Autotelic Personality: Traits and Characteristics

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you know if you have an autotelic personality? What does personality have to do with entering a flow state?

If you’re naturally inclined toward finding flow in everyday experiences, you have an autotelic personality. If you’re an autotetic, you likely habitually do these four things 1) observe the environment around you, 2) set goals, 3) concentrate deeply on what you’re doing, and 4) enjoy a wide variety of experiences.

Keep reading to learn what personality has to do with flow.

Autotelic Personality and Flow

In addition to culture and the activities at your disposal, your ability to experience flow may depend on the experiences you had growing up and the habits you’ve acquired. Some people seem able to take advantage of all kinds of opportunities, while others are unmoved. If you’re naturally inclined toward finding flow in everyday experiences, you have an autotelic personality. But even if you don’t have an autotelic personality, research suggests that most people are able to increase their ability to find flow with practice. 

The 4 Characteristics

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihali, people who have an autotelic personality tend to exhibit the following four characteristics:

1. Observe the environment and decide what opportunities you have to act.

2. Set goals. Setting goals can occur in one of two ways:

  • You develop a goal to overcome a specific challenge. For example, if you have strong customer service skills from working as a waiter, but you want to use those skills to make a difference in the world, you might develop the goal of becoming a nurse. This choice implies you’ll need additional training to achieve your goal.
  • You already have a certain skill set and develop a goal to use it or further hone it. For example, you quit your job at the office to start a bed and breakfast. You may not have done similar work, but you think you already have skills, such as business management, to successfully achieve it.

Once you’ve set the goal, monitor feedback as you develop new skills and adjust your behavior accordingly. In the nurse example, you might need to take additional chemistry classes. If you get a low grade on a quiz, this might indicate that you need to use a different technique to study the material. On the whole, you recognize that pursuing the goal is your choice and feel empowered to make it suitable for you; you don’t feel forced to work on it for external reasons, such as the wishes of your parents. 

Sometimes, people set goals that are too ambitious and become disillusioned when they don’t succeed. For example, if you try to become a millionaire before you’re 20 but don’t succeed, you might respond by drastically scaling back your ambitions. Or you may doubt your potential from the start and set the achievement bar low to avoid failing. To avoid these pitfalls, choose realistic opportunities that match the skills you have or will soon develop. 

3. Concentrate on activities. Your ability to enjoy an experience and successfully do something depends on your ability to concentrate and sustain your attention. People with autotelic personalities focus their attention so they’re immersed in an activity. For example, a basketball player is so focused that she can make a basket without being distracted by the crowd.

Concentrating on an activity involves becoming less self-conscious: Rather than worrying about what you’re doing, you neutrally look at the situation and adjust accordingly. Thinking so deeply about the activity you’re doing may naturally push your worries about yourself out of your mind, or you may naturally be unselfconscious, which allows you to immerse yourself in the activity. Either way, deep concentration helps you enjoy the activity and feel part of a system bigger than yourself.

4. Enjoy a variety of experiences. People with autotelic personalities are able to enjoy a variety of activities, even when life is objectively harsh. This includes diligently seeking enjoyment instead of thinking things will just work out.

Autotelic Personality: Traits and Characteristics

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Flow summary :

  • Why people feel the happiest when they're in the "flow state"
  • What activities and personality traits promote flow
  • Why you may have a paradoxical relationship with work and leisure

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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