Nearly all of the best things that have happened to me in the last year have been a result of actively seeking and asking for those things. I have slowly been developing the skill of agency.

By ‘agency’ I mean the ability to get what you want across different contexts – the general skill of coming up with ambitious goals [1] and actually achieving them, whatever they are. In my experience, I’ve found this is learnable.

Neel Nanda explains the concept of agency really well in this blog post, so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I’ll focus on how to learn it.

It’s worth acknowledging that agency is often socially discouraged in different minority groups. Speaking from my own experience, I used to feel shameful around being agentic – I associated it with being entitled or ‘too much’ or bossy – which seems to be a phenomenon that many women experience. [2] I sometimes still have a voice in my head saying, “who do you think you are???” But, fortunately, I’m paying less and less attention to it. 

In no particular order, here are seven ways I’ve found to become unstoppably agentic:

 

1. Figure out what you need, figure out who can help you get it, ask them for it 

 

There will (nearly) always be people who can help you achieve your goals better. Find them and ask them to help you. They might say yes!

If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

When I was self-studying for my A-Levels (UK high school exams), I reached out to an EA who I’d never met, asking to chat about why I was finding self-studying so hard. We ended up having a call, which I found extremely helpful. At the time, I had a huge ugh-field around my Anki flashcards, which he completely helped me clear up. I then started sending him my daily plan (after checking this was ok), which turned out to be a really valuable accountability system. He gave support and encouragement countless times over the few months. These daily check-ins were the best thing[3] that could have happened to my A-Levels, and led me to feel way more supported throughout my time self-studying.

Having a low bar for asking for help is a learnable mindset. Now, whenever I encounter something difficult or aversive, my first thought is, “who would be the best person to have on my side here?” Then I begin to reach out to people who could help. 

 

Things that make this hard in practice:

  1. It’s hard to actually know what you want or need;
  2. It’s hard to be creative about solutions and imagine how another person would help solve it;
  3. It can be intimidating to ask the person;
  4. You are making yourself vulnerable to rejection, which can feel crushing and bad.
     

Some tentative solutions:

  1. Questions that help me figure out what I need: If this was easy, what would it look like? What is the bottleneck here and what can I do to solve it? What would it look like if I could do this with 10% of the time/ effort? What’s weighing on my mind? Whose advice would help me solve this problem? See this list of questions for more.
  2. One suggestion is that you can ask people if they know anyone who can help you. I recently asked an EA for help with this, and they generated nearly ten people who I could reach out to. (Also see point number 7 about considering a wide option space to be creative about solutions.)
  3. People can be scary! One thing to bear in mind though, is that EAs really love agency. So if the person you are asking for help is an EA, they’re likely to be impressed that you were so proactive. But, yup, it’s scary to put yourself out there. I really think it’s worth doing anyway. Ultimately, there becomes a point where you have to choose to not let intimidation hold you back.
    1. If you decide to experiment with this strategy, you could just be explicit about that. For example, caveating a request with, "Hey, I don't normally ask for this kind of thing, but I'm experimenting with asking for more favours and being more accepting of rejections. So it's totally fine if your answer to what I'm about to ask is a straightforward no!"
  4. Thrive on rejections. See below!

 

2. My concrete strategy to thrive on rejections
 

If you are going to put yourself out there, you are going to get rejected. The solution is not to put yourself out there less, but to learn to get a kick out of rejections. 

Every time I get rejected, I write it in a Google doc. I am playing a game with myself, and the goal is to maximise my rejections. This technique has single-handedly transformed my approach to rejection.

 

Reasons why this is useful:

  1. Rejections are evidence that I am properly exploring the option space. If I’m not being rejected from anything, then I’m not properly exploring the boundaries of my option space. I want to know the limits of my current capabilities. If I was accepted to everything I applied for, then I clearly wouldn’t have been exploring enough. I would have been staying too much within my comfort zone, and in expectation, missing out on valuable opportunities. There’s a sense in which this is more of a ‘failure’ than getting rejected, in my opinion.
  2. If I apply to more stuff, I’ll likely get more acceptances as well as rejections.
  3. Feeling fine about being rejected lowers the expected (psychological) cost of applying or asking for things.
    1. Being comfortable with rejection removes a fear that would normally prevent me from proactively seeking opportunities and making myself vulnerable to rejection. As a result, I want to internalise that it is virtuous to be rejected often, and decouple rejection and shame. It is empowering that external circumstances have less and less control over me.
  4. It is fun. Lately, rejections have felt almost thrilling. This is because it feeds into the narrative that I am becoming the person I want to be. When I imagine the most unstoppable/confident/agentic version of myself, it’s not that I am getting accepted to everything. Instead, I am pushing myself and exploring my limits, and – most importantly – I have compassion for myself when I don’t achieve my goals. I want to use my rejections to update my model of the world appropriately, but not take emotional damage or conclude I am deficient. Each time I am rejected, I use it as an opportunity to self-signal that I am becoming this unstoppable version of myself. This is a superpower.
  5. As a bonus, it will likely strengthen your resilience to romantic rejections.

