In the following article, we will explore the autotelic personality and the aspects of the self essential for peak experience in work, sport and indeed life. We will also explore the nine optimal conditions for Flow according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, researcher and author of many books on the subject. High performance in any and all domains of work and play require it, and the degree to which we may cultivate these aspects of personality will almost certainly influence our performance results. Want to become a better actor, writer, craftsperson, athlete or business person? Take into account these aspects of the autotelic personality and work daily, tirelessly and relentlessly, to build them in yourself.
Many of us at some point in our lives have had the experience of being in the zone, on fire, like we were on another level. It comes when we don't expect it. Goosebumps rise up all over our skin, our senses are heightened, and the environment seems to take on an almost other-worldly appearance. We are at one with it all. There seems to be little separating us from everything else, and all self-consciousness seems to melt away. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, after thirty years of creativity research, has come to call this phenomenon Flow. Before him, Abraham Maslow termed it Peak Experience.
If we could only bottle that sensation, capture it and release it at will, then every situation in which we find ourselves, every challenge we encounter we can triumph. But it seems impossible. Emotions take over; nerves and concern for how we might be perceived kick in. We remember prior failures and dread that it will come again to ruin our preparation, and indeed, our sense of self. Negative thoughts overtake us and we spiral downwards into poor performance. Why is it that on any given day we may perform exceptionally or not? What gets in our way? Why, given all our hard work, practice and preparation does the sales presentation, stage or field performance flop? Perhaps Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's account of the Autotelic Personality may offer us an explanation.
The Autotelic Personality & Conditions For Flow
The self we experience is an ever-moving target. The company we keep and their expectations of us, how we perceive ourselves, and the environment combine to produce the environment-self dynamic interplay. The environment evokes a response from the organism, and the organism, in turn, acts on the environment. This dynamic contributes to our fundamental understanding of the psychology of human behaviour. Therefore, if we are to ask the question; how can we produce consistently high-level results? the answer is; it depends.
An infinite number of factors influence performance results. However, although conditions for Flow are different for everyone, Csikszentmihalyi says that there are certain patterns to its occurrence. Optimal conditions are more likely to exist where the individual has developed creative, or autotelic personality traits. But before we examine these personality traits, let's first take a look at the conditions.
Optimal Conditions For Flow
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that consistent high performers, the ones who stand out against the backdrop of everyday life, are motivated by the enjoyment that comes from confronting challenges. Without these people, he says, there is no evolution of culture or progress in thought, feeling or human experience. Therefore, he asks, what does this apparent enjoyment in the optimal experience of Flow involve?
In his research, Csikszentmihalyi and his team identified the following nine psychological aspects of optimal experience found most frequently in subjects in flow state. Participants in his research included artists, sportspeople, academics, and ordinary working people who reported in almost identical terms, their experience of Flow in the course of their work.
1. Clear Goals Exist
In the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi says, we always seem to know what needs to be done. We direct our tasks via our goals and we bound them by the rules of the game. There is, in the majority of cases, clarity of purpose directed towards clear goal outcomes.
2. Constant Feedback
Csikszentmihalyi says that in high-intensity sports such as field sports, feedback is immediate. But with other performance domains, it is not always so sharp and initial. It varies depending on the task but is present regardless.
3. Balance Between Challenge & Skill
This component refers to the matching of our skill level to the challenge at hand. If, for example, we are engaged in a task we are not sufficiently skilled to complete, we can frustrate ourselves by our inability to complete it.
4. Action & Awareness Merge
In the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi says that the performer requires one-pointedness of mind. There is no room for concern about other things we think we should be doing. The blinkers are on so to speak.
5. Loss of Self-consciousness
In normal everyday life, most of us carry considerable concern for how the social unit perceives us. It is dominant and pervasive in all of our behaviour. However, in a flow state, there is no room for self-consciousness.
6. No Concern For Failure
When we are entirely engaged in an activity, we have no concern for failure. It is complete confidence in ourselves. The idea of failure doesn’t even come into play which contrasts with arrogance–a disguised fear of failure.
7. Lack of Distraction
Enjoyment in a flow experience comes about as a result of intense concentration on the present. There is no room for idle thoughts about the weather or relationships, for example.
8. Feeling of Timelessness
Csikszentmihalyi’s participants report that time seems to become distorted in the flow state. It slows down, speeds up, or stops completely. It doesn’t pass as it usually does in the surface level world of ordinary life.
9. Activity Becomes Autotelic
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, an essential aspect of peak experience, is the engagement in the task for its own sake. The experience becomes an end in itself and all thought of success or failure disappears.
“An autotelic experience is very different from the feelings we typically have in the course of life. So much of what we ordinarily do has no value in itself, and we do it only because we have to do it, or because we expect some future benefit from it”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Aspects of The Autotelic Personality
We derive “auto-telic” from the Greek word autos meaning self, and telic indicating purpose, from the Greek telikos “final,” from telos “end goal” or “result”. We use the term to explain the nature of consciousness in individuals who engage in complex work for its inherent enjoyment even when the activity is potentially threatening.
