#19 Regaining Agency
2 simple steps.
It’s been a minute… a hot, humid minute. If you’re rubbing your eyes wondering how we arrived in August-land, I’m right there with you. I’m actually having a lot of those moments when I rub my eyes and wonder how we all got here.
A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker published a cartoon of a woman, with a look of dismay, staring at a TV screen showing a local TV news anchor:
The caption reads:
Today’s top story: nobody did anything about anything that you wanted them to do anything about.
It perfectly sums up what a lot of us have been feeling and in these past few months, if not the past few years. What is this feeling? What are we missing?
I think it can be summed up as a loss of agency. A loss of control and autonomy. A disjunction between what we asked for, and we’re getting. I look around and see that many of our longstanding models of agency are breaking down.
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In our democracy, we elect representatives that are supposed to act as our agents — to do in government as we would wish to do ourselves. Whether it’s on paid leave, gun laws or abortion care, for many of us, especially female and with children, there is an acute sense that our agents-slash-representatives are not acting in representation of us and our interests.
In work, where employees are expected to act as agents of the employer who provides compensation for the work, the pandemic has upended our priorities and lifestyles such that our interests as employers and employees are misaligned… or at least, in need of serious re-calibration.
In health, our nurses, doctors, surgeons, and pharmacists are tasked to act on our behalf to provide the best care in our best interest. At best this relationship is actually one of a fiduciary. But as SCOTUS rules to upend the rule of law around women’s health care, this once-sacred relationship between doctor and patient has been reduced to one where the ultimate priority is dodging potential litigation.
In all of these ways, we are feeling a loss of agency. The individuals and institutions that are supposed to be closely aligned in self interest are becoming increasingly distant and estranged.
What is agency?
In casual speak, we talk about feeling a sense of agency when we feel in control of our actions and destiny.
When we look closely at various theories around agency, we see a number of variations on this same theme. In economics, we talk about agency theory in corporate governance: shareholders are the principals and the officers act as agents, making decisions about the company that are in furtherance if the shareholders’ self interest (generally, higher market value). In law, an agent is someone who is legally authorized to enter into legal relationships with third parties on behalf of the principal. Agencies are groups of people who can be hired for work — whether it’s a talent agency, an ad agency, or a temp agency.
In practice, these models of agency relationships are necessary for running our lives on a micro scale, and for running our economy at a macro scale. Whether it’s writing out a birth plan and having your birth partner and support team honor and advocate for your wishes, or the Board of Twitter taking decisive legal action on behalf of all shareholders to hold Elon Musk to task on his signed contract, these relationships play a fundamental role in the way we make decisions and take action.
So much of parenting for me right now (especially with all four kids at home over the summer, fighting over the same damn toy) is explaining that you cannot control other people’s actions, but you can control your own. And in this current moment, I see the beginnings of a movement towards regaining agency in our own lives and livelihoods by doing two essential things.
First, a prerequisite for exercising agency is knowing what you actually want. A significant source of our frustration and and loss of agency is rooted in the fact that we haven’t done the work of figuring out what we want. Not what we think we should want. Not what the great forces of capitalism and the patriarchy want to convince us that we want. What we really really want. Because if I don’t know what I want — if the principal doesn’t identify what their interests are — no one else can be faulted for not failing to act in pursuit of it. What we are seeing on this side of the pandemic is that women (and mothers especially) are learning to tune into their true wants in a way that they didn’t consider before. So whether it’s wanting to work from home, or wanting to be a caregiver in this season of life, it’s coming to identify and accept our unique wants in a given moment that are not tethered to the roles we already play or the track we’re on.
Second, we need to find and activate tools and resources to realize our identified self interest without simply entrusting someone else or an organization to realize it for us.
The context could be big or small, stakes high or low, but when it feels like no one is doing anything that you wanted them to do on your behalf, these two steps can feel incredibly empowering.
If you consider summertime really precious family time and find this summer passing you by because of work or just a sense of listlessness, take the time to identify what you really want from this season. Maybe it will inspire you to plan a “yes” day with the kiddos (I am not so adventurous and nor are my kids, but several of my friends have done this with smashing success). Maybe it will reveal that you just don’t want to work in the summer (this is not a crazy idea; someone at some point decided kids shouldn’t go to school in the summer). Or maybe you will realize you actually resent the pressure to have fun in the sun and will gladly fast forward to September (join the club; I am Team Fall and I have all the cozy knits to show for it).
Identify what you really want. Take action to make it real. And I think this simple exercise of regaining agency can create meaningful momentum.
This summer I have revisited the title of this newsletter — How I’m Building This Life. And at the core of what I’m interested in sharing and creating in this space is the idea that we have agency to build our own unique and beautiful lives, in pursuit of our truest wants.
What is one specific desire that you have the agency to make a reality this week?