From a very young age, goals are set for us by others. As babies we are encouraged to walk and talk, as children we are encouraged to do well in school, as teenagers we are encouraged to get a good degree and as adults, we are encouraged to be a model member of society. Advertisements put forward money, fame and power as models of success. Motivational speakers give speeches telling us paths we should follow to succeed. Parents tell children that they should listen to their advice if they wish to lead a comfortable life in the future. Amongst all of this external pressure, sometimes it seems difficult to have a say in what direction your life should go in.
The word autotelic is derived from the Greek words auto, meaning “self”, and telos, meaning “goal”. An autotelic is one who does not need external reminders to tell them who they are. They have a purpose in and not apart from themselves. They are driven by their own goals, curiosities and motivation. An autotelic does not live life like a connect-the-dots puzzle drawn by society, but chooses to paint their own life on a blank canvas.
The defining feature of autotelic personalities is that they are not driven by the want to be successful, but by the desire to seek challenges and be in flow state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term flow, defined the mark of the autotelic personality as “the ability to manage a rewarding balance between the “play” of challenge finding and the “work” of skill building“. They are far less interested in external rewards, such as a gold star from a teacher or a raise from a employer. Their reward is the flow state they enter while they work on their goal and the satisfaction that comes with knowing that they completed a challenge.
Some of the greatest achievers in history were autotelics. They did not achieve amazing feats because of the promise of money and fame, but because they were internally driven by the thirst for flow. When questioned why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famous mountaineer George Mallory replied: ”Because it’s there“. An autotelic personality is not necessarily something you have to be born with. All you need is to constantly challenge yourself, discover whatever brings you to flow state and not let outside forces sway you from your own goals. For the only judge of your life that matters is you.
(If you don’t get the reference, go watch some How I Met Your Mother, coz it’s awesome 😛 Barney Stinson always sets new challenges for himself, always pushing himself to the limits of awesomeness. Examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iOi_iPNC50)