I've been thinking about agency recently. I want to be more agentic!

Sometime last year, I read Cultivating And Destroying Agency and Seven ways to become unstoppably agentic. I recently saw How to be More Agentic and it kind of spurred me to write this post (which is actually a form of agency). I credit these posts with expanding what I think is possible. What I found really helpful was the concrete examples of the things they did (you can just buy stuff online, you can cold email people, try to get as many rejections as possible, sign up to take a test w/o taking a class).

 

These examples felt really helpful because they expanded the domain of things I thought were possible. I want to expand my agency Overton window.

 

My model is that there are two parts to expanding agency:

  1. Find out or think of things that you can do that you had not thought of before (because they are uncommon / not what society tells us to do / require some staring into the abyss)
  2. Actually do them, get good results, and have a positive feedback loop

 

If you have examples of things that you have done are just totally orthogonal to what we think of normal, that were ultimately helpful (or not), please put them here. This will hopefully help with step 1. Actually Doing Things and getting a positive feedback loop requires effort (but it hopefully is fun and rewarding).

 

If what you did ended really badly, please still put it, but just also put that it ended badly. I can reverse advice. If it ended well, say that also! The more examples the better. My main goal is to expand my possibility hull (pictured above). If you are unsure whether the thing you are saying is already known, please say it anyways.

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Elizabeth

Jan 12, 2024

270

Things You're Allowed To Do has dozens of these

From my personal list:

  1. buy produce and leave it out, knowing it will go bad faster. A lot of it goes bad, but it's worth it because I'm eating more produce overall.
    1. Eat 2 pounds of watermelon every day because I like it
  2. For medical anxiety
    1. walk out of a doctor's appointment if it feels bad
    2. ask for anesthetic for routine dental cleanings
    3. get anxiolytics for visits
    4. bring a support person with me
    5. refuse to change into a medical gown if it's not necessary for the procedure
  3. buy stock options for specific plays, rather than just buying index funds
  4. buy mutual funds in other countries, as a hedge against US deterioration
  5. start productivity systems knowing they probably won't stick, on the off chance they do or I learn something. 
  6. identify and buy a tv soundbar that improves dialogue clarity
  7. install an automatic door closer and electronic lock in a rental
  8. install an undersink water filter in a rental.
  9. give my cats gabapentin when forcing him through something stressful. Usually it takes one of them a week to calm down after moving, but after a day and a half of gabapentin he was totally settled in and happy. 
  10. print out small posters of my favorite book covers and decorate the house with them
  11. hand-sew pocket extenders into my pants
  12. return things on amazon
  13. pay extra for direct flights and upgraded seats

+1 on Things You're Allowed To Do, it's really really great

nim

Jan 12, 2024

240

There's a very useful set of intellectual gestures here:

  1. Notice that something annoys you, or generally seems imperfect, in some way
  2. Imagine what the world would be like if there was a tool or technique to make it less annoying.
  3. Investigate whether anyone has ever solved the problem before, and how
  4. Before buying a tool to solve a problem, think hard about whether you could make the tool yourself. Maybe try making it yourself, if the stakes are low enough, and then buy the good version if you learn that you really do want it.

I sum it up as "YOU ARE A HUMAN BEING. HUMANS USE TOOLS".

My examples are small, and you might not think all of them count, but here are some things I've done that sound kind of like what you're asking for:

  • When learning rope splicing, I wanted a fid. Fids online were more expensive than I wanted to buy for a potentially brief interest, so I thought hard about what they actually do (make space between strands of rope with the pointy end, lead the rope through that space with the hollow end) and made a thing that does that by taping a chopstick to a drinking straw. The other thing a fid does is measure a certain multiple of the rope's diameter, but that was easily solved by drawing a mark on the homemade tool at the correct distance from the end.

  • I used to think that you had to buy the clothes you wanted already made, but I've gradually gotten better at deciding what I want and then either modifying something to be it or making it from scratch. I frequently modify patterns so that things have more pockets than they're supposed to. Did you know that you can add or enlarge pockets without sewing at all? Get the strongest fusible interfacing you can find, put it where the seams should go, and press [iron] it in place. Seams glued like this aren't as strong as sewn ones, but some people are needlessly intimidated by the concept of learning to thread a needle, knot the thread, and put it in and out of a couple layers of fabric a few times.

