Autotelic movement

When it comes to fitness training, there are three types of goals: get stronger, be more mobile, or alter body composition. Every ambition is sheltered under one of those umbrellas, or is a mix of two. I didn’t come up with this; Dan John did. From his book, Can You Go?:
As a coach, the aim is to know where someone falls so you can direct their efforts and program their training and nutrition. This is because there are established protocols and heuristics for each of the seven domains a person can fall into. But what if you don’t have a goal? What if you just want to move because you like moving? What if you just want to be strong and mobile and lean so that you can do with your body as you please?

Venkatesh Rao recently sent out a newsletter called ”Intelligence Reconsidered”. I’m omitting some nuance, but the drive of the piece is that we should consider thinking as an autotelic activity—that is, an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Rao posits that what makes us human is that we have the ability to think without objective, without purpose. After I finished reading the newsletter, I began to see movement in a similar light.

For a long time, my health and fitness was constrained by the focus on goals. What I did day in and day out in the gym was determined by my goals. But when I started taking Brazilian jiu-jitsu more seriously, I didn’t really have one. Max lifts didn’t matter. I wasn’t fussed about maintaining ten percent body fat. All I wanted to do was be able to get on the mats and move as I please. 

Now, you could class that as a goal, but the achievement of a goal is usually tied to some metric. The only metric that can be attached to “move as I please” is a question: “Can I?”

Since this shift, I’ve found more joy, not just in jiu-jitsu, but in movement in general. It’s not a burden, a labour. It’s not another thing that I have to do and monitor and record. It’s a blessing, an opportunity to explore and have fun and see where my limits lie. When my coach gives me squats to do, or sets up some blistering interval training session, I don’t cuss. I smile. If thinking for the sake of thinking is a human activity, then moving for the sake of moving is an animal activity. We are all animals, with bodies that are capable of wonderful things. But we forget about that in order to pursue some objective that matters only to us and the other people in our chosen hierarchies.