2019-06-17 (last updated: 2019-06-18) conceptsbest

Agency, externalization

Hey all -

This edition begins with psychology, ends with theology, and includes a mental model I made up. It contains my opinions, and these opinions may be wrong. Sorry, but also, enjoy.

+ mental models #

* Agency

From an early age, we learn little by little that we can control things. We yell and scream and cry - and then we get attention! We pull a dog’s ears, and the dog recoils in pain. We catapult food across the room, and the food makes a mess.

“I did that!” we think to ourselves. Our eyes widen, rich with wonder and possibility.

This is our introduction to agency: the ability to control outcomes. The world changes as a result of our actions. It’s invigorating, empowering, intoxicating.

But it doesn’t last. We quickly learn that we can’t in fact control everything. We yell and scream and cry - and our parents withhold attention. We pull a dog’s ears and the dog snaps back. We catapult food across the room and we get put in timeout.

In other words, we can’t always effect the outcomes we desire. We can’t just wish for a million dollars, or to find the love of our life, or to no longer have any problems - and then these things magically happen. Our agency in the world has limits.

When our actions are tightly correlated with the outcome - we drop a glass on the floor and so it does - then we have a high degree of agency with respect to the glass. We might say that our actions explain nearly 100% of the outcome - an almost one-to-one relationship.

At the other extreme, there are situations where we exercise very little agency. If we act in such a way to become rich or famous or happy - and then we don’t immediately become those things - then we have a low degree of agency with respect to these goals. Our actions explain maybe 10% of the outcome, and in fact there are many other factors which contribute the other 90%.

When we operate with a high-agency view of the world, we tend towards egotism. We become convinced that we - and we alone - are the sole contributor to the outcomes we see.

When we operate with a low-agency view of the world, we tend towards fatalism. We become convinced that our actions have little to no effect on the outcomes we see.

Obviously, neither view in the extreme is particularly accurate. We exist somewhere in between. We can change some things, but not everything.

And, most importantly, just how much agency we have depends on the situation. You may have a lot of agency when it comes to getting out of bed or doing your job well, but not so much when it comes to playing blackjack or making people like you.

It can be tempting, though, to believe that our agency does not depend on the situation. We may believe we operate not within high- or low-agency situations, but rather as high- or low-agency people.

If you believe you’re a high-agency person, what happens when you’re thrown into a situation where you truly have very little control? Disillusionment.

If you believe you’re a low-agency person, what happens when you’re thrown into a situation where you truly have substantial control? Learned helplessness.

In both cases, we fail to accurately identify just how much agency we have because we’ve assigned agency to our identity, not to the situation. And to the extent our identity is static, so too is our model of agency. In a dynamic and ever-changing world, our static model of agency is bound to become miscalibrated.

For example, consider a spoiled child. They’ve been trained to believe they live in a high-agency world. Whatever they want, they get!

High-agency becomes part of their identity, and so they become arrogant and selfish and brag incessantly. They fail to notice all the other factors - their parents and upbringing and environment - which also substantially contributed to their success.

But when they hit the real world - when the circumstances inevitably change - suddenly they realize they have less agency than they thought. People don’t cater to them, people don’t listen to them, people don’t like them. Their ability to effect desirable outcomes has vanished.

This free fall from high to low agency can be a traumatizing experience. It ejects them from homeostasis - the comfort and security of equilibrium - and into a reactionary stress response. Fight-or-flight is triggered.

Sometimes, the pure egotist descends into pure fatalism. They flee from their obligations, withdraw from the world, and often become depressed.

Other times, they fight to preserve their identity. They keep up appearances, lie, and foster the veneer of continued success. Inside, they may feel a crippling performance anxiety, a paralyzing fear of not being able deliver on their next act - of not being able to get the outcomes they want.

They were led to believe they were high-agency people, when in fact they simply always operated in high-agency situations. That is, until they didn’t.

On the other end of the spectrum, consider an unloved child. The unloved child was trained to believe that no matter what they do - cry or yell or smile or laugh - they won’t get attention. And when the circumstances inevitably change - when people finally listen to them, when the world opens up to them - they are often apathetic, depressed, or deeply suspicious.

In both cases, the problem is neither high- nor low-agency, it’s a miscalibrated model of agency for a given situation. It’s a model of agency fixed to an identity, not adapted to a situation.

