Autotelic Work.

I have spent a significant portion of the last ten years thinking about work, incentive structures, and why working with some people is just so effortless while working with others feels like such a chore. And the results often speak for themselves as well!

Working with difficult people is rarely worth it, regardless of the results or money.

So today I wanted to discuss the concept of autotelic work. This is a concept that I stumbled upon when reading “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Expeirence” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. An Autotelic person is someone who views work as is it’s own reward.

This contrasts with most people, who see work as a means to an end. They do their job to get paid and only continue working so long as the pay is good. They will quickly quit when the pay isn’t good enough, or the work becomes too difficult.

The word “autotelic” derives from the Greek αὐτοτελής (autotelēs), formed from αὐτός (autos, “self”) and τέλος (telos, “end” or “goal”).

Autotelic people are often some of the most successful and productive people you will ever meet. They aren’t just working for the sake of working, but because they genuinely enjoy what they’re doing.

I’ll quote Csikszentmihalyi directly:

An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they depend less on external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routines. They 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.

This is why many of the most successful entrepreneurs are autotelic. They have found something they’re passionate about and are driven to work on it, regardless of whether or not they’re making any money. This also strongly applies to musicians, composers, poets, and artists of all types, because they need to develop a passion and drive for their art long before they become famous — if they become famous at all.

Schubert famously died poor, but he continued composing music until the end because he had an autotelic personality.

This isn’t to say that autotelic people never experience difficulty or setbacks. They certainly do. But they’re more likely to see these as challenges to overcome rather than roadblocks that stop them in their tracks — they have a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset. So when they hit an obstacle, they ask how they need to change to overcome it.

But all this raises quite a few difficult questions:

  • Can someone “become” autotelic?
  • How do you spot autotelic people and convince them to work with you?
  • If you are not autotelic (i.e. you haven’t found your “passion”) are you doomed, or is there still hope? How old do you have to be until you give up the search? Should you give up the search?

I believe I already touched on the idea of Autotelic Work in my essay The Two Types of Work, and essentially Autotelic Work is the latter type of work, something that you would be doing regardless in your spare time. You are even more fortunate that it is your work.

That said, I believe that if one can develop the ability to focus enough, almost any activity can become autotelic. This is because the flow experience described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is to do with the level of attention and mindfulness that we have in our lives, more than a specific thing we are doing. And I do believe that pretty much everything in life is interesting if you dig deep enough.

I was considering the work of accountants over lunch with a friend the other day and how boring that must be as a career. I quipped that being an accountant is strange because it doesn’t matter what organisation you work for; it will all be the same.

But, on further reflection, I believe that actually there are significant differences — but I do not have the expertise to understand the subtle details which make all the differences. You have to deal with depreciation if you work in an organization that holds significant warehoused stock or assets. If you work for a technology company, perhaps account receivables are entirely automated. In contrast, if you work at a professional service firm, account receivables are, quite literally, the oxygen of the organisation because the timing of the payment of the invoices sent to clients can make a massive difference to cash flow. And I am sure a trained accountant could speak for hours on a multitude of differences between organisational accounting departments — because they have done the work and have spent the time building that specific ability to pay attention to details in their field.

And this does not even have to apply to work.

I had some of the most enjoyable dinners and lunches lately, purely by stopping my train of thought, always being in the mode of “what should I say next” and truly focusing and listening to people.

Someone, somewhere, said that if you find anyone boring, you are actually the boring person.

You are not asking the right questions and digging deep enough to understand what you can learn from someone.

I do not have all the answers, but I believe that if you find your current work boring, it is probably more a reflection of you than the work itself. If you are not in the flow state regularly at work, it is a good idea to understand what might be holding you back.

The biggest barrier is likely a lack of focus, an inability to dedicate enough time to pay attention to the details. This could be due to several reasons:

  1. Your work setup is not conducive to deep thinking — there are a lot of distractions, noise, or it is not particularly comfortable. Note that having many daily meetings does not preclude being a deep thinker; you just need to become better at context switching.
  2. You’ve hijacked your brain — if you never practice focussing on something for long periods of time, it is hardly surprising that you can’t do it on command. This is a skill, very much like anything else. It is important to note that anything you do, and every element of your experience, changes your brain — in the real, physical sense. So, if you spend all your time on shallow activities such as social media browsing, you’ll likely become a shallow person unable to focus.
  3. You have low energy levels — this is often overlooked, but if you are tired, you will have a harder time to focus. This is because your brain needs energy (glucose) to function correctly. Make sure to get enough sleep, eat healthy food, and exercise regularly.
  4. You do not have skin in the game — if you do not care about what you are doing, it is going to be hard to focus on it. Ideally, you should experience some risk — that’s is the definition of being invested into something, If you are not invested, it is likely because you do not see any upside to dedicating your focus and cognitive resources to the task at hand. This could be solved by changing your attitude towards the work, or finding a new line of work that aligns with your values and goals.

This last point is quite interesting, and probably deserves its own essay. Starting and running your own organization, the ultimate level of investment in your work, is a hugely formative experience. The most exciting thing about being a founder is that, quite literally, everything is your own fault. This may sound pessimistic, but it is actually quite refreshing once you accept it because of the conclusions you reach.

If everything is your responsibility, you can have some level of control over the outcomes by changing your behaviour.

It also teaches you to strongly consider second and third-order consequences in decision-making because you are going to have live with both the short-term consequences of your decisions as well as the long-term consequences. This is in contrast to working at a corporation, where this may or may not be true, because often people change jobs every couple of years, which means that long-term thinking is not an ability that they ever genuinely develop — because they do not have skin in the game.

Nassim Taleb wrote an entire book on this, aptly named Skin In The Game, and it is worth a read.

Decisions should only be made by those who will be negatively affected by those decisions. Otherwise, there is no feedback loop to teach decision-makers to make better decisions in the future.

There is much to unpack here; I’ll be writing on work, meaning, and responsibility in the near future.

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