Learning to cultivate agency has been one of the most useful ways I’ve grown over the last few years. It enabled me to step off the default path, look past my constraints, and be more ambitious and creative about how I achieved my goals.
It started with the realisation that I could take agency with my career and life path. In my final year of university, I realised that despite completing a legal degree, I could step away from the default of pursuing a career as an attorney.
I spent the next three years learning to code, working as a software engineer building ML systems for global water utilities, and now co-founding a company trying to connect the next billion people to the internet.
I think of agency as the ability to get what you want – the general skill of coming up with ambitious goals and achieving them, whatever they are.
Learning to cultivate agency has led to me becoming less risk-averse, a better engineer and thinker, and having a clearer idea of how I might have a significant positive impact on the world.
Almost all of the best things happen as a result of actively seeking and asking for those things. Biographies are a wonderful example of this because they show that people who’ve successfully changed the world usually had boat loads of agency.
How to Develop More Agency
Be an Asker
Figure out what you need, who can help you get it, and ask them for it. If it’s very easy for the other person to say no, there’s essentially zero cost to them, so ask whatever you want.
People actually love to help and offer advice. Why? Because it feels good to help people. It feels good to pass on your hard-earned wisdom. It feels good to have someone trust you enough to ask for your help.
Having a low bar for asking for help will immediately make it far easier to act with agency.
Not every act of agency is going to be successful. If it is, you're not probably not being ambitious enough.
“If you never fail, you’re only trying things that are too easy and playing far below your level… If you can’t remember any time in the last six months when you failed, you aren’t trying to do difficult enough things.” - Eliezer Yudkowsky
Evie Cottrell has this beautiful idea of actively seeking rejection:
"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.”
She offers a formula for racking up rejections:
- Find a friend or stranger who also wants to become unstoppable in some domain
- Create a shared Google doc
- Commit to writing all of your rejections in it for a fixed period
- Decide a prize for the winner and agree to constraints (e.g. what counts as a rejection?)
- Whoever has the most rejections by the end of this period wins.
Share Your Work
It’s really hard to predict when life-changing moments will occur. One conversation can drastically improve the trajectory of your life. One piece of content can set you apart from your peers. One person reading your essay might open a world of opportunities. Sharing your work increases the likelihood of this happening.
Sharing your writing, speaking, videos, or any other activity that puts your thinking on display - increases your exposure to new people and opportunities. It sets you up for spontaneous stuff to happen.
The idea originally comes from Jason Roberts, who says:
“The amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your Luck Surface Area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you're passionate about combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated.”
Luck = Doing x Telling. The more you do and the more people you tell about it, the larger your Luck Surface Area will become.
It’s hard to see the explicit benefits beforehand because putting yourself out there doesn’t have a clear path to success. Having a low bar for sharing what you’re doing, in conversation and online, is an act of agency that will lead you closer to what you want to achieve.
Beware of Defaults
Our lives are full of defaults. Schools you should attend, careers you should pursue, and things you're allowed to do. Peer pressure makes it easy to fall into following defaults.
I fell victim to this when I went to university. I didn't study law because I thought it was interesting or because I was excited by it. I did it because it was safe. The default strategy usually is.
Agency is about noticing when these defaults constrain you and being willing to break them. It’s being able to think for yourself. It’s being open to weird ideas, and taking them seriously.
Recognise weirdness by noticing the ideas you immediately flinch away from. Look for things others do that you’d never have thought of. Notice your default patterns of thought and what they close you off from.
Placing yourself in novel situations helps with this. Seeking novelty, be it in the places you visit, people you hang out with, or the books you read, exposes you to techniques and methods used by others to achieve their goals.
If you choose to follow the default path it becomes difficult to achieve anything significant. You can live a quiet and comfortable life, but you are unlikely to create something new, and you are unlikely to make your mark on the world. You can't follow the default and expect to stand out.
Conducting yourself with agency means you're not going to be the same as everyone, and you’ve got to be okay with that.
You Don’t Need Permission
We tend to assume that we need permission to do anything that feels unfamiliar (e.g. selling someone on your idea, applying for a job you're not qualified for, or moving to a new country. You don’t.
Just do things. If institutions have a problem with it, seek forgiveness further down the line. Assuming that you don’t need permission makes it easier to avoid the defaults and act with agency.
Consider Multiple Perspectives
Acting with agency often requires a perspective shift; a reframing of the situation that enables you to take a different approach and do what is needed to achieve your goals. I've found that these questions, and I'm sure there are countless others, help me consider alternative perspectives:
- What’s required to cut the timeline in half?
- What needs to be done to double the impact?
- What would it look like if I could do this with 10% of the time or effort?
- Who is the best at doing what I aim to do, and how did they get there?
Building the High-Agency Habit
The main path to cultivating agency is to practice. It's a hard slog initially, but it gets easier over time. I've noticed that the more agency I show, the more I develop the mindset of agency, and the more reflexive it becomes.
I have a long way to go and can think of numerous occasions where I would've benefitted from showing more agency, but it's coming to feel increasingly natural. My defaults are being reset.
I wrote this series on agency because it’s one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever encountered. I think the world will benefit from more people acting with agency and I hope to contribute to that that by writing this.
The reception to these ideas has been surprisingly good. Thank you for that. As always, I’d love to discuss this, or any other ideas, with anybody that’s keen. Drop a comment below or send me an email.