To achieve the highest performance you are capable of requires being in a flow state. Research shows there are numerous triggers to accessing flow. One internal cause leading to this altered state of consciousness is pushing yourself just beyond the edge of what you are currently capable of in pursuit of a goal. Studies show just 4% is the sweet spot.
This is known as the challenge/skill ratio. The godfather of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to this zone as the flow channel. It is the place where an activity or task challenges your current skill level but is attainable if you push hard enough. If the goal is not difficult enough, it will not produce the necessary level of focus to enter a flow state. However, if the target it too far outside your capacity, anxiety, frustration, and discouragement will result in shutting down your performance.
The Autotelic Personality
In his research, Csikszentmihalyi identified a personality type he referred to as the autotelic personality. This term is descendent from the Greek: auto – self; and telos – goal. The primary characteristics of autotelic personality types are individuals who pursue activities that are intrinsically rewarding and exhibit a mastery orientation. In other words, they do not chase external rewards, such as money and status. Rather, they engage in pursuits that are pleasurable in and of themselves and find fulfillment in mastering a skill.
Since the time of Csikszentmihalyi’s research, clinicians of various types have sought to identify if this is the result of nature or nurture. Historically, studies leaned stronger to a genetic cause of personality traits. However, current findings have shown greater evidence of developmental and environmental contributors, particularly with the study of epigenetics, which is the understanding of how gene expression is influenced by our surroundings.
Fixed-Mindset versus Growth-Mindset
Research has shown autotelic personality types grew up in an environment where parents, teachers, or coaches provided a combination of support and challenge. Furthermore, these experiences contributed to the development of either a fixed-mindset or a growth-mindset. A person with a fixed-mindset believes talent and ability is genetic – you have it or you don’t. The result is a fixed-mindset individual will give up earlier and not put in the repetition required to develop the necessary skills to succeed.
Those with an autotelic personality believe in a growth-mindset, which allows them to persevere until they acquire the skill level needed to become successful. Moreover, the pursuit of mastery is also intrinsically rewarding to them. In addition, they seek out experiences that will challenge their present level of ability. As mentioned earlier, the challenge/skill ratio is key to entering a flow state.
The Flow State
Not only does being in a flow state allow you to hit your maximum potential, but it is also one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have as a human being. Neurochemically, your brain releases a powerful cocktail leading to both pleasure and peak performance: nitric oxide resulting in a deep level of calm; dopamine and norepinephrine generating hyper focus and pattern recognition; endorphins that reduce pain; anandamide causing increased lateralized thinking (linking ideas and creating insight and epiphanies); and serotonin producing increased feelings of bonding and connectedness.
These are the same neurochemicals released if you use cocaine, opiates, cannabis, and MDMA, but you are getting them all at once. Understanding what happens neurologically makes it easy to see why individuals are driven to chase such experiences. In addition to making pursuing mastery pleasurable, being in a flow state expedites learning, which results in a faster path to developing expertise.
Obstacles to Flow
Some of the obstacles to developing an autotelic personality are lack of emotional development, which results in poor emotional regulation capacity, trauma of various types, and fear and shame, which creates avoidant behavior and negative interpretations of challenges. Identifying and working with a good psychotherapist or coach is essential for resolving these impediments to achieving your highest potential and developing a more autotelic personality type.
Attempting to pursue your dreams while battling these issues is like paddling up stream in a raging river. Take the time to resolve these blocks to your peak performance. This will permit you to develop a growth-mindset, tap into inner resources you have been cut off from, and access flow more frequently. Not only will flow elevate your performance to its peak, research shows the individuals who are happiest and most fulfilled are those that experience the most flow states. Learn how to get your biology working for you instead of against you.
Steps to Developing An Autotelic Personality
Furthermore, individuals with an autotelic personality have lower rates of addictive behaviors and a higher percentage of life satisfaction. In addition to working through any unresolved past issues, here is a simple formula to begin developing a more autotelic personality:
- Find an activity you enjoy doing.
- Set clear intentions and develop goals for increasing your skills.
- Immerse yourself fully in the activity; eliminate all distractions.
- Develop methods for receiving immediate feedback on specific aspects of your performance and continue to make adjustments.
Neuroplasticity and Epigenetics
The most encouraging discovery in the last couple of decades is neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change itself throughout one’s lifetime, and epigenetics – our genes are not set in stone but are expressed in various ways as a result of environmental interaction. As a result, we all have the capacity to develop skills we did not possess prior and make positive changes to our core personality structure. Pursuing these steps is the key to unlocking our peak performance.
To experience your peak performance, as well as more joy and fulfillment in your life, obtain the right coach or mentor and follow the steps outlined above with grit and consistency. You will then become an autotelic individual. Good luck!
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.