So how do we liberate ourselves from this tendency to ascribe agency to our identity?

There’s a little trick I call “externalization”, and we can look to the past and present to find examples of it.

* Externalization

During the times of classical antiquity, poets like Homer and Virgil and Ovid began their epics with a ritualistic deference to something called the “Muse.” They’d entreat the Muse: please, imbue our work with divine inspiration!

But the poets themselves - they didn’t take credit for their creative output. They were mere vessels of a greater creative force, the Muse.

The ancient Greeks also believed in lesser deities called “daimons.” The Romans called them “geniuses.” These spiritual, external forces fiddled with your destiny. Sometimes they helped, sometimes they hurt. They were capricious and unpredictable and powerful.

No matter what you did, they were always at least a contributing factor to the ultimate outcome. And as a result, there was simply no guarantee of anything.

Whether it was the Muse or daimons or geniuses, the effect was the same: people figured out a way to disentangle outcomes from identities. If a bad thing happened, you weren’t 100% accountable. And if a good thing happened, you weren’t 100% responsible.

Agency - the ability to control outcomes - could never, ever be 100% attributable to you. Some of it was always externalized.

In fact, I think one could argue that every major religion ever had its own version of externalization. Whatever you call it, in some form or another, it’s God.

Ever notice how when actors accept an Academy Award, or when athletes win a championship, or when business people reflect on their careers, they all tend to externalize to nearly hyperbolic levels? They thank their friends and family and teachers and mentors and colleagues and teams - and, of course, God.

It’s not really about who in particular they give credit to. The point is that they’re not taking credit themselves. They’re acknowledging - effectively “paying respect to” - everything that’s out of their control. They’re inoculating against the ego.

Because the moment they over-attribute success to their own ego - they believe that “it was all me” - they know the game is over. They’ve discovered through painful experience that too much ego doesn’t pay. On the contrary, the best way to learn, adapt, improve and grow within a dynamic world is to externalize. To stay humble.

Externalization offers a “one-size-fits-all” explanation for everything we can’t explain, control, or take credit for. It’s an evolutionary prophylactic against the greatest threat to humanity out there: ourselves.

And if you don’t accept the spiritual argument, I get that. But there’s a secular analog as well.

That thing spiritualists call the Muse, daimons, geniuses, God - well we secularists call that thing “luck.”

It’s everything that’s unconscious and unknown and unknowable. It’s everything that’s beyond our control. It’s that unwavering reminder that no matter how hard we humans try to operate upon the world, we will always operate within it.

Whether it’s luck or whether it’s God, they both certainly work in mysterious ways. And externalization ensures we respect it.

Now, does the externalization of agency necessarily drive us to fatalism? Does it mean there’s no reason to try at all?

I don’t think so.

You don’t see athletes suddenly decide to stop training because “it doesn’t really matter.” Nor do you see writers stop writing, painters stop painting, or singers stop singing.

I think we humans have a natural tendency toward egotism. We’re biologically hardwired for it. Egotism gets us to do something. Fatalism doesn’t do anything. And - from an evolutionary point of view - that’s not very adaptive.

Give people agency and they’re happy; take it away and they become depressed. If you’ve ever “validated” someone - inspired them, uplifted them - what you’ve really done is endowed them with a greater sense of agency. Agency gives us purpose.

And while we can’t control everything, we can absolutely control some things. The sort of beautiful thing about our existence is that we get to choose. We get to choose our actions and reactions and decisions and habits. We may not be able to control outcomes, but we can at least control the process of getting to those outcomes.

This is why “God helps those who help themselves” and “fortune favors the prepared.” It’s the same thing in different language.

In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, no matter what the outcome is, we still show up. We still do our job. We won’t always get the outcome we want - after all, we’re just one factor among many - but we are precisely the factor we have control over.

This seems to be the sweet spot of human agency: at last, a calibrated model. Control what you can, and let go of what you can’t.

On our biological quest to pure egotism, we’ll inevitably overshoot the true amount of agency we have in any given situation.

That’s fine, and in fact, it’s to be expected. The trick of course is coming back.

It’s about repenting for the ego having overextended. It’s about returning to equilibrium. It’s about finally seeing the whole picture: the cosmic yin and yang, the ego and the world.

In a word, it’s about finding salvation.

Thanks for reading,