Agency & Constraint

Imagine that dancing inside your head are two stories. These stories are the best attempts you have to understand your ability to shape the world around you. Their names are “Agency” and “Constraint.”

Agency always dresses in green. She is of the belief that the world is your oyster and that you and you alone can call things into being. “Let there be” is the favorite phrase of Agency and NO! is the only red lettered word.

The red-dressed Constraint sings a different tune. For every potential action in the world, Constraint is quick to address your likely limitations. Her wisdom comes in identifying real limitations in the world (No, I will never play professional soccer… or tennis… or basketball), but she also tends to pick up on social queues (“what will they say?”) and disguise her kissing cousin of ‘fear’ as its more distinguished friend, ‘voice of reason.’ Constraint grew up on bedtime stories about the weight of the world and the fruitlessness of the fight.

Both has part of the truth. Neither is the whole story.

These two stories live within each of us. What makes us unique is how much weight we give to each — a process shaped by our cognitive writing and the cultures we stand within, amongst other things. Consider the person visualized below. This person tends to draw their line in the sand a bit closer to constraint than to agency. If we were to quantify this person’s perception, we might say they perceive 25% of any situation as under their control and 75% as allusive of their grasp.

These perceptions matter in that they shape each of our decisions to act. “Let there be” is in stark contrast to “Let it lie.” Someone highly aware of their own constraints will be less likely to act in any given situation. They might be held back by a worry about what others might say. They might feel their inability to move the needle as clothed in the voice of reason. Alternatively, someone who sees the world through rose- emerald-colored glasses is likely to act without the same voice of constraints whispering in their ear. For this person, the road not taken weighs heavy on the imagination.

But story told thus far is only about perception, and not about reality. So let’s consider the real extent of agency and constraint alongside what is imagined to be.

Consider the two people visualized below. The person on the left has a high sense of their own agency, but their real-life existence is actually quite riddled with constraints. The person on the right perceives a great deal of constraints, but is actually more free to act than they might think.

The person on the left is analogous to the 15 year-old who believes they can make it to the NBA (high perceived agency) but with basketball talent more akin to my own (high real constraint). The problem with this disjoint is that it drives what we might consider irrational or unwise behavior. They might, for example, devote all their time to a basketball at the expense of other areas where action might have some direction relationship to results. This person needs to move their perception further to the right, a process that might involve some grief. I frame its grief alongside freedom in the hope that there is also an upside to limiting our choice.

The problem with the person on the right is that they actually have a great deal more freedom to act than they in fact realize. This person is analogous to a prisoner sitting inside a cell with the door locked from the inside. For this person, growth comes through discovering their own sense of agency. It also might mean growing in an ability to imagine and envision what appropriate action might look like.

In either case, aligning perception and reality requires hard psychological and emotional work.

But the story is more complicated that this. After all, we live in multiple dimensions (psychological / spiritual, relational, work / vocational, creative), all of which have different flexibility for action and limitations thereon. Consider a new person visualized below along these four different dimensions:

In my experience, people often perceive a clear sense of agency in one area, while silently nurturing a indoctrination by constraints in others. For example, I find it much easier to feel agency in my actions in career (“let me go introduce myself to this person,” “let me send out writing to this venue,” “let me build consulting relationships in this way”) than to understand or cultivate a freedom to create in the less linear worlds of my own psyche and the complexity of relationships. Others might find the opposite to be true.

So if this is the case, how might we move forward? What does it look like to create agency when needed? What might it look like to both grieve and find the corresponding freedom of limitations when sitting in a space of constraint?

Let me offer a few preliminary thoughts:

  • Boundary Exploration — In a recent interview on leadership amongst other topics, retired General Stanley McChrystal described some of the common themes amongst West Point graduates that ended up in significant roles in leadership. In McChrystal’s experience, it was not the most intelligent or best-behaved student that rose to the top, but rather those who sometimes acted out a bit and won the respect of their peers. These future leaders often found a way to diverge with the system in small ways. So why might this behavior be related to leadership? I would argue that good leadership requires a strong sense of agency, and in the small acts of disobedience, we begin to learn how much of ability to act we in fact hold. In these moves to explore the boundary of our perception, we begin to shape our view of the world towards greater agency — a perception that can be self-fulfilling. While there is real importance in abiding by power structures, from an agency perspective, the disobedient might come out ahead.
  • Narrative Stretch — What are the stories that you stand within? What do they tell you about your agency and ability to act? Do they identify the world as your oyster and your oyster alone, and thus push you towards a overly developed and sometimes inaccurate sense of your ability to enact change? Or do these stories instead name you as a bit player in everyone else’s experience without an ability to meaningfully shape this trajectory? Beyond boundary exploration, I think we need to assess how effectively our stories map onto the experiences of ourselves and those around us. In doing so we begin to see how they might stretch to better reflect the whole of human existence — the stories of both the victims and victors.
  • Appropriately Growth & Fixed — Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck argues that individual’s mindsets are either fixed or oriented towards growth. Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings summarizes this work as follows:
A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

You can take Dweck’s assessment here. What I would add to Dweck’s theory is that there is benefit in knowing where we should be growth-oriented (analogous to agency), and where we should be at peace with a fixed reality (analogous to constraint). While I tend to see the benefits of leaning towards growth — if only because pushes us to try new things — we also need to learn to appropriately grieve and be at home in a world of real constraints. The key is knowing which area is which.

  • Daily Discipline — One of my favorite finds of the author Austin Kleon comes in the form of a quote by Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert advises, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so you may be violent and original in your work.” What might this imply about agency and constraint? I think it means we might have to lean into and even built constraints in certain areas to free oneself up to action in others. The great novel was written through the daily discipline of pen hitting paper over and above the moment of creative insight alone. The record-breaking marathon required early alarms and runs that likely started as an attempt to merely outrun lingering drowsiness. In daily disciplines, we make choices about where to constrain in order to move forward enabled.