  • Depending on your cultural background, it may be more agentic to DIY household projects that others would hire someone for, or it may be more agentic to hire a contractor to do stuff which others would either DIY or leave un-done.

  • In my house, there was a doorway between the kitchen/dining space and laundry room. I disliked having an open doorway there because the washing machine and dryer are loud, but for a long time I assumed that was just how things had to be. Eventually I realized that I could just go buy a pre-hung door the right size and install it, which I did and am very glad of. (try Habitat For Humanity first for pre-hung doors, and factor a trim kit for both sides into the total cost of the project, if you're doing this)

  • I've built a lot of custom bookshelves over the years. You really don't have to be much of a carpenter; as long as you pick nice enough materials that they're not leaking pitch or giving you splinters, and you assemble it well enough to not fall down, it'll do the job. I'm also not shy about cutting holes in the backs of bookshelves when they would otherwise block an electrical outlet or something else small but important.

  • I'd argue that it's agentic in a potentially harmful way to uninstall smoke detectors when they annoy you sufficiently. If you're having that problem, replace the ion ones with photoelectric ones. There's a Technology Connections video on youtube explaining it if you want more info there.

[-]g-w13mo10

Thanks! These kind of things are what I'm looking for. I appreciate the maker perspective.

I've fixed multiple appliances with some good old copper wire (dishwasher and toilet).

[-]nim3mo110

Similarly:

  • In airports (LAX comes to mind), sometimes you can get outdoors after security by visiting the smoking area! I don't smoke; I just like fresh air and sunlight. But sometimes the "smoking area" is the best place to get that.

  • You might like social engineering content. I have occasionally bluffed my way past security personnel to get things done, and even (when highly confident that they were incorrect) ignored them saying "you can't go there" while obviously making no attempt to stop me, just to see what would happen. They did not stop me, nor summon anyone to remove me from the area where they claimed I "couldn't" be.

  • It's highly agentic but probably immoral by most standards to abuse return policies and use places with generous policies as cheap or free rental options.

  • Identifying and exploiting certain personal finance loopholes may count: Compare spending HSA funds with the provided debit card to making the same purchases on a credit card, reimbursing them from the HSA, and keeping the rewards or sign-up bonus from the credit card company.

  • Did you know you can go buy a massage chair, which pretty much looks like a regular chair, for a few hundred bucks? Gues

... (read more)
2g-w13mo
Even more awesome examples! Amazing! This seems really insightful: I think I've started to do a bit without really knowing that I'm doing it. Just like I cringe (and have cringed even before I read the Sequences) when someone says "I'll try to do [something]," I've started to develop a slight revulsion to "I can't." This instinct not nearly as strong as I want it to be and I don't think of all the possibilities that could happen.
2nim3mo
Well, thanks for the brain-worm, I've been viewing my own behavior through the lens of "am I being agentic about this?" all day =) You mentioned in passing the theme that agentic-looking outcomes arise from disregarding unnecessary constraints. In watching myself, I notice that my agentic-looking behaviors and accomplishments often arise from rigidly applying an explicit list of gestures-worth-trying, even when I don't expect them to work. For instance, I dislike looking at labels on most stuff, so I devote a moderate amount of time to removing unneeded ones. I've developed a checklist of techniques which sometimes get sticky stuff un-stuck from other stuff. The list includes water, acetone, heat, paint stripper, sandpaper, magic eraser, razor blades, and other varyingly destructive techniques. I've trained myself to consider it a rule that before I just tolerate looking at an unsightly sticker, I should rule out each intervention on the list. By being inflexible about this approach, I manage to remove all kinds of annoying stickers that I didn't expect would really come off. Sometimes I also get novel results by going down the list of all the tools I have access to and considering how each one would impact the problem if I used it. It's honestly pretty great how much force a single smallish human can exert with a manual cable winch, a cheater bar if the winch's handle is too short for good leverage, and some carabiners and lifting slings rated for 10,000lbs... Oh, and if you stick stickers directly to the back of your laptop's screen, consider first putting down either a single full-sized sticker or a protective case. That way when the machine eventually dies you can frame or keep the collection.

