Money, respect and prestige are common motivators in our society, but there’s a type of personality out there that isn’t motivated by any of these factors.
These people are known as the “Autotelics.” Autotelics see the world entirely differently to most people, and instead of being driven by external forces, autotelics are motivated by the deeper inner rewards of creativity, immersion and “flow” in areas such as art, science and nature. Future goals and external factors are meaningless in comparison.
Autotelism takes its name from two Greek words: “auto” (self) and “telos'” (goal), which is the belief that any action has within itself its own meaning and purpose. The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used the term “Autotelic” as part of his Flow Psychology.
Mihaly described the autotelic person as someone who needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power or fame, because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such a person experiences flow in work, family life, when interacting with others, eating, and even when alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated and trapped in dull and meaningless routines. Autotelics are autonomous and independent because they can’t be easily manipulated with threats or rewards. They are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.
Autotelics are the Free Spirits of life.
7 Characteristics of Being Autotelic
Autotelism is the closest way psychology has come to measuring spiritual or mystical experiences.
The state of “flow” that autotelics experience in altered states of consciousness resembles Abraham Maslow’s “Peak Experiences,” but unlike peak experiences which can occur randomly at any important moment through our lives, Autotelism describes a quality that can be constantly cultivated.
Some common experiences Autotelics have include:
- Openness to new challenges.
- Concentration. Concentration is so intense that the mind can’t think or worry about anything else.
- Passionate Persistence, or pursuing the activity/challenge until it is completed.
- Loss of Self. Self-consciousness disappears once the state of “flow” is entered so there is no “self” anymore. Time begins to warp and distort.
- Intuition and Clarity. You know what needs to be done and how to do it.
- Gratification. Actions and experiences themselves are so gratifying that they are done for their own sake, not for some future reward.
- Ecstasy. Life feels perfect, whole and complete.
Autotelics can be found in all fields of work and all walks of life. Here are some experiences shared first-hand by Autotelics:
Christopher Bergland (US Triple Ironman)
My ability to do “superhuman” things with my body was ultimately about my ability to open up a channel inside myself that could plug into a universal Source of energy we all have access to. In many ways the only “skill” that separated me from other elite athletes and enabled me to break a Guinness World Record was my ability to tap that energy source. I learned how to use this infinite energy as my prime moving force.
Susan Jackson (Australian figure skater)
It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean, everything went right, everything felt good . . . It’s just such a rush, like you feel it could go on and on and on, like you don’t want it to stop because it’s going so well. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think, it’s like everything goes automatically without thinking . . . it’s like you’re on automatic pilot, so you don’t have any thoughts. You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it, because it’s a part of it all.
Musical Composer (recorded by Csikszentmihalyi)
You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.
Poet (recorded by Csikszentmihalyi)
It’s like opening a door that’s floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.
How to Develop Your Autotelic Nature
Imagine experiencing the greatest enjoyment and pleasure you could ever have while listening to music, walking the dog, washing dishes, talking to a friend, drinking a cup of tea, cooking a meal, or doing errands. What if you looked forward to all of these activities equally?
Although some may be more naturally inclined towards Autotelism, we all carry the potential to enter these Autotelic states of flow, creative passion, ecstatic absorption and timeless awareness in our daily lives and routine habits. Here’s how:
1. Find an Activity
Choose something that you enjoy doing. It can be anything such as playing the piano, working on your novel, skiing, horseback riding, playing football, and so on.
Keep in mind that if the activity is too easy you’ll be bored and your mind will wander. If it’s too difficult you’ll be overwhelmed and you won’t be able to reach that subconscious “autopilot” state of flow. However, depending on the intention you set in the next step, even the “easiest” activity can become challenging (e.g. finding the most efficient way to wash the dishes).
2. Set Clear Intentions
An autotelic learns to make choices and set clear intentions. They set goals and determine their obstacles so they can decide a system of action. Only once they know where they are going and what challenges are involved, can they decide the best skills necessary to get there.
3. Immerse Yourself Fully in the Activity
Eliminate all other distractions. You don’t want anything irrelevant to drag you away from your task: if your concentration is broken you’re going to exit the autotelic state of flow.
4. Learn to Truly Focus
Focus and concentration here is key. Find a sensory “anchor” to ground yourself in the activity. Our bodies and minds have the incredible capability to enjoy life. Gaining control of your mind opens you to experience and derive joy from almost anything. Every taste, smell, sound, thought, and observation can be the anchor of immediate enjoyment if we take the time, focus, and effort to experience it.
Focus leads to involvement and engagement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention. It’s through this complete engagement in our inward sensory experience that we rid ourselves from all self-consciousness; the most common source of distraction.
Becoming a Disciple of Discipline
It is through these steps that the autotelic can enjoy life in its fullest form. It’s a beautiful paradox: being capable of controlling our mind’s experience can turn even the dullest experiences into an Oasis of freshness by relinquishing control of our subconscious minds.
Achieving this control, however, requires determination and discipline. Setting a strong intention to absorb ourselves in our activities to the point where we enter a subconscious “flow” and mastery in what we are doing, demands persistence. Developing this skill helps us to become more than what we are.
It is through autotelism that you can experience what the martial artists call a “mind like water” and top athletes refer to as the “Zone,” within the complex world in which you’re engaged. We all have amazing capabilities to control our level of enjoyment in everything we do. Practicing the steps of developing autotelism is a very concrete way to improve the quality of your own life.
Autotelic individuals experience flow regularly and are more creative and innovative. “Without flow, there is no creativity,” says Csikszentmihalyi. If you are interested in learning further about Csikszentmihalyi’s work, look into his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience or watch his TED talk.
Is there a certain activity that allows you to easily channel your Autotelic abilities? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.