How Much Agency Do You Have?


Note: this is a preview of the notes for an episode of the podcast not yet available.

If you are in a bad situation in your life, like financial hardships, racial issues, or personal conflict, it is a common and honestly appropriate reaction to feel that you have less than adequate capacity to change the situation you are in and the situation around you. Even if you are in a pretty good situation with a good life, you will probably still feel that you have rather limited ability to change the greater problems in society. How we categorize this capacity is using a term called “agency.”

The levels of agency we have go all the way from the basic level of being able to do some things that have meaning in the current moment, to speak to one person or to many, all the way to power in politics, business, or institutions.

Of course, not everyone has the same level of agency. But often, what happens when we give information or advice on a one-to-many level, like what I do here on the podcast, YouTube, or in writing, we operate upon assumptions. This is a necessity in all social sciences and frankly all scientific fields. Assumptions when left in place and not substituted for an appraisal of the actual situation can result in a suboptimal or plainly inappropriate solution. Sometimes they result in assuming the person has very low agency, the only thing, for example, they have left is to use their physical capacities to stage some kind of protest (if that will even work), or they can assume that someone has the power to be a sort of superhero, do everything all at once, spend an inordinate amount of money and wield influence over others. The former results in you believing you can and hence doing less than you can to make change and also makes you feel so awful about yourself and your situation that it creates unneeded dependency while the latter, though it creates empowerment and possibly increases risk-taking, sets you up for failure and quitting because expectations are just too high for the person’s actual agency. Agency, in the holistic sense and not in relation to a specific context (eg. voting/suffrage) is in no way a dichotomous measure, it is a continuum.

When you are planning to implement strategies to address a problem, be it working to change policy, developing a social enterprise, or fixing a personal issue that transcends into political problems like financial instability, assess your level of agency and then try to aim higher than what it would dictate but in a manner that does not create defeat by going over a threshold where you get pushed back. The way I see it, there are two schools of thought in this regard: the first is to do what the more agency assumption would have you do and try to do really big stuff, put yourself in a place where you have to perform BUT understand that a failure to do so is not fatal, and the second is to aim for just a little more than what your agency is or close to the edge of your level of agency, then gradually increasing capacity upon those efforts. I think the best approach is a combination of both. There are “events,” so to speak, where the norms of society and the situation allow you to push far beyond the bounds of your normal capacity for a transient period of time and these are scenarios you have to seriously take advantage of. This is kind of like the scenario snowboarder Shaun White explains where in the Olympics he will do a very difficult and risky trick he wouldn’t do elsewhere, allowing him to push boundaries toward success. There is also a more day-to-day situation where trying to constantly do huge things causes burnout and near instant defeat before you even get started. This is where you just push a little more than you think your agency allows you to do. For example, getting together a skate setup in your backyard and then inviting your friends over. You don’t want to go too far and start imposing your vision for a whole skatepark by building on a plot of land that isn’t yours before getting approvals, because that’s stupid and will get you in big trouble, compromising your ability to do something big later.


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