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.

Csikszentmihalyi on Finding Flow

In Finding Flow – the 1997 follow-up to his enormously popular 1991 book Flow – psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents further descriptions and research concerning the term he coined to describe the sensation of losing oneself in the task at hand.  For those unfamiliar with his definition of “flow,” see the brief quotes below from Finding Flow.

What is common to such moments is that consciousness is full of experiences, and these experiences are in harmony with each other.  Contrary to what happens all too often in everyday life, in moments such as these what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.

These exceptional moments are what I have called flow experiences.  The metaphor of “flow” is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortlessness action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture. Athletes, mystics, and artists do very different things when they reach flow, yet their descriptions of the experience are remarkably similar. (p. 29)

If you play the horn long enough, you will most likely have at least a few of these “flow” experiences – a special concert or recital, a breakthrough lesson or practice session, etc. – but the question is how can we create situations or circumstances in which flow is more likely to occur?  Maybe it isn’t possible to experience flow every day, but I think it’s certainly worthwhile to try! Csikszentmihalyi goes on to list some conditions which are conducive to flow.  As you read through his list, consider how they might apply to your own everyday (and not so everyday) endeavors.  I’ve offered a few comments after each quote to show one possible way to encourage these scenarios and conditions to happen.

1) “Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.” (p. 29)

During a given amount of practice time, set a specific goal for yourself, even if it means only working on a few phrases (or measures) at a time. Be realistic about the amount of work you can accomplish in an hour, thirty minutes, etc. Set goals for yourself over the long term as well – these could be upcoming solo performances, orchestra concerts, or auditions.  Also consider a long term summer practicing project in lieu of, or in addition to, preparing for a recital.

2) “Another characteristic of flow activities is that they provide immediate feedback.” (p. 30)

Use a digital recorder, mirror, video camera, etc. to get immediate feedback about your playing.  Ask positive, but critical, questions about every note, phrase, and nuance.

3) “Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable.  Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between one’s ability to act, and the available opportunities for action. If challenges are too high one gets frustrated, then worried, and eventually anxious.  If challenges are too low relative to one’s skills one gets relaxed, then bored.” (p. 30)

This one pretty much speaks for itself, but one area where I think this is particularly applicable is choosing recital repertoire.  You want to choose music which is challenging, but that can also be prepared to a very high level in the given amount of time before the performance.

4) “When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification.” (p. 32)

This one is a bit more big picture than the rest, but I think it is just as important in our everyday lives. We all have various motives for doing what we do, and in the case of musicians and other artists, the financial rewards are quite often not at the top of the list.  It is important to periodically evaluate our own motives for pursuing music, horn playing, or whatever.  Do we do it just for the paycheck?  What about for the prestige, or positive feedback we get from friends, colleagues, and family?  Or do we do it just for the sheer joy of it?  Of course your answers to these questions may vary from day to day, or even hour to hour, but overall I think it is quite comforting to know that despite all of its challenges, setbacks, and frustrations, we are involved in a particular career/avocation/hobby because it is something we truly enjoy. For more great information on the subject of flow, you should of course read Csikszentmihalyi’s books, but also check out Jeffrey Agrell’s excellent article titled “Archery, Csikszentmihalyi, and What’s Really Important, Anyway?” in the May 2003 issue of The Horn Call.

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