Csikszentmihalyi stresses that individuals possessing an autotelic personality undertake their work not to provide short-term stimulation and gratification. They do so in pursuit of long-term, often lifetime expression of intrinsic goals. In other words, they engage in their work for the primary purpose of personal enjoyment and challenge. Subsequently, Csikszentmihalyi says, this engagement results in the growth of the self.
Researchers have found that our development and maintenance of autotelic personality traits consists of the following four essential states.
1. Goals Are Intrinsic
The ultimate aim of the self is happiness and fulfilment in the moment of Now. When we engage ourselves in pursuits we enjoy, and we do so for the inherent challenge, there comes about the natural pursuit of goals. Rather of thinking of goals as linear processes, we should regard them as naturally evolving interest and curiosity bringing about inevitable expertise.
It is perhaps accurate then to say, development of the creative personality is a multidimensional, and often unconscious process within which we execute daily and hourly tasks. The autotelic person sets goals on an hourly, daily, weekly basis etc. from an intrinsic rather than extrinsic perspective.
In doing so, the autotelic person continually assesses results, adjust their actions, and remain consistently aligned with their values. Therefore, the performer can modify goal-directed effort based on feedback from their observed results. Goals are, therefore, intrinsic and self-directed.
2. Work Is Immersive
The development of an autotelic personality can be achieved, in part, by becoming totally immersed in our daily work or sport. The domain of work within which we choose to engage is less important than the degree to which we engage with it.
For example; I have found there is enormous satisfaction and personal fulfilment in washing dishes or peeling spuds as I have from daily work that pays the bills. It is our willingness to follow our curiosity and immerse ourselves in the task for long periods that brings about expertise.
That is not to say that we must grit our teeth and grind it out, forcing things to our will. Instead, it’s more to do with dancing or playing with the work than it is toil and laborious effort. To languish in mediocrity will eventually lead to boredom, discontent, and what Csikszentmihalyi calls, psychic entropy.
3. Attention Is Unwavering
Consider a photorealistic artist working on a large format pencil drawing; for this artist, her heightened and unwavering attention to her work over long periods is critical to her successful output. Csikszentmihalyi says that the autotelic person is capable of holding this unwavering attention to the task at hand without distraction.
There is no room for self-analysis or self-consciousness. Focusing our attention on what others may be thinking or feeling about our work is a self-conscious action and will destroy our chances of making something great. Therefore we must practice controlling our attention. With deliberate practice, this is entirely possible to achieve.
4. Work Is Inherently Enjoyable
Enjoyment of our daily work is such a critical contributor towards happiness its hardly worth doing if we don't enjoy it. But millions of us do work we hate. If we don’t enjoy our work we won’t stay the pace. We won’t be able to endure challenges and realise the success we crave. Extrinsic motivation like cash-in-hand might keep us engaged for a while, but it won’t last.
Besides, if we don’t enjoy our daily work, what's the point? Is it not a life wasted? Work must also incorporate an aspect of play to satisfy the creative personality. As Dr Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play states in his book, Play; How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul;
Play seems to be so important for our development and survival that the impulse to play has become a biological drive.
The Autotelic Performer Transmutates Conditions
Csikszentmihalyi says that the autotelic self possesses the ability to transmute challenging, dull, or even life-threatening situations into activities that bring about transformative states of being. There are no wasted experiences; they can utilise all life circumstances to their benefit.
This does not mean we should accept undesirable conditions and yield to defeat and hopelessness. On the contrary, to the autotelic personality, the challenging experience is used to uncover unique and creative means to overcome the conditions. Autotelic individuals possess a high degree of resilience, accept the nature of current circumstances, and resolve to discover new solutions to problems.
They don’t scramble to be noticed by their peers or the public, and they do not regard competition as the primary reason for engagement. Neither do they waste energy in ego defence, because their ego recedes into the background.
“The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”Stuart Brown MD
The Simplicity of The Challenge
Some of us will be unable to experience the simplicity and joy of doing things for the sake of it. For we are either too self-conscious and afraid or too self-absorbed and narcissistic. In this state of mind our daily work is all about evoking a response from others. Too materially absorbed, our focus is only on personal gain, and authentic creative expression is impossible.
Regardless, it may be true that we over-analyse ourselves. Questioning, probing, keeping ourselves from our work. Whereas, all that we require is to engage in the work, follow our curiosity and got deep for long periods without ulterior motive.
In all our creative endeavours, there will be work that needs to be done, and it will be difficult, but what is life without challenge? Life is dichotomous, it's supposed to be a balance of challenge and support.
So in our pursuit of happiness, perhaps it's best to go where we’re drawn, create meaning, and give ourselves a purpose in the work. We only get one go at this as far as I know.
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