Self-Descriptor

I learned a new word this week: autotelia, which is the state of being autotelic. It’s a 20th Century construction merging the Greek roots autos (self) and telos (goal). No, that’s not a fancy soccer/football term for kicking the ball into the net your own team is defending, but is rather a term used by T.S. Eliot to describe texts which are self-contained and independent of the author, and later adopted and adapted as a clinical descriptor by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Per Wikipedia, Csikszentmihalyi describes people who are internally driven, and who as such may exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity, as autotelic. This is different from being externally driven, in which case things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force. Csikszentmihalyi writes:

“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.”

This term and definition resonated with me as a good descriptor of how I function much of the time. Take this website as a good example, with thousands of posts written over the years, many of them later destroyed, with few of them created for any work purposes or financial benefits. I just like to write (among other pursuits), I regularly enter flow-state, I am happy when that’s the case, and many (most?) of my topics are not “useful” in any meaningful way, but are rather products of me becoming interested in or curious about something and wanting to process and/or preserve it. There have been loads of other examples like that over the decades, back to when I was a fairly young child, creating things (e.g. stories, games, songs, pictures, websites) for my own amusement, even if they look like absurd time-wasters to parents, friends, teachers, and work colleagues. I am a big fan of novels, stories, artworks and films that are fundamentally based in expert-level world-building, and I think that’s at least partially because I so enjoy building little worlds myself, even if I’m the only one looking at or inhabiting them.

I think another reason that autotelia resonates with me, at least in the ways that Csikszentmihalyi decribes it, is because it’s presented as an acceptable personal trait, and not something to be apologized for, or explained away, or to be given up or outgrown to free up time and energy “better” spent pursuing external rewards. I note that I do not mind external rewards when they are offered to me. I appreciate feedback on my little creations, and if someone wants to pay me for them, that’s fine too! But I seldom, if ever, make decisions expressly for those reasons when it comes to my writing and reading and researching and other creative activities. I just do them because that’s the way I am wired, finding them satisfying in their own rights as end products, even if I never share them, or even if I share them, then later remove them from the public domain. I’ve written online for over a quarter-century now, so I do have some strong sense of and data about what types of things are going to generate the most response from and interaction with my readers, but I very, very rarely expressly plan to write and post such things just to pursue such responses, excluding pieces written for work purposes or other publications, then reproduced here. (For the record: this type of personally philosophical post is not from one of my more audience-pleasing categories of writing).

I hope that being drawn to the concept of autotelia as a self-descriptor does not make me sound self-aggrandizing. I know that if I read an article by someone explaining how they were self-actualized (or worse, transcendent) per Abraham Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, my gut emotional reaction would be to want to chide them for being presumptuous and pretentious. Such an article would also imply to me that the author did not actually understand self-actualization (nor transcendence), the achievement of which would, by definition, preclude such public grandstanding about their ascension to a state of being that most of us never achieve. I feel the same way about people who unilaterally declare themselves to be successes in the material and public worlds without external evidence to the same, especially when they then want to teach you to follow in their footsteps, for a modest fee, of course.

In both of those examples, the claimed “higher plane” is something that can only be achieved through a lot of work and reflection, whereas I read autotelia to be something that just is. I have green eyes, most other people do not. I am tall and thin, many other people are not. I was born in South Carolina, they vast majority of people were not. And I am autotelic, which some other people are not, though I have no idea as to what that percentage may be. It’s just the way I’m built, and not how I built myself. I don’t perceive that as a value judgment, nor as a self-congratulatory back-pat, nor as a humble brag. In fact, it’s really easy to make an argument that being autotelic is a bad thing, at least as far as my writing goes, with me having given away product of value for decades instead of having parsed it out for paying customers or public acclaim. But it’s an accurate assessment of my personal quirks, and I like having a single word to describe something about myself that has more typically required paragraphs or pages to explain. Makes life simpler that way, yeah?

In closing, I need to acknowledge where I learned the word: it’s the name of a musical group, and I read a review of their new album on an excellent website I frequent. Which then led to a long online research effort to get a better grip on the topic, eventually resulting in this article, which pleases me, and may also please others, but that’s just gravy if it does. Did I waste precious time in this little endeavor? Or was my exploration valuable simply because I found purpose and satisfaction in the acts of reading and thinking and writing? I know my own answers to those questions, though I leave it as an exercise for the reader as to whether I’m right or not about them, or anything else stated herein.

Click the image to hear Autotelia (The Band).

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