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Meet the autotelic

Meet the autotelic

Pay, status and prestige are juicy motivators. But some people buck the trend and are motivated by the work itself. Who are these people?

Over 2000 years ago, Chinese philosopher Confucius said,

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” 

This quote is typically reserved for fortune cookies and motivational desk calendars, and it has always been easier said than done. Confucius, afterall, was a philosopher, and philosophers, along with videogame designers, skydiving instructors and travel show hosts are easily forgiven for loving their jobs. But what about the rest of us, getting by in the hustle and bustle of the workaday world? Does the wisdom of Confucius hold up in the corporate and business worlds? In this article we will see not only what it means to be motivated by your work itself, but also how to go about creating the conditions for it.

When work becomes its own reward


Pay, status and prestige are big, juicy motivators. They get us out of bed in the morning, sometimes we’ll even commute hours each day  give up weekends for them. Yet, there are people who are motivated by something entirely different - they are motivated by the nature of their work, itself. They see pay, status and prestige as future goals - fairly uninteresting to them, really - because they would rather derive satisfaction from their work right now, in the moment, doing what they do best. Whether it be gardening, writing, teaching or even serving coffee at a local diner, certain activities are immensely rewarding for certain people. Meet the autotelic.

Autotelism takes its name from two Greek words - auto (self) and telos (goal), referring to an activity that is a goal in itself. Cash prizes are not a motivator here. The autotelic writer writes to write, just like the autotelic teacher teaches to teach. Autotelism is the belief that satisfying work is a justification in and of itself.

“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,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, renowned Hungarian-American psychologist. “They are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life composed of dull and meaningless routines.” Autotelism is closely associated with the experience of flow, which describes an immersive experience where hours can fly by unnoticed.

“The autotelic is autonomous and independent because they are cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards”, says Csikszentmihalyi. “At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.”

The autotelic personality


A common misconception is that autotelic personalities are perceived as outliers - they are viewed as introverted, scruffy misfits who live beneath the ground - but as we will see, this is inaccurate. Autotelics are often found right up there at the top - among the highest-earning and most influential positions - and they lead happy, fulfilling lives.

Renowned autotelics include Mac evangelist Steve Jobs, Indian spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi and British quantum physicist Stephen Hawking. If computers, nonviolence and black holes aren’t your thing - and chances are they aren’t - what is your thing? Thinking about this will help you to find immersive, satisfying and rewarding work.

Autotelics are often found serving a purpose beyond themselves: teachers, doctors, journalists, politicians, scientists. They may also be volunteers, such as soccer coaches, youth workers or volunteer chefs. Sometimes they may be a combination of paid and unpaid, like writers, musicians, filmmakers and painters.

Creating autotelic experiences

A person becomes autotelic by achieving flow experiences regularly in their work. ‘Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses’, he says. It is easy to enter flow in games such as chess, tennis or poker, because they have rules that make it possible to act without questioning what should be done, or how. ‘For the duration of the game the player lives in a self-contained universe where everything is black and white.’ The same clarity of goals is present if you perform a religious ritual, play a musical piece, weave a rug, write a computer program, climb a mountain, or perform surgery.


Flow occurs more often at work than in a leisurely setting. It tends to have clear rules and performance measures. Obviously, it helps to be doing a job you love and are good at. Here are some guidelines for finding flow at work, based on Csikszentmihalyi’s findings:

  • Make the task simple. Cut out those speed bumps that disrupt you from achieving a coordinated flow of actions. Simplify the actions. Learn them inside out. Make it a game; you are seeking continual improvement. 
  • Make the task challenging. You cannot experience the happiness associated with flow unless you are being put to the challenge. If it is too easy, you will become bored with the task. Too hard, and you will get anxious. Learn to manipulate the characteristics of your task. 
  • Get immediate feedback. This is your typical ‘reward-punishment’ scenario. Continual positive reinforcement with a little uncertainly and variability thrown into the mix will make the task challenging and addictive. 

Autotelic individuals experience flow regularly, and are more creative and innovative. “Without flow, there is no creativity”, says Csikszentmihalyi, and in today’s innovation-centric world, creativity is a requirement, not a frill.

Do you remember a time at work that you were totally immersed in your work? To find jobs that match these experiences, you can search the WorkLifeGroup jobs database by getting yourself a passport.

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EARLY CAREER: Gen Y, Graduates and Early Careerists

Guy has worked as a business journalist, urban planner, slow food chef, denim salesperson and digital media manager, and shares original insights on diverse Gen Y career experiences.

Guy holds a B. Urban Planning & Development (Hons), has worked in 5 different industries and knows what its like to face the challenge of graduate transition. New career choices, personal branding and balancing passions with money are all part of the mix.

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