How to be More Agentic
On a supposedly difficult thing
I often hear agency talked about as if it’s an inherent trait: Either someone has it or they don’t -- in which case, too bad, they’re doomed to a life in the minor leagues. This hasn’t been my experience. Over the years, as I’ve gradually grown dumber relative to my peers through a combination of aging and making smarter friends, one of the main ways I’ve compensated has been through dialing up my agency, which I think of as something like “manifest determination to make things happen.”
As a result, I’ve done a bunch of cool stuff in different domains: I was a Supreme Court advocate and the number one female poker player in the world; started art and perfume companies; and led operations at Alvea, a pandemic medicine company I co-founded, when it set the record for the fastest startup to take a drug to clinical trials. All of these things I did in my 30s.
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In my way of thinking, radical agency is about finding real edges: things you are willing to do that others aren’t, often because they’re annoying or unpleasant. These don’t always surface in awareness to the point one is actually choosing -- often they live in a cloud of aversion that strategically obscures the tradeoff.
The idea of finding real edges, as contrasted with “eking out wins by grinding harder than everyone,” first clicked for me when I started playing poker. Poker in the modern era is an extraordinarily competitive game, and even 8 years ago pros were spending nearly as much time studying as they were playing, using solver models to seek out tiny mathematical advantages. At the same time, a massive edge was available in the form of physical reads, but almost entirely ignored. (I know an example would make this more compelling, but I’m sorry, it’s like explaining a magic trick.)
Two friends and I maniacally studied reads together, and we all had out-of-distribution results. But when we’d tell other pros what we were doing, the response from most was “nuh-uh, that’s not a thing.” They weren’t willing to consider the possibility that reads were valuable, maybe because they didn’t want to feel obligated to study them.
All of my agency hacks are kind of like this, in my opinion -- big, glaring edges that people might rather ignore.
Ask for things. Ask for things that feel unreasonable, to make sure your intuitions about what’s reasonable are accurate (of course, try not to be a jerk in the process). If you’re only asking for things you get, you’re not aiming high enough. Jobs are a great example: Particularly if you’re early in your career, you should aim to get rejected from most things you apply for. If you have not yet learned the skill of absorbing rejection, court it deliberately: Apply for some jobs you really don’t think you’ll get so you can learn to decouple “no” from surprise and dejection.
I sent an email recently that I wouldn’t have dared try a few years ago, something along the lines of “I’m planning to start an organization similar to yours; would you consider letting me run yours instead?” The response? Crickets. Maybe that person thinks I overstepped. But it doesn’t matter, because a similar pitch delivered to someone else put us on a path to start a new organization together, something much cooler than I could have managed on my own.
Seek real feedback
It’s hard to overstate how overpowered this one is. If you aren’t trying to get real feedback from people who know you, you’re cooking without tasting. This is, like, the lowest hanging fruit for self-improvement, but few people really try to pick it.
In many contexts, the way to get good feedback is to give people a way to provide it anonymously. Anything else creates friction by layering on social dynamics. To get honest feedback, you want to make it as comfortable as possible for people to give it. You also want to make it easy to find -- I have a link to my feedback form in my Twitter bio, and get a few comments a week through it.
I imagine resistance from some people on the grounds that anonymity frees people to be assholes, but in my experience they rarely are. 90% of what I get in my inbox is either nonsense or nice -- I get lots of “keep up the good work!” type messages. In over a year, I’ve gotten maybe two messages intended to hurt my feelings. Once in a while, I get a message that’s a gut punch because it calls my attention to a real issue -- but then I get over it and get to work fixing the issue. (I wish people gave me more feedback -- I had to learn about my uptalk from YouTube comments.)
Increase your surface area for luck
The last couple times I was looking for a project, I made a point of meeting as many people doing related work as I could, even if there was no obvious benefit to doing so. At first, I did this just to advertise my existence to people as I entered a new field, because someone is always hiring or looking for a cofounder.