 

How do I get the ‘I love rejection’ superpower?

  1. Find a friend or stranger who also wants to become unstoppable in this domain[4]
  2. Create a shared Google doc
  3. Commit to writing all of your rejections in it for a fixed period of time
  4. Decide a prize for the winner and agree to constraints (e.g. what counts as a rejection?)
  5. Whoever has the most rejections by the end of this time period wins.

 

I was rejected from nearly every US college that I applied for this year, and it sucked. But I also had a liberating feeling of ‘this is making me stronger and more resilient; I am becoming more immune to bad feelings from rejection! That’s cool! Go me!’ 

 

3. Increase your surface area for serendipity

 

This basically means increasing your exposure to new people and opportunities: deliberately setting yourself up for spontaneous stuff to happen. It’s really hard to predict when life-changing moments will occur – one conversation can drastically improve the trajectory of your life. However, you can increase the rate at which these types of conversations happen by increasing your surface area for serendipity.

This Twitter video is the best explanation of this idea, and I encourage you to watch it. I’ll summarise the key ideas below though.

  • You can increase your surface area for serendipity by creating ‘serendipity vehicles'. A serendipity vehicle is a thing that is out there in the world that allows you to manufacture serendipitous events.
  • It’s often hard to see the explicit benefits beforehand – putting yourself out there doesn’t have explicit CV points.

 

To me, creating serendipity vehicles looks like:

1. Having a low bar for sharing what you’re doing online. For example, if you are confused about an idea, consider writing a blog post about it. 

2. Having a low bar for reaching out to people (e.g. by actively using Twitter and sending cold emails – see below!). For example, if you read a blog post that resonated, consider reaching out to the author and letting them know. 
 

4. Get on Twitter and post stuff and interact with people. Also get in the habit of sending cold emails.

 

Sending this Twitter DM accelerated the trajectory of my life by one to three years. And prevented me from applying to a medical degree (thank God).

Alexey Guzey makes the case for Twitter in this blog post, which is well worth a read. He discusses how to get the most out of Twitter here

“Cold emails and Twitter are a godsend for people who have high potential, but lack the opportunity to realise it. A few emails or tweets to a person you don’t know can literally change your life (they changed mine for sure!)

If you can demonstrate that you have high potential and/or can be useful to somebody, you should just email/tweet them and let them know about it. If you’re thinking “well, I’m not impressive enough” you’re likely wrong.” – Alexey Guzey.

 

5. Seek forgiveness rather than permission
 

It’s easy to have an implicit assumption that you need permission to do anything that feels unfamiliar (e.g. to register a business, apply for a grant, start a project, move across the country). Turns out, you often just don’t.

Instead, just do things. If institutions have a problem with it, then you can seek forgiveness further down the line. If you’re not doing harm, you probably don’t need to assume that you must seek permission, in the absence of clear evidence that you do.

I’ve noticed that the people I know who I’d describe as the most ‘agentic’ are least likely to worry about seeking permission from others before just doing cool stuff.

Note – I don’t endorse doing this on an interpersonal level! It’s super important to respect others’ boundaries. I am mostly talking about not asking school or university or other bureaucratic institutions for permission here.
 

6. To get smart, ask dumb questions

 

Being unafraid to look stupid is a truly formidable quality.

“Most people are not willing to do this -- looking stupid takes courage, and sometimes it’s easier to just let things slide. It is striking how many situations I am in where I start asking basic questions, feel guilty for slowing the group down, and it turns out that nobody understood what was going on to begin with (often people message me privately saying that they’re relieved I asked), but I was the only one who actually spoke up and asked about it. 

This is a habit. It’s easy to pick up. And it makes you smarter.” – How to understand things

The above blog post was pivotal for the way I now see intelligence. I also love this podcast episode discussing the blog post.
 

7. Consider a wider option space – what is the upper bound scenario?
 

Akash Wasil presents this idea brilliantly here – the example he uses is really illustrative, and I recommend reading it.

To summarise:

  1. Most people only consider the opportunities in front of them, rather than considering the entire action space of possibilities.
  2. People generally dismiss ideas prematurely and fail to seriously consider what it would look like to do something that deviates from the natural, intuitive, default pathways.
  3. The two traits “considering wide action spaces” and “taking weird ideas seriously” are rare and valuable.

For example, when I was sixteen, my school told us that we had some time off school to do ‘work experience.’ I had just learned about EA and was obsessed. I remember thinking “what is the craziest and most ambitious EA related work experience that I could do?” After reaching out to tens of strangers on the internet, I ended up at the Future of Humanity Institute – an extremely good outcome. 

I find it helpful to ask myself "what is the upper bound scenario here?" to generate ambitious goals. 
 

Further reading: some of my favourite related blog posts 

 

Note that I have included all blog posts mentioned above in this list. They are roughly ordered in how excited I feel about recommending each post at the time of writing.

