I forgot to eat, but it wasn’t a concern.
Going to go the toilet was a last-minute, rush job. I just couldn’t spare the time.
My mission needed completing and simply wouldn’t wait. The game was Command and Conquer and it demanded my full, unremitting attention.
Like most computer games, it manipulated my psychological buttons to an alarming extent.
Even though I was cognisant of my compete immersion, I had little power to control it.
Have you ever been so consumed by an activity that you don’t even notice the passage of time?
Wikipedia defines an autotelic as,
Someone or something that has a purpose in, and not apart, from itself.
The word autotelic is derived from the Greek.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, popularised the concept of autotelic personality traits as it pertains to Flow, the title of his classic book.
“An autotelic person 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 persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they depend less on external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.”
At its essence, to be autotelic means to be more interested in the process than the result.
Surface-level it might not sound like much, but it’s really a superpower.
Computer games aside, using this approach on creative tasks ensures that instead of abandoning projects preemptively from frustration, we persist because the activity becomes its own reward.
So you might wonder how to put this concept to good use, or whether you possess the requisite personality traits.
Let’s take a look…
Autotelic personality traits
Interestingly, while some of following points are general personality traits, others are project-specific.
That’s to say that, it’s possible to be laissez-faire in aspects of life, and then become a raving perfectionist in others when you finally find your poison.
To get in of zone, you need to be:
The autotelic ability is somewhat contingent on curiosity for your project or pursuit.
You see, it’s difficult to get sucked into a flow-state without at least a cursory interest in your subject matter.
It’s a mental state that’s immune to fakery and requires genuine interest.
Otherwise, the conscious brain intervenes with repeated alerts that it’s bored and needs another form of stimulation.
When instructed to complete certain work tasks we often we grit our teeth and constantly complain.
Going through the motions simply won’t cut it.
It’s far easier to foster a curious mindset when you’re alive to what you’re doing, inasmuch that if our actions are discretionary, they likely originate from internal motivation over external reward.
When we choose to trade our free time to exert effort, it’s probably because we’re passionate about our chosen pursuit.
By this, I mostly refer to the desire to learn and master a craft, through an ongoing process of skill acquisition.
This largely involves an experimental attitude and being undeterred by short term failure.
Those that are “in it” for short term gain or external rewards will frequently find their progress frustrating and surrender in the face of such obstacles.
For an autotelic, however, these roadblocks, if not welcomed, are generally accepted as part of the journey and used for feedback to grow and improve.
We generally talk about obsessiveness in a negative context, an imbalance to be addressed.
Notwithstanding the fact that the most iconic change-makers in history all exhibited this behaviour, it remains a poorly understood or accepted social behaviour.
However, for an autotelic, the cognitive dissonance of a project unfinished is almost too much to bear.
My girlfriend will often enter states of complete immersion when painting, and trying to rouse her is akin to waking a sleepwalker; dangerous!
Obsessiveness, however intense, often originates from a place of joy and what might seem like hard work to one actually feels like play to another.
5. Process, not outcome orientated
An onlooker might easily criticise an autotelic for their lack of goal-focus.
However, an autotelic doesn’t need to perform for the crowd.
Instead of aiming for arbitrary rewards, they instead operate by their own code of conduct.
Their actions are driven by internal checks and balances, leaving them less at the mercy of praise or punishment.
I feel this when I run, for example.
While many may set themselves graded programmes or marathon training, I’m simply happy using the exercise in a meditative capacity.
And although my almost daily running discipline might seem obsessive to some, in reality, it originates from internal satisfaction.
While a focused mentality can often harbour a dark side, an autotelic drive is different, originating from an altogether healthier place.
While society continues trying to impregnate us with the need for external metrics of success like money and recognition, an autotelic is incentivised by an inner desire.
They focus on what they can control, cultivating contentment through their individual actions.
External validation is unnecessary and meaning is instead derived from their purpose-driven mission.
Many of these proposed autotelic personality traits might appear difficult to simulate, and they are.
For that reason, it’s unwise to forge these characteristics.
It’s far more effective to lead with an activity, and allow any such attributes to follow.
For starters, simply identify an activity you’re slightly interested in.
While passive activities like watching TV can mimic a flow state, it’s only when we shift from consumption to creation that we truly experience the effect.
So go for crafting or ping pong instead. Get stuck in and see if it takes.
If you’re routinely missing meals, wondering where the day went, you know you’re probably in the zone.