This post is about the concept of agency, which I define as ‘doing what is needed to achieve your goals’. As stated, this sounds pretty trivial - who wouldn’t do things to achieve their goals? But true agency is surprisingly hard and rare. Our lives are full of constraints, and defaults that we blindly follow, going past this to find a better way of achieving our goals is hard.
And this is a massive tragedy, because agency is incredibly important. The world is full of wasted motion. Most things in both our lives and the world are inefficient and sub-optimal, and it often takes creativity, originality and effort to find better approaches. Just following default strategies can massively hold you back from achieving what you could achieve with better strategies.
This should not be surprising. Thinking past defaults, and your conception of ‘normal’ is hard, and takes meaningful effort. But this leaves a lot of value on the table! Personally, I’ve found cultivating agency to be one of the most useful ways I’ve grown over the last few years. And, crucially, this was deliberate - agency is a hard but trainable skill. In this post, I try to outline my models of what agency is, and my thoughts on how to cultivate it.
I’ve been pretty abstract so far about the idea of agency. A reasonable reaction would be to be pretty skeptical that there’s any value here. That you already try to achieve your goals, that’s what it means to have goals! But I would argue that it’s easy to be missing out on opportunities and better strategies without realising it. An unofficial theme of this blog is that the world is full of low-hanging fruit, you just need to look for it. Further, many of the people I most admire, who’ve successfully changed the world for the better, had a lot of agency - changing the world is not the default path!
To make this more concrete, I want to focus on examples of how agency has been personally valuable to me. The times I managed to step off the default path, look past my constraints, and be more ambitious and creative about how I achieved my goals.
As those examples hopefully illustrate, agency has been extremely valuable for me, and my goals. But it is not my place to tell you whether agency is right for you. Agency can be hard, stressful and exhausting! Sometimes the defaults are good enough. Instead, my goal in this post is to present the mindset of agency, and make a case that it can be valuable to you, for achieving what you want.
Exercise: What do you want? What are your goals? What are your dreams, your ambitions? How do you want to change the world? What is missing in your life? Take a minute to reflect on your favourite prompt before moving on.
Exercise 2: What’s stopping you?
When stated as ‘doing what is needed to achieve your goals’, agency feels like a pretty simple concept. But implicitly, I’m gesturing at a messy bundle of different skills. In this section, I want to break agency down what agency is, and the most important mindset and sub-skills. These are neither comprehensive nor compulsory for achieving agency, but I’ve found all of them valuable to cultivate:
A final note after all this discussion of what agency is and isn’t. In practice, it is rarely sensible to ask “is this actually agenty enough?” and imagining being able to justify your agency - that pushes me towards doing things that are clearly and legibly weird and original. Instead, agency is relative to your goals, and your defaults. A socially anxious introvert who decides to throw a party demonstrates far more agency than a confident extrovert who does it every weekend. Agency is what you make of it. The important question is whether it helps you achieve your goals, not whether it looks appropriately brave or non-conformist.
An application of agency that is particularly important to me is taking agency in improving the world, in finding the most effective ways to have a positive impact. Agency is important here because you can do far more good than you do by following default ways to do good - I see this as one of the key insights I’ve gotten from the Effective Altruism movement. You can achieve far more if you look for missed opportunities, way to leverage your limited resources, ways to be far more ambitious and aim for a chance of having a major impact.
The mindset of taking responsibility for contributing to the world’s problems treating it as ‘not my problem’ can be particularly important here, and represent the difference between doing something and nothing. Eg, realising that you can actually put meaningful effort into fighting climate change, rather than just recycling and being environmentally conscious. But I think this mindset can harm people, so I wanted to give my take on how I view this.
Often, this can be framed in terms of obligations. That the world is full of problems, it is my job to fix them, and I have to do this. I reject that mindset. You don’t have to do anything. If you don’t care about problems, that is your prerogative.
