The Autotelic Life 

Basketball is an autotelic activity
Basketball is an autotelic activity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines Flow as a psychologically optimal mental state. Flow is when you are neither too bored by the triviality of the task or overwhelmed by its difficulty. You lose sense of time, you are wholly focused, undistracted. In this state, you achieve growth and you live up to your potential.

Athletes and musicians are typically cited as professionals who regularly experience Flow, but this mental state is far more ubiquitous than that. It is possible to achieve Flow through something as simple as reading. When you encounter new information, your knowledge structures are transformed, since many internal battles are taking place in the form of warring ideas and emotions, but in the midst of all this, you lose track of your ego. Your sense of self disappears from the foreground and all that is processed  and experienced is the present moment.

Csikszentmihalyi notes that people report reading as the most common Flow producing activity.

Recall that to experience Flow, you cannot find the activity too challenging or too trivial. Tasks that are too easy will make you bored, and will cause you to lose interest, while tasks that are too challenging will overwhelm you and cause you to give up.

New Challenges

What is required is to systematically expose yourself to new challenges – self-imposed difficulty provides the required amount of stress to keep you engaged. But as you encounter more difficult situations, you become more adept at dealing with them. You automatically generate new information – which will in turn, transform you.

Imagine playing basketball as a novice and missing ten free throws in a row. That’s clear, immediate feedback that something in your technique is off. After initial frustration, you muster enough focus to re-adjust your technique. You do this consciously. Maybe you bend your knees more, or you hold the ball and release it a little differently.  You then try again. And this time, you hit three in a row.

Now you are ecstatic – a small part of you believes that one day, you are going to get scouted by the Golden State Warriors. Your success streak informs you that you must be doing something right, so you try to emulate this exact technique. You try again, but this time, aren’t very successful. Eventually, with enough trial and error, and with enough information, you transform. Your accuracy improves, your confidence goes up – you are now more excited about playing basketball.

After mastering the free throw, you take a few steps back, and take more difficult shots. If you continue to engage in this pattern of activity every day for months, you will become better. If you do it for years – you will reach expert level performances. Indeed, that is how athletes are born.

Deliberate Practice

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized Ericsson’s research into the science of expertise, by coming up with the catchy “10,000 Hour Rule.”. It’s not just the number that helped the idea become viral – its simplicity made it impossible to forget. The “10,000 hour” rule states, that if you want to become an expert at anything, you need to practice for 10,000 hours. But in reality, it’s not that simple.

In “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”, Ericsson explains what his research more accurately uncovered. Without going into more details in this post (see the previous link for more details)– one key point is that it’s that experts have practiced for 10,000 hours. That particular number is arbitrary, and merely represents the average number of hours performers from multiple domains have practiced before the age of twenty. The central idea is that what separates the good from the best is “Deliberate Practice.” This idea is more in line with Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow.

Deliberate Practice involves creating better mental representations of what you are doing. Compared to amateurs, top performers have a better holistic idea of what they should expect for best results. A professional basketball player can better visualize what a proper shot, lay-up, or play should look like. What allows you to develop more sophisticated mental representations is feedback and goal setting.

The Autotelic Personality

The concept of Flow is very much related to goal-setting. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi describes a specific type of personality that is most capable of achieving Flow – the “autotelic” personality.

In Greek, “auto” means the “self”, and “telic” is “telos” or “goal.” The auto-telic person performs an activity for its own sake – not for external rewards, and the goals that are put forth are created by her.

Some activities are more conducive to attaining Flow than others. For example, a surgeon is more likely to experience Flow than a physician practicing internal medicine. The surgeon has access to instant feedback and is easily able to monitor his own progress in a way that the internal medicine physician cannot.

But it’s not just the activity itself that matters, it’s the person doing it. To achieve Flow, you need to have an autotelic personality. You need to be able to stop yourself from thinking about external rewards and do the activity for its own sake. The financial trader who plays the stock market can do so for financial gain but can also do so to hone their skill for predicting the future. Likewise, the teacher can choose to teach to earn money, but also because she enjoys interacting with children.

The Benefits of Flow

Experiencing Flow every day will change your life – literally. And since it’s more about honing a certain kind of personality and developing a different context for the activities rather having been fortunate enough to already be engaged in the right kinds of activities, anyone can experience it. Of course, there is a genetic component to being able to achieve Flow, some people are better predisposed to experiencing it than others – but we know that is possible to train yourself to become more autotelic.

Developing a different context for your activity simply means re-framing your goals. And this is one way to find activities more rewarding in themselves.

Consider these two examples.

Imagine playing basketball, but this time, you’re just shooting the ball at random until you get tired. Now, imagine a second scenario, where you create an entirely different context. You impose challenges on yourself, such as having to score ten free throws in a row or making twenty consecutive lay-ups without letting the ball touch the backboard. In which case are you more likely to be engaged? Which type of practice would you want to repeat in the future?

Swimming is another great example. In scenario one, imagine swimming for no purpose. And imagine a different scenario, where you measure the number of laps you can swim without taking a break, or the number of strokes you take for each lap. Which set of scenarios are more fun, and thus more conducive to growth?

Goal-setting can make boring activities more enjoyable, and enjoyable activities more fun. But the key point to remember is that it is only possible to experience joy in doing something after a certain amount of expertise has been reached. That is, the novice writer will not find the same amount of joy in his work as the dedicated veteran. But with enough deliberate practice and goal-setting, the novice can reach a higher level of expertise, which makes Flow more achievable, and this in turn will make it easier for this person to become better.

The Virtuous Cycle

The promise of Flow is that it will inevitably lead to a virtuous cycle where growth becomes effortless, and the activity is highly enjoyable.

“Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.” –Thomas Carlyle.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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