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August 10th, 2022
One of my favorite questions to ask someone I’ve recently met is this: Say I give you half a billion dollars. And we fast forward past the fun years of travel, and food, and general hedonism, until you’re bored of all that and say it cost a mere 50 million to exhaust that part of yourself. Now say with the remaining money, it can’t be given to charity, friends, family or given away. What would you build using that money? What project would you undertake?
The answers to this question often reveal a remarkable amount about a person, their perspective and their sense of agency. Many simply don’t have an answer because the prospect of that much agency has never even crossed their mind. And what’s interesting about these people is that they often still have strong opinions on big issues. The interesting detail to wrangle out of that combo is that it’s clear they’ve never thought constructively about how to put those strong opinions to good work.
This can easily lead to a digression about the relationship between a lack of agency and complaining in general. Complaining is at core perhaps just a cry and a whine about a lack of agency. Complaints are rarely constructive, and if they are, perhaps it tips into the world of constructive criticism. Those who offer constructive criticism recognize they command some agency, even if it doesn’t have direct power - they have the agency of language and persuasion. Such a tool doesn’t always work, but that’s fine: agency isn’t defined as always being able to succeed, it’s an ability to make a probable attempt. For example, I’ve learned some code. Can I take on every project that involves code? Certainly not, but I can give quite a few a solid attempt, and given the time and drive, a good deal of them are realistically in reach.
But back to that question for new comers to my life.. When someone does have an answer, that often reflects a lot about what is fundamental to that person. The way we invoke our agency is a reflection of values, habits, behaviors, dreams, and when that agency is pumped up to the highest degree possible, it purifies a person’s idea of all those things into a kind of ideal of influence that can be leveraged upon the world.
Money is an agency multiplier because we can hire people who have skills we don’t to use those skills in a way that we’d like. This is the whole point of a company run by a single CEO. The person at the top has the vision and that vision is bigger than what one person can achieve, so the vision is extrapolated and ramified through a system of other people so that vision can become a practical reality.
But these are bloated and somewhat rare examples. Few people have half a billion dollars and CEO are not exactly a thick slice of the population. But these points about agency still hold though with different repulsions on smaller scales.
Every new skill and ability that we acquire extends our misshapen sphere of agency, and as that happens we become a different person. This is probably easier to spot for people who have gone through a big career change that required a lot of time devoted to the learning of a new skill. That new skill can unlock combinations of expression and forms of leverage that just didn’t exist previous to having proficiency in the new skill.
An artist who learns to code, for example, can suddenly increase the distribution and reach of their artistic skills to an unfathomable degree. New agency also breeds a new perspective which provides new feedback: the world can literally look differently because of a new ability you have. Learning how to code, for example, sure puts everyone’s pitiful amount of patience with technology into a bit of a wider perspective: a lot of it is justifiable, but not all of it…
It might be tempting to think of skills as things that we can collect, like in a video game, but it’s more than that. It’s as though we collect parts of our future self. We become ourselves anew and expanded when the reach of our agency grows.