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14 Jan

The first principles of agency

The word agency comes up a lot in the startup space.

Everyone wants to hire someone with "high agency" and avoid people with "low agency."

But there is something equally truthful and misleading about how this term gets used colloquially in the context of smart people.

The truthful bit is that agency as a thing definitely exists, no doubt about it.

The misleading bit is that the way in which it is used makes it sound like an inherent trait; something you either have or don't. And if you don't, no one smart will want to hire you.

As to why this is misleading and unhelpful, let me explain, in very simple language, what agency actually means.

As you can see, the root of the word 'agency' comes from the Medieval Latin word 'agentia', meaning , "a mode of exerting power or producing effect."

In other words, agency means the ability to act towards a certain end.

In a paper titled On The Self-Organizing Origins of Agency, author Scott Kelso posits that an

"infant discovers itself as an agent  (this is me'); when the baby realizes it can make things happen."
"When the baby realizes it is causing the world to change, it experiences itself as an agent for the very first time. This igniting of agency has a eureka-like, 'aha' effect."

He further goes on to describe a baby in a cradle and how when it first moves a toy hanging in the cradle, it discovers that the action of swinging her arm had the effect of moving the rattle and producing the sound. In consequent attempts, the baby soon realizes that she has the ability to move the rattle and create a sound; that she can affect change in the world around her. In short, she starts thinking of herself as an 'agent' or a person with 'agency'.

The way you as a child start thinking yourself as an agent can be loosely described as follows:

You do X —> You see Y happen —> You realize X causes Y to happen —> You start seeing yourself as someone who can make Y happen

"Mundane as a baby's 'kicks' may be, they, along with the movement of the mobile they cause, hide a profound feature of the world and our place in it. The pairing of movement and motion, motor and sensory, action and perception, matter and mind, typically treated as separate, becomes a meaningful unified experience. Awareness of their intimate relation is the basis of conscious agency. The infant agent is not just an entity that does things or senses that something is happening to it. Rather, the essence of agency is appreciation of the fact that this is not some outside force moving the mobile, this is me. The baby is now in charge, so to speak, of its own destiny. From here on in, the baby is an agent: it knows it can make things happen and it develops expectations on that basis."

This is it. This is all there is to agency. And now that you understand how we as infants develop agency, you can apply the same to develop it even as an adult!

I would surmise that agency is conditional on you having perceived it in a certain domain or not. For mundane things that you do daily, like brushing your teeth or tying your laces, you feel agentic, so much so that you don't even term it as "having agency."

But for a thing that you have never done before, like writing an essay or making a sales pitch, you have essentially never observed yourself as a person who can affect change in this area. You do not see yourself as an agent with the power to achieve a desired end in that domain.

And the simplest way you can start developing agency is by picking up something small in the domain, like writing a tweet or a social media post, publishing it, and seeing the effect it has on readers. Once you start seeing that your actions in this domain lead to certain desirable outcomes, however small, you automatically will start developing agency.

So much so that you start thinking of yourself as a person who has "high agency" and can make herself affect change in any domain she wants to. The only thing you need to set the ball rolling is to start, ideally with something simple and small.

Agency is not something that is inherent in people. People with high agency in a certain field only have that because they've affected a lot of change and built confidence as agents who are capable of getting desired outcomes in that field.

Ask any entrepreneur you think is high agency and you'll find that they've built many small businesses in the past. Even if not businesses, you'll almost always find that this person tried a lot of things in their life and saw themselves as an agent, never thinking of themselves as someone who couldn't make good things happen, if they really wished to.

The secret to developing high agency is moving the rattle and seeing that you're the one who moved it; that you're capable of doing things. That's all there is to it.

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