Telic work terrorizes us all

Yanno that old notion that, when you select a car to buy, you start seeing it everywhere? That’s called a frequency illusion or, if we’re getting official (and we are, we’re on the internet here, after all), it’s the “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. “

Historians may not love the name. If most reports are accurate, the name for this concept came from a comment board run by the St. Paul Pioneer Press. That’s not the hard thing to love. (I hear St. Paul is lovely.) The hard thing to love is the name “Baader-Meinhof,” which was a militant West German terrorist group, active in the 1970s. On that discussion board in the ‘90s, apparently, people were lamenting the fact that they lacked a name for this phenomenon of suddenly seeing something everywhere once you’re made aware of it. One commenter suggested he’d recently learned about that group by name (maybe due to the terrorist group, or maybe due to the curious number of songs carrying the same name). He suggested they call it Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, and the name spread.

Want to experience the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon yourself? Learn about the word “telic,” and go observe the working world for awhile.

Telic means “done to a definite end.” When a task is telic, it feels like a chore. The point is to finish it, to reach the end. When someone approaches that task with a telic mindset, they are ending-oriented.

The opposite of telic is “paratelic,” or intrinsic. This means you are moment-oriented. You seek to enjoy the experience in the here and the now. When someone approaches a task with a paratelic mindset, the process of doing that task is its own reward.

People who create games for a living constantly fear their work becoming telic, and they build in certain mechanics to ensure they don’t. Just think of what happens when you keep dying in a level of Super Mario. The first part of that particular level was once enjoyable, once intrinsically motivating to play. But then, as you have to repeat that part just to reach the part where you keep dying, it becomes telic. You’re like, “Yeah, yeah, I get it: I jump here, go there, beat this bad guy, and now I can finally enjoy myself again.”

And so what do they do? They build in a little halfway checkmark you can reach so that if you die in the second half of a level, you can start from the halfway mark, instead of the beginning — which would turn Super Mario into quite a chore.

Crucially, when something is telic, versus paratelic, it changes the degree to which we pay attention. Something intrinsically motivating to us is something we seek out more, seek to improve, and bring our full selves to doing. When something is a chore, we’d rather just blink our eyes and be done. And so, we wonder: Can we outsource it? Can we push it off? Can we find automation for it? Can we cut corners? Tell me, friend, “what works,” so I don’t need to think critically about this chore and can move on to things that are more intrinsically enjoyable for me.

Sound familiar?

Just think: Is the process of sweeping floor the reason why you sweep the floor, or the outcome? Nobody is going home today and saying to their partner or roommate, “Let’s wait 30 more minutes before dinner, okay? I’m really just loving my sweeping form right now. I’m feeling such flow sweeping this floor!” That’s because it’s a telic activity. The point is to reach the end. And so we push it off, waiting until things are dire before panic-acting. We outsource it. We cut corners. But if we loved the process of sweeping floors, we’d have cleaner floors.

Conversely, when you do other things like, say, eat ice cream, you enjoy the process. Nobody is turning to a friend and saying, “Hey, uh … can you finish this ice cream? Yeah, I really just want a dirty bowl.” No! We enjoy the process of eating ice cream, and as a result, we seek it out more. We seek out ways to improve it. We eat ice cream in extra large cups, and extra large cones, with extra large amounts of toppings. (Don’t even get me started on kiddie sizes. Kiddie sizes are for quitters.)

If we can find ways to make our work feel intrinsically motivating, where the process IS the point, not only do we feel enjoyment in our work more often, but we get better results. By focusing on the means, not the ends, the ends are achieved far better.

Now that you’ve heard about this notion, you’ll start seeing telic behavior everywhere. It plagues the workplace. In fact, you might say, it’s our Baader-Meinhof. I don’t mean the phenomenon (though that too). I mean the group. Because making work telic terrorizes us all.

Avoid telic work. Make the work intrinsic. Become moment-oriented, not ending-oriented. Your means and your ends will both be better served for it.

Posted on August 23, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.