On realizing the potential for agency (#166)

I know there are like an uncountably infinite “two kinds of people in this world”, but there are two kinds of people in this world: those who say it can’t be done because they don’t know how it can be done and those who say (and know) it can be done even when they don’t know how it can be done just then.

Noticing potential

There is boundless potential to acquire agency for each person in every situation. But that potential is often covered with layers of pessimism or the implicit “rule-book” (established by society or culture) which people default to that inhibits taking agency. Hence, that potential is barely noticed by some.

If anything is permitted by the vastly admissible laws of physics then the only thing preventing it from being practically possible is not knowing how (ignorance; a lack of knowledge on people’s part). Simply recognizing this, can allow one to notice the incredible potential for agency in seemingly inutile human beings.

To create the knowledge we need to bring about the solutions we want. It’s not impossible. It’s just that we don’t know how (yet) and we can find out how.

I won’t further write here about noticing (or recognizing) potential for taking agency. But rather realizing it, as it’s much more important I think.

How can you go from recognizing that there’s always potential for taking agency to actually being agentic?

The secret is obvious

For some not so obvious reason(s), often the most obvious choice is hardest to be able to grasp into awareness. In his book Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Businessman (free PDF here), Robert Updegraff depicts the importance of (and lack of people thereof) doing the obvious thing to get the job done. He uses the character “Obvious Adams” who was so-called due to his incredible knack at realizing the most obvious things at work which no one else seemed to have guessed. He was one of those people who would make you wonder “how couldn’t have I thought of this before?” This skill of his ultimately led to him becoming the very successful person he became.

In the story, after sitting spellbound through a talk from the president of a famous advertising agency, Obvious Adams was determined that he’d like to work for the man.

So what did he do? He made an appointment and went and told him so.

“I have decided that I want to get into the advertising business and that I want to work for you, and I thought the obvious thing to do was to come and tell you so.”

The president originally thought that Adams was not fit for the job since he lacked alertness. But later got convinced that

“there ought to be some place for a lad who had enough sense to see the obvious thing to do and then to go about it directly, without any fuss or fireworks, and do it!”

So, Adams was hired. A series of similar events then turned out. There would be a problem no one else could seem to tackle. Then Obvious Adams would figure something out and solve the trouble. Thereafter people would scratch their heads thinking “how could it have been otherwise?”

Becoming more of a valuable person with each problem solved, Obvious Adams inevitably became the most-talked-of man in the advertising space and was considered a very successful businessman. All resulting from his gift at spotting the conventionally hidden obvious choice.

“What was the secret of this man’s success”, the author pondered. “There is no secret—it is obvious!”

You can acquire great agency doing the obvious thing. It allows to devise a methodic way to get to the intention or goal. Hence letting agency flourish. This whole while that I’ve been talking about obviousness, I haven’t been talking about the feeling of something being obvious. Almost all opinions or beliefs a person has are obvious to that person. But the obvious thing in Obvious Adams’ sense (and in the sense of this blog post) is rarely obvious at first. Even to Obvious Adams, reality isn’t obvious and everything he says mustn’t be obvious. But when Adams does his plain “magic” and comes to a solution, it becomes obvious to everyone. Yet nobody could come up with that obvious conclusion. How do you do this Obvious Adams’ magic? Why is it so hard to conceive of the most obvious choices?

The problem is rooted in toying around with our own preconceptions and faulty reasoning rather than seeking and analyzing facts and searching for good explanations.

First principles

See this video of Elon Musk explaining the concept of first principles reasoning (not compulsory for those who’ll be doing so for the umpteenth time):

Key point from the video:

“Somebody could say, ‘Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.’

With first principles, you say, ‘What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?’ It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, ‘If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?’

It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour (total). So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

Elon Musk

Notice how obvious it becomes (and how foolish to think otherwise) when Elon explains the battery pack example. Without being caught up analyzing preconceptions, with first principles we note down the stuff needed to make a battery pack. Then each of the costs of those material constituents is figured out. With the facts laid out in front, it’s realized that the costs to create a battery pack are astonishingly low. We just need some clever way to assemble all those parts so we can sell them for way cheaper than they have been sold.

With first principles you don’t follow your preconceptions to arrive at a conclusion. You don’t follow your brain’s tendency to tread on the path of least effort and reason by analogy. You are not being uncritical to whatever the traditional belief is. The conclusion that battery packs are never going to get any cheaper is a very bad explanation. It is reasoned by sheer induction (“it will always be the same because it has always been the same”). With first principles you seek good explanations through a critical lens.

