Autotelic-Exotelic Survival Guide 2020

“I have a dream.” Martin Luther King.
“By any means necessary.” Malcolm X.

Are you autotelic or exotelic? According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book FLOW, autotelic people get fulfilment from immersing themselves in the experience of moving towards a goal and exotelic people get their satisfaction from reaching that goal at any cost.

But I’m not a black activist so I’ll ‘stay in my lane’ and talk about what I know.

Autotelic artists, male and female, will tell you a work of art is never finished, it’s merely abandoned. Not in a bad way but in the spirit of, “This is what I learned this time and this is how I’m going to apply it next time”. Many movie actors never watch their movies. If they do, they say they just see mistakes. They can’t wait to move on and restore their self-confidence, immersing themselves in a new project while their on screen performance, ironically, wows the public. And you’d be surprised how many top bands, and solo singers, won’t listen to their own albums for the same reason. It’s all about the journey.

Exotelic boxers won’t bend your ear about joyful immersion in early morning training though, they’re looking past it to that single ‘killer blow’ in a month’s time. And the face of an exotelic event organiser won’t light up describing three months immersed in niggly backstage logistics, but you may see some illumination as she shows you the client feedback about the final performance. It’s all about the goal.

But look, no one likes being put into a box. So let’s agree there’s a mix of autotelic and exotelic going on in all of us. We just lean in one particular direction.

Stories are another matter. We don’t live surrounded by purely autotelic or exotelic books and movies. In The Lord of The Rings, Frodo is being a full-on exotelic star with his ‘Destroy the Ring of Power’ goal, while Gimli and Legolas are keeping an autotelic competitive tally of how many Orcs they’re slaying on the way. Ring, what ring?

If I may be so bold, I’m going to suggest that being naturally autotelic, and getting into a state of flow easily because you’re half way there already, is a better way to survive this 2020 pandemic. I’d be more reluctant to say this if we hadn’t seen an enthusiastic interest in mindfulness courses and mindfulness practice in the last ten years. This has shown us that, even if you’re addicted to reaching your exotelic goals at any cost there is now a way, with a bit of self-discipline, to join the autotelic people travelling in style.

Let’s look under the bonnet. Exotelic, from the Latin extra, meaning outside, refering to getting gratification from outside things. So exotelic people like deadlines, and if you have a ‘hero’ thing going on too, you like difficult deadlines. You’ll have the Mission Impossible theme tune playing on the car sound system while screeching down a side street on the school run. Or maybe it’s playing in your head as you hand over the lunch box and wave goodbye to your child at one minute to nine.

Autotelic, from two Greek words, auto, meaning self, and telos meaning goal, means enjoying a self-contained activities, ones that are done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply to immerse yourself in the experience. Your soundtrack might be Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or Holst’s ‘The Planets’. Light or dark, maximum feeling is required, preferably turned up to eleven.

Watch any roller-skater in the park and, I can tell you from experience, it’s not about getting from A to B. It’s about going round and round in circles listening to Funkadelic, enjoying every nuance and variation.

The groove, or flow, can be found at the crossroads of discipline and surrender. I’ve been saying this to groups and individuals for years now but I’ve only just understood why some people breathe a sigh of relief and some people almost flinch.

To an autotelic person, a skilled potter for example, the instruction to surrender makes perfect sense because it happens within the process of making a beautiful vase. At a certain point, like taking the stabilisers of a bike, you have to just trust you’ve learned enough to let your natural ‘intelligence’ take over. Your arms and legs are directed by the brain of course, but not entirely. When you start to wobble you don’t think, “I’ll put this hand over here, and move this leg like that while flooding my system with adrenaline to help me swerve and avoid crashing into this approaching tree”. It’s the same throwing a pot, you’ve done the discipline of getting the wheel spinning at the right speed and throwing the clay onto it dead centre. Now to get your thumb in and start shaping it, intuitively.

On the other hand, to an exotelic potter, focussed only on the goal of making ten pots by the end of the day, surrender could only mean one thing. Give up the deadline. Surrender and fail.

Even the softer words “give in to it” sound weak. “Get into it” sounds better to an exotelic mind. I said I’d stay in my lane didn’t I? So, let’s get out of the potter’s studio and back into the music world.

Are there any take aways? What do autotelic musicians and artists do naturally that exotelic people can practice and benefit from themselves?

1) Choose a favourite song and print out the lyrics – they’re easy enough to find if you search online. A screen won’t do, you need the paper because as you sing along to it as if you’re live on stage you’ll be making dramatic gestures that could break any modern device. Do the whole song, start to finish. Draw the curtains if necessary but commit to 3 minutes of full-on performance.

2) This is a theatre warm-up exercise but I’ve used it to activate business team brainstorming sessions. Walk around your room renaming everything. Speed is of the essence here, don’t think too much. For instance, point at a chair and say “envelope”, point at a table and say “light bulb”, points at the tea pot and say “hump-back bridge”. You get the picture. Do this for five minutes or for as long as it takes to realise nothing really has a name at all. They are just sounds we attribute to certain objects that, like speaking another language, could have a different sound. ‘Ironing board’ is descriptive, yes, but kettle, shoe and jar aren’t, they could easily be interchangeable. Have fun, the world will look different afterwards and you’ll be more connected to it. It will be ‘yours’.

3) Adopt the storytelling archetype of ‘Huntress’. This is really good if you find yourself on stage early and you want to feel ‘at home’ as soon as possible. Look at the podium and say, “That’s mine”. Look further to the rows of chairs and say, “All those chairs are mine”. Look up, “That balcony is mine, and all these people getting things ready, they all work for me. Those flowers are mine.” It really is immense fun, and if your inner critic gets going with it’s ‘imposter syndrome’ internal chatter, telling you you’re being egotistical, just reply, “You’re mine too, and I command you to shut up”.

4) Dance. We don’t invite someone to dance so we have some company rushing from one end of the room to another. If you imagine a waltz it’s a more circular movement, swooshing around the ballroom, with no ending at all. I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night “and still have asked for more”. Put a record on and imagine you’re dancing with life itself, I can assure you it’s waiting for you to ask and it LOVES your taste in music.

5) Here are a few standard ‘self help’ suggestions to assist you to think more creatively. Take a new route to the shops, or to work. Clean your teeth and open doors with the other hand. Get a notebook and start writing, anything, just don’t stop for ten minutes. The next day write for fifteen minutes, twenty the following day. Don’t judge it, don’t edit it, you don’t even have to read it. Enjoy the act of seeing and feeling yourself write. Get yourself a pen you like and a notebook you love.

6) Breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for seven, and breathe out for a count of eight. Do this several times. It will get you out of fight or flight mode and calm down your nervous system, allowing more space for creative problem-solving rather than panic quick fixes. Yes, no therapy required, it’s that easy.

7) Nap, siesta. Call it power-napping if you need to justify sleeping for an hour during the day. If I’m working on a song or a presentation I set up the computer programme, or document template, beforehand knowing the elements I want to include. Then I get my head down. I’m lucky, I can fall asleep at will within 5 minutes. If you find this a challenge there is an App called ‘Calm’ with stories to lull you to sleep quickly. When I wake I find my mind has put together all those jigsaw pieces I assembled earlier. I know exactly what to do and I have the energy and creative enthusiasm to do it.

“I have a dream.” Martin Luther King. When I started this blog I had a feeling I’d somehow return to this quote but I had no idea how I’d get here. I appear to have reached my goal via the scenic route. Yes, I could have taken the motorway, but where’s the fun in that?


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