  1. How to make friends over the internet – Alexey Guzey
  2. Learn in public – Swyx
  3. Networking for nerds – Ben Reinhardt
  4. It is your responsibility to follow up – Alexey Guzey
  5. Show your work – Austin Kleon
  6. Why you should start a blog right now – Alexey Guzey
  7. Half assing it with everything you’ve got – Nate Soares
  8. What should you do with your life? Directions and advice – Alexey Guzey
  9. What’s stopping you? – Neel Nanda
  10. How to understand things – Nabeel Qureshi
  11. How to use your wife/husband/gf/bf correctly – Alexey Guzey
  12. Getting over the fear of personal blogging – Ali Abdaal
  13. Examples of barbell strategies – Dwarkesh Patel
  14. An easy win for hard decisions – Alex Lawsen
  15. Three reflections from 101 EA Global Conversations – Akash Wasil
  16. On reflection – Neel Nanda
  17. Why and how you should learn to code – Ali Abdaal 
     

I have clearly been reading a lot of Alexey’s blog recently! I find it valuable and binge-worthy – would recommend.

 

You can be intentional about the content you consume

I listened to hundreds of hours of Ali and Taimur Abdaal’s podcast over lockdown, and I felt like it rapidly accelerated the rate at which I became – ruthlessly – proactive. I now consider them to be unusually agentic, and realise that after a while I began to internalise parts of their worldview (e.g. ask people for stuff; put yourself out there on the internet; don’t ask for permission).

The content you consume can heavily shape your thought patterns – it’s worth being intentional about this (e.g. by stepping past your ‘comfort zone’ content). I actually think that tech-bro entrepreneurs are great for the purpose of building agency.

 

Thank you to Fin Moorhouse and Bella Forristal for helpful feedback on this post!

 

  1. ^

    When I use the word ‘goals’ throughout this post, I mean it in a very broad sense. Examples of goals: get an A* in my maths exam; figure out why I keep waking up at 4am and take actions to stop myself waking up; have a better relationship with my sibling; make more friends; start a blog; write a forum post; build the skill of being able to focus for long periods of time; feel less anxious throughout the day; become more knowledgeable about geopolitics so I can understand what’s going on in Ukraine, etc.

  2. ^

     This article doesn’t seem super epistemically rigorous, but gets at the idea I’m trying to convey.

  3. ^

     Well, obviously not the actual best thing in the whole of the option space, but you know what I mean.

  4. ^

     I tentatively suggest the ‘Bountied Rationality’ Facebook group as a starting point for finding a stranger.

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This all seems like good advice. Some reflections as someone who's been down the self-improvement road awhile.

1) Major improvements might have massive returns, but only work sometimes, and you may backslide. So when you're setting expectations on how much to improve, it may initially look like 300% improvements are easily available but, sort of like the stock market, when you amortize them over years you get more like a "reasonable" looking 10% growth rate per year. (See Strategies for Personal Growth)

I feel in some ways like I backslid from when I wrote Sunset at Noon.

2) On the other hand, I've also seen some injection of agency getting applied lately within the Lightcone team. Some team members really have the skill of "figure out what you need, figure out who can help you, ask for it", and it's really powerful. 

Firstly, Sunset at Noon is one of my most-liked LW posts, & maybe my favorite, so thanks for writing it :)

I'm curious about your first point. What do you mean by "backslide"? That the effort you put into new skills is not worth the skill itself? And in which ways do you feel like you backslid from when you wrote Sunset, if that's not too personal a question?

By backslide I mean that I lost many of the habits I had, as well as a bit of general momentum. (though I  think this was in large part due to quarantine)

Using twitter for self-improvement comes with significant and serious risks, many of which are nearly impossible to explain to any human, and are only solvable by not using twitter.

What are those risks? Or if you can't say, how did you come to know about them?

makes sense. fwiw, i think that the majority of the benefit of twitter comes from posting stuff yourself (rather than lurking or reading other peoples' tweets).

I presume at least one of those risks is radicalization into truly absurd ideologies.

That's true, but I would consider that a symptom, not the disease itself.

I think the AI alignment interpretation of the title can be adapted to plausibly relevant advice: Don't get goodhart-cursed, retain corrigibility to your own extrapolated volition, liveness of curiosity about what you should find important, not being swamped with doing what you currently find important. The virtue of slack wards off hurtful busywork in self-improvement.

My jaw literally dropped like :O at the "maximize rejections" thing. I am extremely rejection-sensitive but the idea of making a game with myself out of it seems like it could actually fight my natural aversion somewhat... thank you for this! And I will definitely read all those blog posts! <3

Another related post that feels missing from the last section:

"Being unafraid to look stupid is a truly formidable quality" - I like this. I use a rather similar strategy to get things out of the other people that otherwise might not bother to help or respond. I propose a solution or put up a prototype that really wont work, public as possible. Others then jump to respond to show how much better they are and how stupid I am. Works best against big egos and/or people that don't like me. Shamelessly borrowed from film on discovery of DNA where Watson and Crick deployed it against Pauling. Dont know how true the film was but I was struck by the tactic.