- Climbers, Hikers, and Runners
Climbers, Hikers, and Runners
Which one are you?
A couple of years back, I wrote an article on Medium entitled The Climber, The Hiker, and the Runner. To this day, I get strangers reaching out to me about the framework it describes: How they use it to manage their teams, how it helps them identify what they like and don’t like about their jobs, and so on.
Below is an updated version of this article. My hope is that it can help folks who haven’t heard it before, even if only by giving them a new perspective for looking at life.
After you read it, shoot me a note by replying to this email and let me know what you think you are. When I first wrote this, I would have said I’m 100% hiker. But as I explain below, I’m not sure that’s true anymore.
Several years ago, I was sitting down with a team member I was managing, and we began talking about the future of his career. Like pretty much everyone I know, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to be doing in a year, let alone three, let alone ten. And so helping him chart a path toward an unknown future was a tricky endeavor, to say the least.
Eventually, we began speaking about motivation. “Instead of talking about where you want to end up,” I told him, “let’s talk about the day to day. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you think your motivation is for going into work now?”
He explained that he enjoyed his job, knew he was effective at it, and wanted to keep doing that. I was surprised, because as we continued speaking, I realized that I was quite different. Like him, I enjoyed my job. Like him, I knew I was effective at it. But unlike him, those were reasons I didn’t want to keep doing it. I was eager to do something new and different.
Then we discussed some other people we knew and tried to place them on this spectrum. We realized there weren’t just two types, but three types of people. The question being asked of each is “what motivates you?” Regardless of the substance of the work, “what is it about your day job that gets you excited to work?”
The Three Types
I now associate each type with a name: climbers, hikers, and runners.
I’m generally wary of anything that attempts to partition the world into clear-cut categories. So perhaps it’s best to visualize them as three corners of a personality triangle.
Most people, from my experience, gravitate toward one of these corners. But people are, of course, complicated. Everyone I know, even if they primarily fall into one of these categories, has aspects of their personalities touching on the other two.
So what are these three categories? What do they mean?
In the first category, climbers, people are driven by what their actions unlock. To the original question of what motivates them, the answer is opening doors.
Although the name might conjure up images of a corporate climber, people who fall into this category are not necessarily driven by pride or competitiveness. Climbers include anyone who gets an educational degree in order to be eligible for a job. They include those who want that promotion or that recognition in order to increase their optionality.
For climbers, forward progress is key. They believe that the more they accomplish, the more future opportunities will be available to them. They reach for goals that lie before them.
Classic examples of climbers from fiction: Rocky, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, Andy from The Shawshank Redemption, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, Captain Ahab from Moby Dick.
That brings us to second category: Hikers. These are people whose motivation stems primarily from doing something new, different, exciting. If a climber is someone who gets an advanced degree because it opens doors, a hiker is a person who gets an advanced degree because it’s something they haven’t done before.
Hikers are the people more likely to take on new initiatives than those in the other categories. They are, some might say, more easily bored. But others may say they grow excited by the act of exploration. They hike unknown trails.
So when asking what motivates a hiker, the answer usually boils down to scratching an itch, exploring a curiosity, or checking something off a to-do list that hadn’t been done before.
Classic hikers: The Cat in the Hat, Doc Brown from Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller, James Bond, Indiana Jones.
Lastly, we have runners. These are the people who know what they’re good at, and they want to keep doing it and improving. A runner is an employee whose answer to “where will you be in a few years” is something along the lines of “I’ll be doing this, and I’ll be much better at it.” They’re the ones who have lifelong hobbies. If a climber gets an advanced degree to open doors and a hiker gets an advanced degree to explore something new, a runner gets an advanced degree because they studied the same thing in undergrad and loved it.
Some of the most important jobs in the world require runners. These are the people who are motivated and excited by what they know and want to stay committed to it. They’re not driven by what’s next (like climbers) or what’s new (like hikers) but by what they love.
Great fictional runners? Michael Scott from The Office, Stevens from The Remains of the Day, Rick Deckard from Blade Runner, Kermit the Frog.
Writing Every Week
Six months ago, I began publishing this newsletter and committed to doing so every week. In writing about the Climber, Hiker, Runner framework again, I began wondering about my own motivation for continuing to write weekly.
For me, it certainly isn’t a climber mentality that keeps me going. That would require these articles to be aimed at some goal, some mile marker in the future that I’m hoping to hit. But for the life of me, I can’t imagine what that goal would be.
The version of me that wrote about this framework two years ago would have proudly claimed to be a hiker, forever curious and exploring new challenges. And while that certainly seems to hold true for this newsletter (I’ve written about topics ranging from startup advice to how to make friends to political polarization), I’ve been wondering if a good part of me might be a runner after all.
It’s the mere act of sitting down each week, getting words on paper that were previously only in my brain, striving to improve… It’s not always to achieve a particular goal. It might just be because a thing—for me, writing—can be enjoyable and entertaining all by itself.
Just a Lens
Walter White from Breaking Bad is probably half climber, half hiker. Michael Corleone from The Godfather is a runner for most of the first movie, and very much a climber in the second. The Dude from The Big Lebowski is probably none of the above because he has no motivation whatsoever.
Like all frameworks, this one is only useful as a thinking tool. But I have found it helpful—in conversations with people about their careers, their passions, their next steps—to ask which of the three types they fall into. In my experience, it helps them think about what they want to achieve.
No one of the three is the better choice or the one more likely to lead to success. I know brilliant and passionate people that clearly fit each of the three archetypes. And after all, these are only archetypes. Real people are much more complicated. But sometimes, it helps to over-simplify the world into simple buckets.
I’ll give the final word to my friend Sam Ward, the employee I mentioned above who first inspired this framework. When I asked him to contribute a quote, Sam said:
I never would have expected that, despite first discussing the framework because of our differences, Sam and I would years later finally fall into the same category (hiker + runner) after all.
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