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This is part 2 of a series on high-agency. In part 1 we looked at what agency was and why it's the most important character trait you can develop. Today we're looking at examples of agency in action.
High-agency is an abstract idea. It's easy to read about abstract ideas, nodding along as you do, and never implement the ideas you read about. Our brains are bad at grasping concepts from explanations, but good at generalising from specific examples. Use more examples.
The mathematician, and Fields Medal winner, Tim Gowers likes to present examples before discussing general concepts. He says:
“Why should it be better to do it that way round? Well, if a general definition is at all complex, then you will have quite a lot to hold in your head. This can be difficult, but it is much easier if the various aspects of the definition can be related to an example with which you are familiar. Then the words of the definition cease to be free-floating, so to speak, and instead become labels that you can attach to bits of your mental picture of the example.”
Examples take abstract ideas and make them real. They create a story in your mind of what agency looks like. They’re the stepping stones for identifying and acting with agency in your own life.
Example 1: Burrel Smith becomes lead hardware engineer on the Apple Mac
From Folklore, a collection of stories about Apple and its rise to dominance:
Burrell Smith was a 23-year-old, self-taught engineer, without a college degree, who was drawn to Apple by the sheer elegance of the Apple II design. He was hired into Apple in February 1979, as Apple employee #282, a lowly service technician responsible for fixing broken Apple IIs that were sometimes returned by customers.
As he debugged broken logic boards, sometimes more than a dozen in a single day, he began to develop a profound respect and empathy for Steve Wozniak's unique, creative design techniques. Meanwhile, the Lisa team had been writing their first code in Pascal, running on Apple IIs, because the Lisa hardware wasn't ready yet. They had been at it for almost a year, and they had written more code than would fit in the 64 Kbytes of memory in a standard Apple II. In fact, the Apple II only had 48 Kbytes on its main board, but it used a "language" card to give it an extra 16 Kbytes used to run Pascal. To accomplish this, the language card had to "bank switch" its RAM over the ROM on the Apple II motherboard.
Bill Atkinson was the main programmer for both the Apple II Pascal system as well as the new Lisa system. He was in the service department picking up some extra language cards when Burrell heard him lamenting about overflowing the Apple II's memory limitations.
"Well, why don't you add more memory to the language card?", Burrell suggested.Bill was intrigued, but he complained, "You can't add any more memory because we're out of address space. 64K is the limit of what we can address."
Burrell had already thought of that. "Well, the language card is already bank-switching the RAM, even double-banking the last 2K where the monitor ROM is. We'll just make it bank-switch another bank." Bill was enthusiastic, so Burrell built him a prototype while Bill modified the Pascal run-time to support the extra bank switching. It worked like a charm, so soon Burrell was busy manufacturing 80K language cards for all the Lisa programmers.
Around this time, Bill ran into Jef Raskin. Jef had been writing a series of papers about a consumer-oriented computer that would be extremely inexpensive and radically easy to use. He was ready to start building a hardware prototype so he was looking for a talented hardware designer who could pull off his vision of a brutally simple, ultra low cost machine. "I've got someone who you ought to meet", Bill told Jef. He made arrangements to bring Burrell over to Jef's house in Cupertino over the weekend. Bill and Burrell showed up at Jef's house at the appointed time. Bill introduced Burrell to Jef, saying. "Jef, this is Burrell. He's the guy who's going to design your Macintosh for you."
It wasn't credentials that led to Burrell Smith becoming the lead hardware engineer for one of the most important computing projects in history. It was his agency and proactiveness and willingness to give a solution to a problem that wasn't his to solve.
Example 2: Landing your dream job
Lola Wajskop tells the story of how she landed her dream job at Hummingbird Ventures. After being rejected, she pushed back with the email below and got the job. Lola’s email is brimming with agency. One paragraph, in particular, stands out:
"A key quality of exceptional entrepreneurs - like those you seek tirelessly - is to not take no for an answer. I would therefore like to reiterate my willingness to contribute to HV in the coming weeks in whatever way would allow you to revise your decision. Would that be possible?
Example 3: Applicants going the extra mile
1 - The internet makes it possible to know the ins and outs of a company before an interview. Knowing the ins and outs often isn’t enough - lots of applicants do. Approaching companies with agency allows you to stand out from the pack and increases your chances of landing opportunities:
2 - In 2015, Nina Mufleh wanted to work at Airbnb. After months of struggling to even get an interview, she decided to take another approach. The traditional path clearly wasn't working.
Nina opted to revamp her resumé as an Airbnb profile. She highlighted the opportunity that Airbnb was missing in the Middle East, creating a detailed report on the extent of the problem, potential solutions, and how she could play a role.
Nina invested about a week of her time on this project - obtaining the data, coordinating the design, and researching the market. The resumé worked, going viral on Twitter, and getting the attention of the CEO and CMO of Airbnb, landing her an interview within a week.
“This guy went to the grocery store, bought a gallon of good ole 2% Milk, then went around asking people to film him chugging it. No one agreed to film him, so he did it himself and finished the whole gallon. Here at the Milk Road, we got nothing but respect for the hustle & grind….so, welcome to the team, Billy!”
Example 4: Working with Einstein
Tuxedo Park is a book about a Wall Street tycoon named Alfred Loomis and how he assembled a team of scientific geniuses —Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and others—at his state-of-the-art laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York, to develop the science for radar and the atomic bomb. One of those geniuses. William Richards was a chemistry professor at Princeton University and worked at Loomis' Lab. This story explains how he got there:
“Richards’ own introduction to Loomis had happened quite by accident a few months prior to his arrival at Princeton. While Richards was completing his postdoctoral studies at Göttingen, he had been sitting in the park one Sunday morning, idly reading Chemical Abstracts, when a paragraph briefly describing an experiment being carried on in the “Loomis Laboratory” had caught his eye. He had immediately sent off a letter to the laboratory, “suggesting that certain aspects of the experiment could be further developed,” and he had even outlined what the result of this development would probably be. Some months later, he received a response from the laboratory informing him that they had carried out his suggestions and the results were those he had anticipated. This had been followed by a formal invitation to work at the Loomis Laboratory.”
Agency is permissionless. There's no age limit, no rules, and nothing preventing you from acting with it. It creates opportunities and acts as a catalyst for doing work you want to do with people you want to do it with.
Next week, we’ll be looking at practical steps on how you can become more agentic. Sign up below to receive it in your inbox.