On becoming a high-agency individual

In my experience of working at early and growth-stage companies, the single biggest differentiating trait that I have found between the successful and not so successful people is the presence of high-agency. Here is a one-line definition of the concept by Eric Weinstein —

When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind, how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something?

If you want to grasp the concept in detail, George Mack has done a brilliant job in describing it and you can read about it here —

I believe that most of us intuitively know about this—the term resourcefulness or the Indian concept of jugaad are some proxies for high agency. But it doesn't get talked about much in the context of high-performance and hence this nomenclature is important. You can only evaluate yourself and see whether you are exhibiting high agency or not when you put a name to the trait.

Some people possess this ability naturally but I think it is something that can be learnt over time with deliberate practice. It doesn't come to me naturally for sure but there was one incident that set me on the path of developing it.

During the initial days of my stint at magicpin, I was too dependent on my peers or seniors for getting even simple jobs done. Whether I was stuck with a logical problem in my code or when I was unable to debug, the reflex response was to ask someone for help. My mind was giving up and accepting that this problem is sort of impossible to solve. There were two problems with this—

  1. It was a convenient lie that I chose to believe in
  2. I was deliberately blocking myself from growing by adopting this mindset

I went out with my manager and a co-worker (whom I dearly respected) once and we spent the night at a cafe talking about work and life. When you do that with like-minded folks, there is a level of ease and trust that allows you to be vulnerable and seek feedback. They made me understand that although I was sharp, my current attitude would not let me prosper. Putting up the fight when stuck with problems is important. It teaches you the power of patience and persistence. In most cases, you'll yourself find your way to the solutions but the process of doing so will help you learn a great deal about things connected to the problem. These lessons might not be immediately applicable, but it will propel you on a growth path which is otherwise difficult to get into.

In addition to taming the mind and forcing it to find solutions, one underrated skill that can fast-track you to becoming a high agency individual is the ability to find answers on the internet. The good thing about human civilisation is that it is built on top of the collective works of people who have come or done certain things before us. Most of the times, you are not required to reinvent the wheel. All you need to do is find someone who has already faced the problem that you are facing and you'll have a headstart. The internet gives us immense freedom in that sense.

This brilliant 2×2 matrix by Shreyas Doshi perfectly summarises the importance of agency relative to talent. At startups at least, go-getters are actually more valuable than the frustrated geniuses.


Have thoughts on this piece? Drop me an email.