Instead, I think in terms of my values. Over the course of my life, I have the capacity to influence the world towards my values, and it is my responsibility to do something about this. But this is not some weighty obligation to resent and feel guilty towards - these are my values and I actually care about doing something about it. Personally, I care deeply about human flourishing. I have the capacity to influence the world to be a better and safer place, and it is important to me to do something about this, to take agency and be ambitious about it. I’m a big fan of Nate Soares’ thoughts here.
Agency can be pretty rare. And part of why it’s rare is that it’s hard! And in particular, lots of things make it harder to be an agent. And before diving how to develop agency, it’s worth examining what’s holding you back, and seeing which things you can relax. Even if you can’t solve the things holding you back, often just identifying them can help!
There are two important categories here, defaults and constraints.
Of course, just noticing a default or constraint is much easier than solving it. So what can you do? This is hard to give general advice on, but often noticing is the first step to doing something about it. Some personal examples:
Exercise: What’s stopping you? If you suddenly became significantly more ambitious, what would you want to do? And what’s holding you back from doing that now?
The main path to cultivating agency, as I see it, is to practice! To initially do agentic things occasionally, and with effort. To (hopefully) have them go well, and get positive reinforcement. And slowly practice and develop the mindset of agency, and have the mental moves feel smoother and more reflexive, until this is something you do naturally.
To make this more concrete, I find it helpful to reflect on what agency feels like, and how to make each part of the process smoother and more natural.
So, how to make each of these smoother? Some immediate thoughts:
The following is a grab bag of more concrete ways to cultivate agency and put this into practice. Some of these are contradictory, and aimed at different people - look for the ones that resonate, and might be of value to you!
Exercise: Did any of these resonate? What is something concrete you could implement in your life? Set a 5 minute timer, and do something about it right now.
Most of this post has been cheerleading for agency, and treating it as a virtue. But it’s worth reflecting on the drawbacks, and ways too much agency can hurt you. Some particularly notable drawbacks:
Overall, agency is one of the most useful skills I’ve ever gained (and I still have a lot of room to grow!). And hopefully in this post I’ve helped to flesh out what, exactly, I mean by agency, reasons to value it, and concrete ways to cultivate this skill.
So, if this post resonated and you want to gain agency, my final challenge to you is this. What are you doing to do about it?
Thanks to Duncan Sabien and the LessWrong Feedback Service for valuable feedback!
I feel pretty happy with this post in hindsight! Nothing major comes to mind that I'd want to change.
I think that agency is a really, really important concept, and one of the biggest drivers of ways my life has improved. But the notion of agency as a legible, articulated concept (rather than just an intuitive notion) is foreign to a lot of people, and jargon-y. I don't think there was previously a good post cleanly explaining the concept, and I'm very satisfied that this one exists and that I can point people to it.
I particularly like my framing of "identify what's holding you back and do something about it". That's a key mental move, that I hadn't cleanly articulated to myself before writing this.
But beyond just explaining what agency is, what I really want to achieve is to help the reader build agency. On this front, I think this post is OK, but not great. I try to make things concrete, have exercises, and walk people through how to link things to their goals, which is significantly better than a lecture-style post. But also, getting people to do anything after reading a post is really hard, and I don't know how to solve this problem, nor can think of good examples of someone solving the problem very well. Which is really sad! I think that having it be shorter, and maybe having separate posts cleanly focusing on specific mental moves on agency, might improve it.
I think this post could in theory be turned into a good workshop, and that that would be much more effective. I had vague plans to do this, but just never got round to it!
I just want to emphasize that "Making your own path can be exhausting and stressful". And I'd add overwhelming. I have the strong tendency to make my own path rather than following the default one —for me this does not have to do with having agency but lacking it; I'm actually learning to use my agency to not deviate too much— and I am the opposite of effective. I learned a lot and I'm able to do and understand mostly anything by myself, without any help, but this came at the cost of wasting lots of time, and spending long periods confused about my next (career) steps and struggling to show the relevant actors that I'm perfectly able to take them —if you don't take the usual path, make sure you are good at selling yourself!—. My point is that you should be very aware of this and account for your capabilities so you do not over-deviate too fast. Go one step at a time :-)