Saul Munn

Jan 12, 2024

50

here are some specific, random, generally small things that i do quite often:

  • sit on the floor. i notice myself wanting to sit, and i notice myself lacking a chair. fortunately, the floor is always there.
  • explicitly babble! i babble about thoughts that are bouncing around in my head, no matter the topic! open a new doc — docs.new works well, or whatever you use — set a 5 minute timer, and just babble. write whatever comes to mind.
  • message effective/competent people to cowork with them. i'm probably not the most effective/competent person you know, but feel free practice this with me!
  • board airplanes close to last, intentionally. i do this to avoid pushing through the lines, and to give myself an extra ~15 minutes to work in the airport terminal.
  • write out informal/babbled decision docs for big/important decisions. i've done this ~5 times over the last 6 months, and it both helps me during the decision (forces me to make my thoughts/worries/hopes concrete, lets me get quick thoughts/advice from friends, etc) and after the decision (i can remind myself why i originally made the decision, regardless of what ends up happening).
  • actually doing a lot of the things on this list
  • after or while doing something with someone else (a long conversation, a group project, a friendship, a ski trip, etc) asking them "what was the worst thing i did?"
  • waking myself up by intentionally getting water up my nose, then blowing it
  • pick a few things — about 3-8 — that look pretty good on a menu. ask siri to pick a random number, 1 through [number of things that looked good]. that's now my default order; if i want, i can order something else, but i should have a pretty strong reason.
  • when sending someone a list of questions, send them in a accompanying accompanying list of the answers that are likely correct, so that they can just say “yes” or "actually no, it's _____." it cuts down on the amount of time they have to spend answering my questions significantly.

here are some more general mental TAPs that i've accidentally burned into my brain:

  • "gahhh, i wish [x] thing existed!" → "could i make [x]?"
  • "boy, [x] is annoying/bad/disruptive/generally a problem." → "could i solve [x]?"
  • "now that i think about it, [person] is actually a really rare & awesome person." → "could i text/call them right now?"
  • "i don't like [x] about myself/my environment/the people i hang out with/my workspace/etc." → "could i change [x]?"
  • "i hate that i always have to do [x]." → "what would happen if i didn't do [x]? would i take damage? if so, would i take more damage than the damage i'm currently taking while forcing myself to do [x]?"
  • "ooh, i have to remember to [x]." → "should i set an alarm/reminder/calendar event about [x]?" (almost always: yes, you should)
  • "that's a great idea." → "should i quickly write a sentence about this down in my notes app? even just a sazen for my future self?"
  • "i should do [x]." → "do i have a concrete plan for doing [x] that's worked in relevantly similar situations for me in the past? if not, how am i expecting to get [x] done?"
  • [in a meeting] "great, let's make sure to get [x] done." → "is there one clear person who's owning this? who's responsible if it doesn't get done, and in charge of making sure it does get done? do i trust this person to actually get [x] done?"
  • "hmm, i'm realizing that i've built up a really big ugh field around [x]." → "[insert generic strategies for dealing with ugh fields; i think mine are mediocre, so would love to hear others']"
  • notes:
    • most of the above was stolen from this thread
    • the actions above are questions that i ask myself, not concrete actions i force myself to do. they're sorta like saying "hey, here's a concrete action you could take — do you want to?" most of the time, my internal response is "nah, i'm good." but sometimes, my internal response is "actually, yeah! let's do this!" importantly, the questions are meant to reduce friction toward acting on your available options, not imply an obligation to those options.

Feel_Love

Jan 12, 2024

50

Non-action is a ubiquitous option that is often overlooked. It can be very powerful.

For example, if someone asks you a question, it's natural to immediately start searching for the best words to say in response. The search may feel especially desperate if it seems like there is nothing you can say that would be true and useful. An ace-up-the-sleeve is to be silent. No one can force you to act or speak, and a rare, minor social faux pas is forgotten surprisingly fast.

A friend:
"Do I look fat in this dress?"
Smiles. [commence silent mode]

A police officer:
"Ok for me to search your car? What are you doing here?"
"I'm happy to comply if you have a warrant. I'll need to consult with my attorney before answering any further questions." [commence silent mode]

A serial killer:
"Which of your children shall I murder?!"
[commence silent mode]

(I pay little attention to threatening people, regardless of what they say or do, and the outcome is usually the best I could hope for.)

1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:51 PM

I think a lot of things that go under the category of agency are a collection of other things. Usually they involve higher task saliency in the face of distraction. This leads to a bunch of downstream effects that look like agency, eg not stopping when existing options don't work but instead investigating creating new options.