I have always been a baseball fan. I played baseball for years, collected baseball cards, played fantasy baseball (even in the pre-Internet days), and vigorously debated topics like, "Was Griffey Jr. better than Bonds in their primes?" and "Was Ichiro really the MVP in 2001?" and "Is Andruw Jones the most over-rated baseball player ever?" (For the record, my answers: Yes, No and YES!)
More specifically, I grew up a Dodgers fan. I went to games, watched them on TV, and even had a shirt that had cartoon images of Darryl Strawberry, Brett Butler and Eric Davis that said, "Outfield of Dreams". Kirk Gibson's home run was a seminal moment of my childhood. I took pride in our five consecutive rookies-of-the-year and finished every season disappointed in our lack of playoff success.
But a funny thing happened this year. I never got into this baseball season. I was too distracted when the season started, and that never really changed. I didn't even know that Manny Ramirez was on the Dodgers until two weeks after the trade. And as I watched the Phillies knock the Dodgers out of the playoffs last night, I couldn't bring myself to care.
You have a finite amount of time and energy to devote to your interests. In the past, I've always devoted some percentage of my time and energy to following the Dodgers and baseball in general. But this year, I found myself working very long hours, trying to follow the track season and maintain this blog, and spending time with my wife. To emphasize how bad it got, I hardly even ran during this time.
And even when I did attend a baseball game or watch one on TV, it just wasn't the same. I didn't know who all the players were, I didn't know the story-lines defining the season, and I simply didn't enjoy it as much. It's not that the quality of the product on the field was any different. It's that my level of engagement was different.
Engagement is the extent to which you invest your time and energy into an activity. The level of your engagement has a direct relationship with not only how much you enjoy an activity, but how well you do at it.
The Engagement Scale
We can create an Engagement Scale spanning from "completely disengaged" to "all-consumed". While it is no guarantee of success or enjoyment, it is also the closest thing there is to a necessary condition for either.
Here's the "Engagement Scale" as I see it.
Completely Disengaged: These are people who are usually doing something under duress. They aren't just not participating, they are actively not participating. Includes students who enroll for classes but don't show up, teenagers who rebel against their parents, and when there is no election looming, the US Congress.
Majorly Distracted: These are people who have a passive interest in an activity, but for whom the priority and/or the passion just isn't there. They at least make the effort to show up, despite the fact that they don't put any active effort in once they are there. Think of students who attend class but spend the entire time on Facebook. There really isn't a running equivalent, unless you count the guy who just shows up to try to hook up with someone on the girls team.
Going Through the Motions: These are people who are present, active, and when necessary, participating. But there's no spark. So what happens is these people do the minimum. If you are insanely talented, you might get by doing this for a while. But this is no recipe for success. I see this in half the runners on any high school track or cross country team. If you practice hard and then don't give your running another thought throughout the day, this is probably you.
Multi-Tasking: These are people who don't just do too many things, they try to do them all at the same time. Studies have shown that multi-tasking is a myth; high performers are able to focus on one thing at a time and do it at a high level. Multi-Taskers may be more productive or effective than those who are Going Through the Motions, but their quality suffers relative to what it could be because they aren't truly focused on what they are doing. I'm not sure if there is a good equivalent in running, but I guess it could be someone who practices hard, but spends the entire practice thinking about schoolwork instead of their next race.
Over-Extended: These are people who simply have too much on their plates. They go from one place to the next, always starting to prep for their next activity before their current one is finished. They may be completely focused when they do something, but because everything they are doing is treated with equal priority, none of it is done as well as it should be. This is the downfall of many student-athletes, who try to maintain their running, their schoolwork, their volunteering, their dating, their jobs, their nightlife, their churchlife, and their other hobbies. At many points in my running career, this was me.
Committed: These are people who care about their performance and are willing to prioritize their lives in order to improve. If you're talented enough and are committed for a long enough time, you can become the best in the world at what you do. We're talking world-class athletes, 4.0 students, successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. From a running perspective, if you want to be successful at the collegiate level, this is the bare minimum.
All-Consumed: These people are 100% engaged in what they are doing. They are talking about it, reading about it, thinking about it, and doing it. They tend to not just participate, but push themselves to improve. I think of hard-core video gamers, child prodigies, Olympic champions, and most great researchers. As a runner, being all-consumed doesn't guarantee success. Talent and training methods still matter, of course. But as Kenenisa Bekele recently said when asked what athletics is to him, "It is my life." How many runners do you know who can say that?
What it Means
If you are Committed or All-Consumed with what you are doing, you will enjoy it more and be more successful at it. That doesn't mean you will be the most successful, or that you'll love what you do more than anyone else in the world loves it, but that you will get the most out of an activity with that level of engagement.
On the contrary, if you are Completely Disengaged or Majorly Distracted, then you not only won't be successful at what you are doing, you probably won't get any joy out of it either. Unless you know this state is temporary, you shouldn't even invest in the activity at all, really. You're almost worse off if you do, since you're taking time away from things you could be getting more out of.
The majority of people reading this will probably find themselves in one of the three middle categories. If so, I have three pieces of advice for you.
- Figure out which of the activities you are doing you can be truly passionate about and dedicate yourself to.
- Decide what level of success you wish to achieve, both on a personal level and relative to your competition.
- Actively work to eliminate distractions and other non-priority activities from your life.
In essence, try to get yourself Committed to the activities you are both passionate about and at which you want to excel. My experience is that you won't miss the non-priority activities that you give up, and the success and enjoyment you experience will make it that much easier to stay Committed, too.