Losing My Motivation

"It's over, man. Let her go."

I don’t do running.

That is to say, I don’t do running when running is the only thing being done. Running in flag football, floor hockey, or settling of drunken bets? That, I can do.

But… just running? Like, the ancient Greek death sentence known as a marathon? Crap, no. I’m decent at sports that require quick bursts of speed, but pretty much fail at anything that requires endurance. Marathons and I go together like marriages and Kim Kardashian.

Every so often, though, I do decide to improve my endurance. So, I start hitting the treadmill at the gym. And every single time, my utter lack of endurance starts taunting me at around the ten-minute mark. Fortunately, I’ve learned to take that seething frustration and wad it up into a tiny burst of determination to keep me going.

But then, I traveled to Taiwan last month, and I found out that I have a Dutch great-great-grandmother, from whom I inherited a genetic disease called thalassemia minor. Even though it’s not deadly, the condition causes my red blood cells to produce abnormally low levels of hemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen. What this means is that my blood cells can’t provide my body with adequate oxygen, especially during heavy exercise.

Now, I could be melodramatic and say that my world came crashing down when I found this out. But that’s not what happened. My world didn’t collapse. It was more like my world cloudied up and started drizzling (but in a permanent state of gloominess, like Seattle). There wasn’t even any one moment when I felt the big epiphany.

I actually found out that I had thalassemia almost two years ago. However, my doctor was so nonchalant when he diagnosed me that I promptly forgot all about it. I didn’t even make the connection when my dad gave me the news. And it wasn’t until I was at the doctor’s office a few weeks ago that I caught the word “thalassemia” on my medical record and remembered my previous diagnosis.

This time, I asked about it. My doctor explained that it’s like I’m driving a car with only half a tank of gas, while everyone else gets to start with full tanks. At the beginning of any exercise, when my muscle cells are full of oxygen, I should be fine. But with continued exertion, my body will sputter out more quickly than the average person’s.

Your blood cells

And then, it slowly began to make sense—why I’ve always been a poor distance runner, why I can kick ass during the first few shifts of a hockey game, but need to sit and rest longer than my teammates. All these little realizations pelted me like sticky chunks of dejection.

My blood cells

Today, I can’t help but notice the shift in my mindset. Whenever I go to the gym now, I see that line of treadmills, leering and threatening, like a row of prisoners eagerly waiting to shank me as I walk by. In the past, I stared them right back down. But these past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking….


As in, “What’s the point of jumping on? I’m just gonna tire out. You win, vile treadmill.”

I know that I’m the same person I was six weeks ago. Discovering that I have thalassemia doesn’t alter my current physical fitness one bit. Yet, I’m finding it so much harder to get on that treadmill now.

My own personal Green Mile

And the sad thing is, I know why. There’s a psychological concept called attribution theory that can be used to help motivate people. Simplistically, when something to happens to us, we can either attribute it to something within our control (internal attribution) or outside our control (external attribution). As the theory goes, internal attributions can stoke motivation, while external attributions squelch it. So, for example, if you’re in a counseling role, it’s important to get people to make internal attributions, because that’s how you motivate them to improve themselves.

In my case, when I attribute my inability to run long distances to lack of training, I retain some semblance of motivation to train harder. On the other hand, when I attribute my inability to genetics, then my motivation to train disappears.

I know all this. I know it’s just an attribution shift. I know I’m still exactly as athletic as I was two months ago.

And yet, I’m losing my motivation.

Suddenly, I get it. For all the tough love I’ve ever doled out, for all the prodding I’ve done to friends and students, for all the haughtiness I’ve heaved at people who “just don’t work hard enough” on some aspect of their lives that needs improvement, I’m now feeling the cold, clammy backhand of karma smacking me upside the head.

"Hello, darling. I'm Karma. I'm kind of a bitch."

Suddenly, I can sympathize with those who believe they have no control over something, be it a weight problem, relationship drama, not being “good at science,” or any of a slew of personal issues that we might have. It’s hard to feel motivated to change something when you don’t believe you can change it, anyway.

I can feel that dejection first-hand now. And it just sucks the motivation out of me, like poking a hole in an astronaut’s spacesuit. Whooosh.

Then again, I suppose I can also slap karma right back and say, “Fuck you, genetics. I’m still gonna hit that treadmill. I may never be a world-class runner (not that I ever could have been, anyway), but I’m still gonna learn to run long distances.”

I do think I have to go with the latter, if only because this way, I can continue to be my usual cantankerous self and tell all those lazy, lousy, unmotivated slack-offs to stop whining and get their shit together. Because… damn, I love saying that to people.

Maybe that’ll be my new source of motivation.

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