What I discovered by casting a wide net was that I have very little ability to predict how useful a call will be in advance. Relevance is easier to predict, but it’s not a very good proxy for usefulness, which is a product of lots of other things including the other person’s enthusiasm and the breadth of their interests. To some extent, the more confident I am that a conversation is relevant, the less likely I am to discover something exciting during it. Nearly all of my most fruitful collaborations over the last 3 years have come out of meetings I booked almost at random. My best conversation last week was with someone where the introducer told me “this person asked for an introduction but I’m not sure it’s a good use of your time.”
Assume everything is learnable
Most subject matter is learnable, even stuff that seems really hard. But beyond that, many (most?) traits that people treat as fixed are actually quite malleable if you (1) believe they are and (2) put the same kind of work into learning them as you would anything else.
As you might gather, I think agency itself is a good example. I learned agency late. In my teens and 20s, I occasionally made agent-y moves (like taking a job in a new city to be with someone I hadn’t spoken to yet; we married a few months later). But I still managed to pick a career I really disliked, for no reason other than its obviousness, and only after a decade stopped to ask what I was hoping to accomplish.
Many other supposedly fixed traits can likewise be altered. Some other things you can learn: confidence, charisma, warmth, tranquility, optimism. Someone recently asked me how one might go about learning charisma, and the answer was really boring: by reading a few books, watching many hours of charismatic people interacting with others, and adopting a few of their habits. This is surely a plan of action most people could come up with if they didn’t have the notion that charisma is innate lodged in their heads.
Whatever it is, assume it can be learned and that the task is to figure out the best way to do it.
Learn to love the moat of low status
The moat of low status is one of my favorite concepts, courtesy of my husband Sasha. The idea is that making changes in your life, especially when learning new skill sets, requires you to cross a moat of low status, a period of time where you are actually bad at the thing or fail to know things that are obvious to other people.
It’s called a moat both because you can’t just leap to the other side and because it gives anyone who can cross it a real advantage. It’s possible to cross the moat quietly, by not asking questions and not collaborating, but those tradeoffs really nerf learning. “Learn by doing” is standard advice, but you can’t do that unless you splash around in the moat for a bit.
If you can learn to thrive in the moat, it’s incredibly liberating. I once played a hand in a big poker tournament so badly there were news stories about it. I’ll never entirely get over my embarrassment about the hand, but I still look back on it with great fondness, because it’s when I realized I’d crossed some threshold of unflappability. With cameras and reporters crowding around, I could have safely folded and no one would have paid attention; I chose to call knowing it would mean certain ridicule even if I won. The call was in fact quite bad, but I made it for the right wrong reason.
Don’t work too hard
This might be the most important item on the list. It took me almost 40 years to learn it, because my instinct is to think more hours mean more productivity as long as you’re really trying to be productive -- that’s just multiplication, right? No. The reality is that grinding, even if it temporarily increases output, kills creativity and big picture thinking.
Burnout is the ultimate agency-killer. This is so true that I’ve learned to identify a reduction in agency as one of the first signs of burnout, one that shows up even before I consciously realize what’s happening. A switch flips and I start looking for ways to rule out ideas and actions, to conclude they won’t work or aren’t necessary, rather than chasing better versions.
These days I set boundaries that would have made me ashamed at earlier points in my life: I’m offline at 6 p.m. almost every night, and rigorously observe a Sunday Sabbath where nothing with the flavor of effort is tolerated. These will seem like small things to some people, but like a mortal sin to others in the communities I run in.
My rule is never to take instructions on how hard I should work from someone who hasn’t burned out before. Very few people take this seriously enough.
Agency is the skill that built the world around you, an all-purpose life intensifier that lets you make your corner of it more like what you want it to be, whether that’s professional, relational, aesthetic, whatever. Build a better mousetrap. Have an enviable marriage. Start a country. No one is born with it, everyone can learn it, and it’s never too late.
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