from emptiness.  The second strategy is fueled by joy and expresses fullness.

When we willingly align our relationships, our work, and our deepest dreams with God’s character and call, our need to justify our existence is no longer a fear-based scramble.

When we become “God’s somebodies,” our work – and life itself – can become expressions of joy.

— Authored by Glenn McDonald

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