Practices that improve your personal agency

Agency is the description of people who get things done. People like Elon Musk, Lady Gaga. People who seem almost super human. Love them or hate them, they move the needle. For the longest time I thought this was a personality trait. But it isn’t, it’s a skill that can be learned.

Learned helplessness 

I only recently learned that helplessness is actually not something we learn. Something beaten into us by an unforgiving world. It’s the opposite. Being helpless is how we all start. We have to learn to take action, by trial and error slowly learning what is dangerous and what is at worst a little embarrassing.

We have to learn agency. Some of us reach this point early, or understand this to a higher degree than others. Some families and schools are better than others at teaching that you can actually just go do things. I suspect a lot of generational wealth difference is due to non verbal habits of teaching children agency.

Steve Jobs “Life can be so much broader”

We live our lives imagining constraints where there are none. Be believe we’ll be scolded. That things are not allowed. Or not normal. To think of ways around these imaginary constraints is sometimes referred to as lateral or orthogonal thinking. What is means in practice is to not accept explanations for “how things work” just because that’s the story people repeat. We don’t let that narrative stop us from thinking about what we can and cannot do.\_\_mack/status/1068238562443841538

But if we need to learn agency, and maybe didn’t learn enough in our childhood, how can we help ourselves to learn it as adults? First we have to understand how these fictional constraints appear, so we don’t get sucked into them.

Where limiting beliefs come from

One of the motivating forces in human psychology is comparison. We can’t help but do it. In academics this is known as mimetic desire. And the weird thing about mimetic desire is that we want more of things that people similar to us have. The closer people are to you, the more similar your ambitions will be. One of my favourite authors compares this to fishing crabs. 

How do you keep crabs from escaping? You put more than one of them in a bucket. When one tries to climb out, the others will hold on to it. Effectively pulling it back into the bucket.

How do humans get what everyone else has? By telling them they can’t have what we believe we could not achieve. It’s not a very nice idea. But it explains an awful lot of human behaviour. None of us mean to do this. This is simply a part of the human experience. But humans hold each other in the bucket with words. Not with claws. There’s nothing stopping us from climbing. So why don’t we?

David Deutsch on twitter

We are scared of what others will think. What others will say. When I was at 500 startups back in 2015, they spent a lot of time trying to get us to overcoming this instinct.

The first week at 500 startups was dedicated to marketing. Every founder will come in and worry about what the market thinks of them and their company. But that harsh truth is no one cares. No one thinks about you at all. You have to actively do marketing to get anyone to notice your activities.

There are lots of exercises on this topic from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy used to mediate various anxious disorders such as Social Anxiety. They include things like:

  • Go on a long train ride and loudly announce every stop.

  • Rent a masquerade outfit for a normal day, or night, out.

The exercise is not to try and enjoy being the Center of attention. The point is to notice how quickly that attention fades. Who remembers anything but the outfit or the noise? No one thought about, or remembered you. There was no repercussion.

Exercises for increasing agency

Here are a list of things you can do to practice agency. None of them will work like magic. The idea is that they are all unusual, and will feel uncomfortable, and every one will give you the power to do new crazy things. Please let me know if you have any other tips and I will add them!!

  • Ask for 10% discount on the next coffee you buy. Ask every time you buy small things.

  • Pick a spot on the map that simply seems strange and just go there.

  • Buy and wear an unreasonably expensive outfit.

  • Go for a walk in a forest alone.

  • Don’t drink alcohol. Even when you are expected to.

  • Spend a day alone in nature

  • Go on a trip to a foreign country alone.

  • Travel to friends just to visit them

  • Move close to friends.

  • Live in multiple places with multiple people.

  • Hire a coach/tutor (fitness, coding, entrepreneurship, whatever)

  • Go to a local cafe to read a book.

  • Give a stranger a compliment.

  • Treat fines like payments.

  • Ask someone in your local gym for help.

  • Buy task-specific devices that prevent multitasking.

Resources about agency

This is a list of articles I’ve read on the topic. They all link further to tangental topics. Let me know if I’m missing out!

Jakob Greenfeld - Agency Expanding Experiments

Milan Cvitkovic - Things you’re allowed to do

Jakob Greenfeld - High vs Low Agency

Jakob Greenfeld - Invisible Scripts