High Agency

Who do you want to go to war with?

Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to have hired, worked side by side with and interviewed lot of very smart people. I’ve also had the chance to interact with a lot of very smart folks online and offline and learn from them. After all of that, if there’s one thing I look for, before any other trait (especially the obvious ones), it’s something that’s called a “High Agency” mindset.

It’s a concept which is not very popular and has never really been spoken or written about cohesively in a single post – and hence I’m taking a shot at it. All credit to Eric Weinstein for articulating this, Ryan Holiday and George Mack for expanding on it.

PS: I also tend to be a bit lazy and whenever I’ve been asked for feedback, it tends to revolve around this one point only, so I’m writing this blog post also so that I can just redirect to this. PS: If you have issues with war mode analogies and startups, keep them to yourself. I really don’t care.

What is the High Agency mindset?

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?

High Agency is a sense that the story given to you by other people about what you can/cannot do is just that – a story. And that you have control over the story.

High Agency person looks to bend reality to their will. They either find a way, or they make a way. Low agency person accepts the story that is given to them. They never question it. They are passive. They outsource all of their decision making to other people.

People articulate High Agency behavior in different ways.

Paul Graham – Relentlessly Resourcefulsays he can describe a good startup founder in two words – “relentlessly resourceful” (high agency) He says the opposite of this is “hapless” (low agency).

Jeff Bezos – Third World Prison – has a framework for identifying high agency friends/romantic partners. Answer this question: “If you was stuck in a third world prison and had to call one person to try and bust you out of there – who would you call?”

Keith Rabois – Barrels vs Ammunitionidentifies high agency in employees through a mental model called “Barrels vs Ammunition”.

Peter Thiel – 10 Years in 6 Monthshas a question to help bring out high agency thinking. “How can you achieve your 10 year goal in 6 months?”

Steve Jobs – Change Reality“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 life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: 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… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Life is too short to spend it with Low Agency people

When you’re working on extremely ambitious problems, you really want to be surrounded by people who’re high agency. They give you energy. They figure shit out. They bend reality. They win.

Raw intellectual horsepower, hard work and other things are hygiene. High agency behaviour is what the ultimate differentiator is. It will help you learn much faster, grow much faster and eventually make a huge impact, either in some job you’re doing, or even if you start your own company some day.

In a lot of instances, when I’m introspecting myself or when I’m giving feedback to my directs on why certain things can’t be done, I use one line a lot – “The world is unfair. Deal with it. The market doesn’t care. Figure it out.” The best people, those with a high agency mindset, inherently understand this. And those are the only kind of people that you’ll want to work with.

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