Being able to reason by first principles allows one to abstain from pessimism and the “can’t be done” mindset. It implicitly, but quite strongly influences the person reasoning to acquire agency. It can be very action-oriented letting you go from “We can bring down the prices” to an actually cheaper battery pack that has hit the market. This is the magic.

When the custom tries to steer you off course, fight it with your rational criticisms to the anti-rational ideas in the culture.

The reason the conclusion from this kind of reasoning becomes obvious later is the sheer nature of the explanation. A hard to vary, simple one. But they aren’t obvious before because we rarely think in ways that allow for us to not reason by analogy and reason by first principles. We get caught up analyzing preconceptions, not facts. Nor do we go about critiquing the traditional belief or allowing creativity to flow.

Seeking agency, not authority

You don’t need to consult authority to become agentic. You don’t need anyone’s explicit permission to be taking agency. In a brilliant Twitter thread, Brett Hall writes:

#1 In a dynamic society (like ours) the last reason anyone should seek political office (authority!) at any level is “to make a difference”.

While the first reason should be to protect the mechanisms in place so others (scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, etc) can.

#2 Most (not all) progress happens in wider society in spite of, not because of “political will”.

The history of progress is a history of ideas whose genesis was in labs, cafes, factories, pubs and homes.

Not senate chambers.

Political forces “catch up”. They don’t drive.

#3 The exception is where there exist mechanisms that stifle rapid progress. Reducing the power political (and bureaucratic) authorities have in a dynamic society is perhaps the most virtuous thing a “leader” can do in peacetime.

#4 … No person can flourish most fully by seeking… authority.

Originally tweeted by Brett Hall (@ToKTeacher) on June 20, 2022.

I’m not really suggesting going against the law. But only that seeking authority won’t necessarily give you agency and the proper creative space for doing something good. Any form of compliance that’s based upon an authoritative pull isn’t healthy. It’s quite fixated then. And a little dogmatic.

Instead of seeking authority, just do your stuff. Take agency. Try not to break the thoughtfully laid out laws. If your work does include breaking them, ideally the only harm you should cause is to the arbitrary law. Not to anyone or to anything else.

Uncertainty in the face of agency

The world is uncertain. Things aren’t intended to be and stay as they are. Any plan can be refuted with uncertain events panning out. How can one realize agency when nothing seems to be linear or even certain? That’s an anti-agency excuse that might crop up. So it’s important to address.

Sure, everything is uncertain. But taking agency actually reduces uncertainty. You have control over events. Something entirely unconceived of before could absolutely still decide to pop up. So what? You are much better off taking agency in an uncertain world where, by definition you can produce particular results you want rather than just going with the flow because “it’s all uncertain anyway”.

Reject the helpless mind-set that puts humans at an insignificant scale. We are not insignificant. Human choices can literally change the world. It’s a lack of knowledge again. We can fill the gap by taking agency.

“Advice”

I don’t like to give advice. And I also don’t like most advice. (See why I’m anti-advice here). But some crave the “how to”. They crave concrete advice. This section is for them.

Well, I don’t have a prescription. I just have an opinion on some obvious ways to become a more agentic person:

  • Committing yourself by various means (having your word on the line, etc.)
  • Making your potential pool of opportunities grow
  • Doing the above by being around places and people that are amazing
  • Do the above by reaching out to them—it’s simple
  • Create brain neuroplasticity by seeking novelty (in books, music, people) or by
  • Doing those things you’d never wish to do
  • Go deeper than the surface in almost everything
  • Don’t accept “it can’t be done”
  • Talk to people smarter than you
  • Be motivated by love, guided by reason
  • Don’t take anyone’s word for it—question everything

There’s definitely a lot more creative and unique ways to become more agentic. (Feel free to add points you think fit in the comments!)

Conclusion

It boils down to understanding (in any variant form) that If anything is permitted by the vastly admissible laws of physics then the only thing preventing it from being practically possible is not knowing how and that ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Knowledge that we can create.

To achieve what you intend to you don’t need to know how to do so just then. You just need to know it can be done.

Agency is such a beautiful and important thing. We can take it and shape the world according to our desire.

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Steve Jobs (interview with the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association)

With this sort of understanding—speaking for myself, at least—not being an agentic person is like a disgrace to me being a person itself.


This post was written for Effective Ideas’ Post Prize for June 2022.

Footnotes

I’ve mentioned the Robert Updegraff’s book (Obvious Adams), Elon Musk’s explanation of first principles thinking, Brett Hall’s Twitter thread on not seeking authority to make a “difference”, and Steve Jobs quote in the end. All those things obviously helped crafting this post.

Two other pieces on agency I quite liked were this one by Evie Cotrell and this one by Neel Nanda.

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