Agency and Acceptance: A balancing act
Agency is good. But beware of too much of a good thing.
For many years, I’ve been a strong advocate of agency.
Agency is the capacity and willingness to act.
Agency is the antidote to mindless drifting.
Agency is the act of living with intention and direction.
In a world of coddled minds, helicopter parenting, incel culture and passifying entertainment, agency is a most precious and scarce resource. One that ought to be celebrated and promoted, yes indeed – but most importantly, one that ought to be lived out day to day.
I will continue to advocate for agency. But a new perspective has recently entered my mind – may the agency agenda go too far?
I’m afraid it can. Too much agency can become hustle porn, or the tyranny of excessive personal development, or a direct path to burnout. It can become Extreme Ownership taken a tad bit too far.
The logical progression is straightforward – if you have Agency Over Your Life, if you can achieve anything you want, then you must simply apply yourself better, faster, stronger, and you will ultimately reach Success Nirvana. Just add more discipline, more doing, more work. Bias to action. Execution all day long. Whatever it takes. Sink or swim, keep moving forward. Just listen to a few more Alan Watts deep house remixes so your subconscious mind will finally get the message, then you will Make It.
But… the results in your life are unfortunately not simply a direct reflection of your level of sheer hustle. This truth is an inconvenient one, but a truth nevertheless. Luck, disasters, genetics, geopolitics, global finance and a host of other factors outside of your control can and will shape your destiny, whether you like it or not.
Yes, at the margin, the person who works hard and makes smart decisions should come out ahead of the comparable person who slacks off. But even the hardest working champ out there can get struck by lightning, hit by a bus, or graduate in a 2008-style economy – even if he does monthly reviews, follows a perfected morning routine every day, lives an exquisite Vegan Keto Crossfit lifestyle, and has internalized the complete bibliography of his spiritual masters Jim Collins and Eckhart Tolle.
There are many ways of dealing with this unfortunate fact of life, but the most productive way seems to be to simply Accept it.
Easier said than done, especially in domains of life where you want to, feel like, and generally do have a high degree of agency and ability to shape how things turn out.
It is relatively easy to accept that I won’t become a world class NBA player, because I’m not born as a freakishly tall man in America. It also helps that I don’t care about basketball whatsoever – accepting impossible futures I don’t want is easy as pie.
On the other hand, I would LOVE to reach tens of thousands of people with this newsletter, and I
know believe I could make that happen if I truly applied myself. Yet, it’s currently just reaching ~500 people, despite several legitimate attempts to make it grow.
In other words, becoming a legitimate writer with a large number of readers might never happen for me. I can either Accept that, or apply more Agency, more hustle, more pressure and more more more to will it into being. But even if I do all that, it might not happen anyway. Then I’m only left with acceptance.
I might never have a big audience. And that’s OK.
I might never build a huge company. That’s OK too.
I might never get particularly wealthy. Now we’re pushing it here, but frankly, even that would be OK.
These are realisations I’m personally coming to terms with these days. Perhaps it’s a result of aging into a new phase of life. Perhaps it’s because I’ve thoroughly scrutinized my own desires after reading Luke Burgis’ enlightening work on mimetic desire. Perhaps it’s because of being near tragic events that put things into perspective over the last few months.
Whatever the reason, I’m moving towards acceptance. Acceptance of the fact that I cannot control every variable that plays a role in whether or not I reach goals or achieve this or that, regardless of how much agency I apply.
This led me to Tweet out a question the other day.
My wise friend Tim replied immediately and put the case to rest.
Tim is right. Agency and acceptance must live together.
Apply as much agency as you can, and accept whatever happens.
Do your very best, and let the chips fall where they may.
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