Are You A High Agency Person? How To Respond When You Hear ‘No’

In 2007, Peter Thiel was outed as gay by the website Gawker.

“It was like a full‑on attack out of the blue. There was nothing I had ever done to these people in any way whatsoever,” Thiel would say. Yet perhaps what disappointed Thiel most about the experience was not the violation of his privacy but the response of the people he talked to about it. In conversations with his staff, with other investors in the Silicon Valley, even with a notorious New York City fixer who solved problems for mobsters, the response was always “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

At best, he was told to grow a thicker skin and at worst, he was told that if he wanted Gawker to treat him better, he should play ball and leak them gossip about other people (as other celebrities and business people often did).

It’s a pretty common response to difficult, intractable problems, particularly ones that don’t seem to involve clear violations of law. It’s just the way things are, we say, this sucks but that’s how it is. Peter would hear this enough that he would come to internalize the attitude himself.

A few years later, he would find himself sitting across from someone who did have a plan for resolving the so-called “Gawker Problem,” as Thiel had come to call it. It was a structured plan — with a specific timeline and budget — on how exactly to take Gawker down. Still, Thiel’s initial response would be to repeat the words he had heard from so many others: There is nothing can that can be done. It was impossible. But this time, the man sitting across from him would look Thiel in the eye and call him out on his bullshit: “Peter, if everyone thought that way, what would the world look like?”

What would follow from this conversation would be one of the unlikeliest conspiracies in modern age: The takedown of Gawker as engineered by Peter Thiel. Something that Gawker would later admit that they never saw coming because they simply didn’t believe it was possible.

Many will disagree with what Thiel did and whether he should have done it. I make no argument about that here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the attitude behind his response — one that most of us can agree that we need today, more than ever. The attitude that solves impossible problems, that does the things others don’t see coming because they don’t think it can be done.

The mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, has a category of individual he defines as a “high agency person.” As Eric would elaborate on Tim Ferriss’s podcast: “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? So, how am I going to get past this bouncer who told me that I can’t come into this nightclub? How am I going to start a business when my credit is terrible and I have no experience?”

And you? How do you respond when told something is impossible? Is that the end of the conversation or the start of one? What’s the reaction to being told you can’t — that no one can? One type accepts it, wallows in it even. The other questions it, fights it, rejects it. This choice defines us. Puts us at a crossroads with ourselves and what we think about the kind of person we are.

Again, I don’t want to make too much of Thiel’s particular dilemma because that’s not the point. In fact, his particular disagreement with Gawker is the opposite of the point. There would be a line from a Gawker writer afterwards as they eulogized the site, “You live in a country where a billionaire can put a publication out of business…a billionaire can pick off an individual writer and leave that person penniless and without legal protection.” Right — another crossroads. What are they going to do about this dilemma? How will they solve it? Or will they do nothing?

Even I, someone who had written many articles that were critical of Gawker, was so blinded by the status quo bias, that it did not occur to me that anything could actually be done about Gawker. Like many people, I accepted “criticizing things on the internet” as the extent of the available solutions.

It was Steve Jobs who once said that,

“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, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

Once you learn this, he said, you’ll never be the same again.

People have spoken of Jobs’ “reality distortion field” and this is really what it was. He believed more in his own agency — his own power to change and affect things — than he did in conventional wisdom or other people’s opinions.

But this idea of agency is a controversial one today. Most of discourse is marked with shibboleths that reveal our doubts about agency. We speak of privileges and systemic biases. We talk of our problems as if they are intractable, overwhelming and malevolently created. Even on the extreme right, there is an obsession with biological differences between sexes and races, about whether one gender or another is naturally better at this or that. Again, these are simply averages that have nothing to do with individuals. Our focus on it all, from either side, is a way of subtly erasing agency. We emphasise where we are disempowered rather than opportunities for empowerment.

In one of my interviews with Thiel, I would ask him about conspiracies. Why don’t you think the media was able to see what you were doing, I asked, given that a number of people were aware of your plotting and a few blogs had even written about it publicly? “We live in a world where people don’t think conspiracies are possible,” Thiel would say to tell me. “We tend to denounce ‘conspiracy theories’ because we are skeptical of privileged claims to knowledge and of strong claims of human agency. Many people think they are not possible, that they can’t be pulled off.”

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who don’t believe in their own agency naturally find themselves with very little of it. As I’ve written before, believing you can do something doesn’t mean you can, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to do something you don’t believe you can do.

What would happen if more people took up plotting, coordinating how to eliminate what they believe are negative forces and obstacles, tried to wield power in an attempt to change the world? I think the world would be a better place.

We need fewer people who are resigned to the status quo — whatever it happens to be. We need more people who are willing to take risks and not listen when others say no. We could almost always use more boldness, and less complacency. We could use less telegraphing of our intentions or ambitions and see what secrecy, patience, and planning might accomplish. We could use a little more craziness and disruption, even from the people we disagree with.

In a way, we need more conspiracies not less, even when we disagree with what those conspiracies happen to be doing. I would much rather live in a world where people are capable of making changes I object to than a world where no one — including the people I support — are capable of anything.

The line from Hannibal when he was told that crossing the Alps was impossible: Aut inveniam viam aut faciam. I shall either find a way or make one.

This is what high agency individuals do. This is how they respond to bad odds, to big doubts, or frustrating situations.

The question for us then, is not whether Peter Thiel should have conspired, but how we can learn from that conspiracy. How we can exert our own levels of agency. Because the truth is our opinion on whether something should have happened is irrelevant. What matters is whether it did.

And then, as always, what we plan to do about it.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue