CrossFit Invictus Athletes Maddy Myers and Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet

What Motivates You: Your Ego or Your Purpose?
Written by Calvin Sun

Motivation is an interesting thing and the crux of many aspiring athletes and struggling clients. It doesn’t seem to matter if the goal is standing on a podium or losing a few postpartum pounds, the motivation that lasts becomes an increasingly difficult challenge for many people.

Motivation vs Willpower

Motivation is not to be confused with willpower. Any hopeful athlete can endure a single, grueling, nausea-inducing training session and anyone who wants a six-pack can resist their sweet tooth for a day. But when things get difficult and temptation presents itself, are you able to stay motivated and on the path to achieving your goals? If you’ve been unsuccessful thus far, it’s possible that it’s because your motivation has been coming from the wrong place.

Ego vs Purpose

There are two primary types of people: those who are motivated primarily by their ego and those who are motivated by their purpose.

The Ego-Driven Athlete

The ego is the illusion of the self. Some define it as the approval-seeking social mask worn by many people. It’s the part of you that defines itself separate from all others and cares about superficial things such as how many “likes” your latest social media post has received. Many athletes compete and train from this place and many clients work towards their goals from this place as well. They chase goals for the external validation it will bring their ego.

Ego-driven athletes tend to be the ones that find the least amount of joy in what they do. They also tend to have trouble getting “back in the saddle” and staying focused after a loss, failure, or when they encounter an obstacle. Instead of identifying the lessons that could be learned, they spend most of their energy comparing themselves to others and blaming things outside of their control for their shortcomings. See the following list of characteristics, does this sound like anyone you know?

Characteristics of an Ego-driven Athlete:

  • Competes to beat other people and show that they are “better” than everyone else.

  • Feels the need to prove something to their friends, coaches, parents, etc.

  • Enjoys competition only if they win.

  • Views failures as setbacks or disasters and likes to blame others.

  • Feels envy, jealousy, or anger when others are successful.

  • Believes athletic abilities are a key component of their identity and self-worth.

  • Most, if not all, actions are self-serving and selfish in nature.

  • Tends to be narcissistic, egocentric, and lacks selflessness.

  • Values significance, approval of others, and external motivators above all else.

The ego-driven person has mistaken what they have or what they do for their own identity. You can see that the individual motivated by their ego lives by a set of rules that makes it very difficult to experience joy or happiness as they work towards a given goal. Coaches often see the highest rates of burnout from people who pursue their goals from this place. This is not to say they can’t achieve some level of success, but for many ego-driven people, they struggle to maintain the drive needed to continually succeed.

The Purpose-Driven Athlete

Interestingly enough, the individuals that are motivated by purpose tend to stay motivated effortlessly while enjoying the process far more than their ego-driven counterparts. Purpose can be defined as the deeper reason, or the “Why”, that drives you to pursue any goal. An individual driven by purpose behaves very differently. They tend to be less concerned with things like their placement on the leaderboard or the balance in their bank account. Yet, these individuals are often just as successful (as defined by conventional terms), if not more so, than those who are driven from ego. Instead of being misled by a self-serving ego, they are motivated to act by a greater purpose in their life which, most can agree, is far more powerful.

Characteristics of a Purpose-driven Athlete:

  • Competes against themselves in the pursuit of self-improvement.

  • Feels totally self-confident and doesn’t need external validation for their efforts.

  • Enjoys competition without regard to the outcome.

  • Views failures and setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow.

  • Feels genuine joy and happiness when others are successful.

  • Understands that their athletic abilities are impermanent and not a measure of self-worth or their identity.

  • Displays selflessness and a desire to help serve others in their journey.

  • Values personal growth, contribution to others, and intrinsic motivators.

Ego-Driven Results vs Purpose-Driven Results

Sometimes the outcomes and results may look similar at first glance, but you will most likely find that the purpose-driven individual is far happier and satisfied with their progress and achievements than the ego-driven athlete. For example, if the only way you could ever be happy with yourself as an athlete is to win the CrossFit Games, you’ve just created a difficult, almost impossible, and statistically unlikely set of requirements in order to be happy.

However, if you simply find joy in the process of becoming the best athlete you are capable of becoming and attaining mastery of various athletic skills, you are setting yourself up for success on many levels. There’s no need to achieve complete ego-transcendence to experience but if you want to be more successful in any goal you pursue, take some time for yourself to clarify your purpose or your “Why”. Remember, a bigger “Why” always results in an easier “How”.

For more thoughts on purpose, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and improving your mental game, check out “The Invictus Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide To Mental Toughness”. In the book, we discuss the importance of a purpose and tools to help you manage your ego to serve you in improving your performance in any facet of life. We’ve received tons of great reviews about the book and we’d love to hear your thoughts as well. Feel free to comment here on the blog or on the Invictus Facebook page.

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September 21, 2015 3:23 pm

I think a Nietzschean analysis here might be more insightful. The people who say that a healthy attitude toward athletic competition is one in which you “compete against yourself” for the sake of “self-improvement” are the people who suck at athletic competition. Instead of doing something else that they’re good at, they are drawn to the practice for reasons other than those that established the practice. They “compete” to enjoy the benefits of the community, the health benefits of training, the camaraderie of the team, etc. But their fragile egos can’t handle the fact that they suck at doing what… Read more »

John Sullivan
John Sullivan
August 29, 2019 6:46 am
Reply to  Ronin

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. That’s why its an opinion and not a truth. Personally I liked the way athletes acted when I was younger. I’m 74 right now and remember when there seemed to be much more humility in athletes. This need to humiliate and crush opponents I believe is unhealthy and does nobody any good and is probably worse for the victor. I hope our society goes through this phase of “self-worship” as quickly as possible.

Emory Emrich
Emory Emrich
February 2, 2020 7:46 am
Reply to  Ronin

@Ronin I think you’ve morphed CJ’s thesis into something different than it was, presumably to support your own sense of purpose. If you are making an argument in favor of ego rather than inner purpose then I hope you find peace or whatever it is you seek chasing a more well developed ego and winning. That said, my “opinion” is that you are misguided and objectivity incorrect in asserting that if a person derives motivation from a sense of purpose it means they suck at winning. Sure there are plenty of examples of hyper competitive athletes who do win but… Read more »

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