The Autotelic Personality

Last week I posted about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Finding Flow, his sequel to Flow. Near the end of that post I rather casually dropped the question  – “why do we do what we do?” – is it for the money, prestige/recognition, or simply because it makes us feel satisfied, complete, and happy?  I’d like to follow up that post with a bit more information on what Csikszentmihalyi calls the autotelic personality. As I am no psychologist, I’ll let Csikszentmihalyi give the definition.

“Autotelic is a word composed of two Greek roots: auto (self), and telos (goal).  An autotelic activity is one we do for its own sake because to experience it is the main goal…Applied to personality, autotelic denotes an individual who generally does things for their own sake, rather than in order to achieve some later external goal.

Of course no one is fully autotelic, because we all have to do things even if we don’t enjoy them, either out of a sense of duty or necessity. But there is a gradation, ranging from individuals who almost never feel that what they do is worth doing for its own sake, to others who feel that most anything they do is important and valuable in its own right. It is to these latter individuals that the term autotelic applies. Finding Flow, p. 117

Ok…so what does that have to do with horn playing?  Well, Csikszentmihalyi goes on to explain that autotelic people 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.” (p. 118) So it sounds as if an autotelic personality is one that is more often than not switched on, plugged in, and fully engaged in whatever is happening.  And if our ultimate goal as artists/musicians/teachers is to communicate with those around us, then it stands to reason that the more engaged and in tune we are with our surroundings, the better we’ll be at communicating. And although being autotelic does tie in to overall happiness,  Csikszentmihalyi points out that “It is not enough to be happy to have an excellent life. The point is to be happy while doing things that stretch our skills, that help us grow and fulfill our potential.” (p. 122)

Another way to think about it is to consider daily practice habits.  If we want to improve, we must put in the hours, but that time doesn’t have to turn into a daily grind.  Whether it’s practicing excerpts, etudes, long tones, range, or whatever, we can turn that time into a chance to have an optimal experience, flow, in other words.  By attempting to be fully engaged in whatever it is you are doing, not only will that time be more productive, but you’ll feel better after it’s finished.  I fully recognize that this isn’t always an easy task, and that sometimes we find ourselves in situations we would rather not be in – but consider this last quote from Finding Flow – “Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.” (p. 128)  For me, that means that the next time I find myself bored with Kopprasch, or bored in rehearsal, I need to remember that it might not be because those things are inherently boring, but rather because I am not paying enough attention.

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