Walter & Francis ep. 1: Autotelic Exotelic

First of all, welcome and thanks for checking out the first episode of Walter & Francis. We’ve been talking about recording a podcast together and finally got around to doing it. If you’re checking this out, well, I probably know you by name. We recorded last week but this should be the first one that appears in iTunes.

(Ok ok on to the show notes — I’ll try to keep the blogging about podcasting in the weekly newsletter.)

Here are some topics we go over in this week’s episode.

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — 

I finished reading Flow a couple weeks ago and thought it’d be good to pick up Csikszentmihalyi’s other book. Speaking of…

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (also) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi —

Great book. It’s from 1990 and things have probably gotten worse as far as distractions go.

Deliberate practice

If this is the 1000th time you’ve heard the phrase deliberate practice and you’re rolling your eyes, you’re exactly the audience we’re looking for. At least if you’re anything like me. I can’t get enough of this echo chamber!

We did it without mentioning K. Anders Ericsson or Malcolm Gladwell. (To be clear: I’m calling that out as an oversight, not an achievement.)

5 Whys and 5 Hows —

Judging by the results when I searched for 5 Hows, it’s not exactly an original idea. That’s fine.

Each week we’ll discuss topics from one book. I’m hoping one idea sticks out that I can write more about. If not, I’ll recap a few ideas. We got lucky this week and a topic came up: autotelic and exotelic activities.

Autotelic and Exotelic activities

A couple weeks back, I put a video and post together about mapping activities to a grid based on 1.) enjoyment and 2.) whether it goes toward a goal or not.

I created the grid by stealing ideas from a few places. Mapping ideas came from Designing Your Life and Stealing Fire. The two factors of the matrix likely came from reading Flow, which talks about autotelic and exotelic activities.

Autotelic activities are things we do for the experience of doing them. Exotelic activities are things we do that go toward a goal. If it’s completely exotelic, we likely wouldn’t do them if that goal was no longer relevant.

It’s a spectrum though, so things fall in between. Let’s look at weightlifting and running. Both are exotelic because they go toward health goals. Between the two, I’d say running rates higher on the autotelic scale. In my unscientific estimate, it’s more likely that someone would run to feel runner’s high than for someone to lift weights to feel the pump.

Let’s take a look at how you can move things along the spectrum.

Get so good they can’t ignore you

You can do autotelic activities and get good enough that you get paid to do it.

But you probably need to turn it into an exotelic activity first.

For example: playing basketball is one of my favorite things to do. It’s a guaranteed flow state a few times a month. If I want to do that professionally, I’ll need a time machine, different genetics, a different upbringing, luck…

…bad example. But let’s hang on to that time machine and rewind…

For example: reading is one of my favorite things to do. It can be entirely autotelic if I’m reading fiction and get engaged in the story. Nobody will pay me to do that. How can you get paid to read novels? You can understand the story deep enough to explain it simply to other people.

Jason Concepcion writes the excellent Ask The Maester column at The Ringer (and at Grantland prior to that). He understood the Song of Ice and Fire books deeply enough to explain things simply. He also had career capital as a writer to use that knowledge to be paid as a Game of Thrones expert.

When he read the first book, it was likely entirely an autotelic activity. When the sixth book in the series comes out, he’ll experience it both as an autotelic and exotelic activity.

Get good enough that you can ignore everything else

You can do exotelic activities and get good enough that you do them just to experience it. The transition reminds me something from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

In other words, my muscles are the type that need a long time to warm up. They’re slow to get started. But once they’re warmed up they can keep working well for a long time with no strain.

Throughout the book he relates running to writing. With experience, it’s easier to fight through the strain because you know what comes after. Your body will warm up and the run becomes enjoyable.

Playing an instrument isn’t very fun after the initial novelty wears off. It becomes almost entirely exotelic for a while when you can only fail and learn a little bit at a time. With practice, you get through that, become competent, and can experience flow through playing music.

Then you can toggle the experience between exotelic and autotelic. You switch between practice and performance. (Even if the performance is jamming out in your bedroom.)

Sum up

It’s helping me think about the different activities in my life. I’ll remind myself that reading self-development books shouldn’t be an entirely autotelic activity. Otherwise, that time would better be spent reading a novel with a better story that doesn’t have to be loosely tied to some productivity principle.

It’s important to make reading an exotelic activity by applying what I’m learning. One way to do that is to write my own notes:

  • Autotelic activities are things we do for the experience itself
  • Exotelic activities are things we do for a goal beyond the activity
  • It’s a spectrum, so it’s rare for something to be strictly autotelic or strictly exotelic

See you in a week, where we’re planning to talk about Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth.