The Gift of Agency

The Gift of Agency

Happy New Year!

I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well. While we may have learned a lot about ourselves and the nature of airborne viruses this past year, there is also no denying what we have lost: over 350,000 lives, millions of jobs, plans great and small, the closeness of our friends and family. There is just no sugarcoating how devastating this past year has been for millions of people around the world. It is a feeling of being “hijacked” – at the mercy of events beyond our control. 

As this new year begins, I’m reminding myself and my coaching clients of the agency that still exists within our own lives. Loosely defined, agency might be described as the belief that we have the ability to impact our lives, in ways both positive and negative. It is a fundamental belief that we still have the power to shape things, despite whatever is going on around us.  

High vs. Low Agency

Recently, I was speaking with child psychologist Tovah Klein, and I was blindsided by something she said to me: “It is not your job to make your children happy. It is your job to help them handle the tougher moments – anger, fear, disappointment and frustration. And to let them know that it is okay not to be happy. This is how they learn resilience.” Of course, this is hard to put into practice. But she is 100% correct. We are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness, but we are entirely responsible for our own. 

Despite the simplicity of this concept, it’s amazing the drama we cause each other and ourselves through a lack of personal agency. My boss is always in a foul mood which makes it very hard to broach the subject of promotion. Or, my husband is not the man I married ten years ago. Or, I’m too old and too tired to start a new career now. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And so on. A word for this we sometimes use in coaching circles is “story fondling.” It implies a kind of attachment to a particular belief set, as though we are admiring the story, even if the underlying premise is faulty. 

A person of “high-agency” will recognize that it is not their spouse’s job to make them happy or fulfilled; that is their own responsibility. Just as it is their responsibility to advocate for themselves and their work. People with high levels of personal agency understand that not getting enough sleep will make them feel cranky, less engaged and more prone to sickness. Staying up to watch the late-night news will adrenalize them. And there are solutions to this. Unplug the TV. Get to bed on time. Unsubscribe. Turn off notifications. Read something that inspires you.

In ways large and small, we control many of the stimuli that produce our results. 

What are some things to keep in mind as we look to develop a more personal agency this year?


All Change First Begins in the Mind

There’s a saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” And so it is with us. Most of the results in our lives are a direct result of some decision we have made, or not made. Sometimes it is an active choosing: “I want to be a person who…” Sometimes it’s a letting go: “I refuse to accept this any more.” But without the decision, nothing changes. Many years ago, I gave up a well-paying job to start my own company. I remember being terrified because I knew that this decision could be pivotal, and would likely alter my life’s trajectory. But I had decided that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I also knew that if I could do this, then it was possible that I could change other things about my life too. But the decision had to come first. 


Agency is contagious

Have you ever noticed how agency in one area of your life can bleed over into another? You go for a morning run and suddenly the endorphins kick in and carry over into that Zoom meeting you had been dreading. You take a dance class, and the sense of fun that it brings carries over into your relationships at home. Raising your hand at work gives you the confidence to take on greater responsibility, and better advocate for yourself come review time. Eating a better breakfast makes you more likely to choose a healthy lunch. Taking control of one area of your life often has a positive knock-on affect in another area. And a small incremental change often leads to bigger change over time. The key is to begin.


Agency involves acceptance

Agency is about recovering our sense of self, and accepting the totality of our experience: the good bits, the bad bits, the things we wish were different. One of the best ways to get there is practicing gratitude more faithfully. There’s a fabulous TED talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast on this subject. He’s the only Benedictine monk with over 8 millions views! If you do just one thing for yourself this year, take 15 minutes out of your day to watch this. Listen to every word, maybe more than once. In a year of great suffering and strife, this feels like the perfect vaccine against everything right now. As Brother David reminds us, “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens to us.” 

Wishing you and your loved ones Peace and Joy in 2021!