Adopting an aspiration, charting a course, or determining a direction all have as their seed the acorn of agency. Agency is another word for self-belief. It reflects a conviction that your actions make a difference. A decision to do has at its root a belief that you’re capable. Without the belief in ourselves that we have a chance to succeed, we’re unlikely to exert the effort. If we want our life to flourish into a strong, powerful Oak tree capable of weathering storms and growing to meet our highest expectations and capabilities, we need to spend time nurturing the root of self belief.
Self-belief, agency, free will, self-efficacy, or an internal locus of control are all similar terms for the idea that we are the captain of our own ship rather than a mere puppet or passenger. Our actions can bring about what we want. We can change both ourselves as well as things in the world we experience in order to manifest our vision. It’s adopting a proactive approach to life. Building self-belief is developing the pillar of personal responsibility. As the saying suggests, if it is to be, it is up to me.
Renown psychologist, Albert Bandura, advanced a theory of self-efficacy which highlights the role that people’s belief in their ability to influence events has on their own results. The theory seeks to explain what happens when individuals with varying levels of this characteristic meet obstacles as well as success. Those higher with a belief in the value of their own efforts will persist in the face of struggle. Moreover, their efforts will be reinforced and result in further contributions over time after being met with success.
Legendary investor, Sam Altman, has seen many individuals achieve stratospheric levels of business success. In an essay titled, How to be Successful, Altman highlights the importance of fostering a high degree of self-belief. Altman writes, “Self belief is immensely powerful. The most successful people I know believe in themselves almost to the point of delusion. Cultivate this early. As you get more data points that your judgment is good and you can consistently deliver results, trust yourself more.” Altman goes on to reflect on a conversation he had with Elon Musk while touring Musk’s Space X facility. “He (Musk) talked in detail about manufacturing every part of the rocket, but the thing that sticks in memory was the look of absolute certainty on his face when he talked about sending large rockets to Mars. I left thinking ‘huh, so that’s the benchmark for what conviction looks like.’”
The best across domains share a strong self-belief. What are some ways that we can seek to strengthen our self belief?
Reflect on our own life experience and evidence. Take time to reflect and write down all the things you can do. This will help deepen the understanding that your actions matter. You can make a difference. You had to put in some kind of effort to acquire these skills. The difference between where you were and where you are was bridged by your efforts. This message can be applied to any future skill or goal you seek to achieve. If you apply yourself to taking steps to move towards a desired outcome you have the capabilities to make progress towards it.
Look at Achievers. Many of those we hold up as role models share the common element of having acted on the world to achieve the things we admire. The role models we look at across fields from pop culture, music, movies, TV, sports, business, and politics all represent examples of individuals accepting and embracing their agency. If we look past the results and seeming ease with which some of our icons have achieved the heights of accomplishment and study both their background and their preparation, we can begin to see a connection between where they are and what they did to get there. Even the most talented of individual has taken substantial and steady steps to move to the top of their field. When we see the effort exerted by others to get better at their craft, we can connect the dots. If we look at the number of early mornings, the number of practice sessions over a decade or more, the targeted practice resulting from proactively seeking professional coaching and feedback, and dogged persistence we see that these idols didn’t just fall to the top of the heap. They crawled, climbed, and clawed their way bit by bit. Their schedules reflect almost every waking minute being intentionally allocated towards activity that was designed to move them towards their intended destination. Their decision to take action was converted into effort advancing them.
Be Open to Encouragement. Great teachers, coaches, friends, and family can all contribute to your self belief. Is there a teacher that fondly comes to mind as being your favorite or most impactful? What was so special about them? How did they make a difference to you? How was your view of yourself shaped by their contributions? Did you come to think that you were capable of more than you had been giving? Did they demand more from you? Did they hold you accountable? Did they help clarify the connection between action and consequence?
Develop Streaks. Hopefully, we each take the time to brush our teeth daily. Ideally, a couple of times a day. Consider how long you have been doing this in your life. If you’ve been brushing your teeth twice daily since you were five years old and are now twenty, you’ve logged almost 11,000 sessions with your toothbrush. If you’re 40, you’ve accumulated well over 25,000 clashes with your Crest. The simple act of brushing one’s teeth can be viewed as a habit we adopt to help ourselves maintain our health. Detailing the habits we have which help make us better and seeking to craft some new ones both reflect streaks which are our repeated efforts applied consistently over time. Small things done daily build better outcomes over time. Looking at our streaks is a great way to connect our own contributions to our efforts. Doing something several times in a row becomes its own reward. We’re not worried about producing perfection. Just do something, a little something, today, to keep the streak alive.
Consciously develop a body of work. The more we have done of something, the more evidence we have to demonstrate that we are X. For example, if I am a reader, the evidence for that core trait is the number of books I have read which I can display on bookcases. If I am a home builder, the evidence for my professional capabilities is the number of homes I have successfully completed. If I am a writer, the evidence for this is the number of pages I have written. Better than the number of pages is the number of completed works. Yet even better than the number of completed works are the number of published works. The quantity and quality of output becomes the body of work which speaks to someone’s ability to produce X. In our work lives, our resumes represent what we’ve done. In certain professions, we can get more specific and detail the specific projects we’ve worked on, or the quantity of certain items produced. If we’re a creator, we can show our portfolio, whether it be of poetry, music, art, or photography. The quantity and quality of what we have produced speaks to our ability to produce, our ability to make an impact, our agency. Our actions create our outputs, the sum of our outputs reflect the power of our actions. The cycle reinforces itself. We develop our sense of agency by doing things. We don’t do it by the number of dreams or thoughts we’ve had but by the sum of our actions. We are what we do. If we do stuff, we become someone who can do stuff.
Youtube it. Next time you face a circumstance where you don’t know what to do, type it into your phone or laptop as a question. Ask Google for help. You’ll likely find that many have faced the same problem and have all kinds of advice to offer. From detailed write ups to Youtube videos illustrating steps to solve your situation, someone somewhere has faced the same issue and taken steps to manage it. Try to solve your own problem. If you experience a flat tire on your car, instead of waiting for a good Samaritan or calling AMA, pull out the owner’s manual and look at changing the tire yourself. Google changing a spare tire on your phone. You can even ask for help for your specific year and model of car to get more specific directions.
Accepting the idea of agency is like adopting the posture of the only thing between you and what you want is you. This doesn’t guarantee that we will achieve our goal. It simply offers the most constructive perspective that will fuel your efforts to proactively pursue your goals. We certainly believe that the alternative view is less inspiring. Believing that things are outside of your control, and you are at the mercy of fate seems disheartening.
Agency is at the core of the Stoic philosophy. A starting point of Stoicism is incenting individuals to identify and differentiate between what they can control and what they can’t control with the goal to be to allocate attention only to those things that they can control. The idea of attending to that which is within one’s ability to influence is what agency is all about. Epictetus offered, “We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?” It is suggested that a differentiating factor of Stoicism from other schools of philosophical thought is that it is intended to provide guidance for action. Its dictums are designed to detail practical paths for its disciples to walk. Its founders were concerned with how to become better people and to help others get better. It can be thought of as the original self-help effort.
On another occasion, Epictetus details that, “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” We are encouraged to actively engage this question regularly throughout our days. In each circumstance we find ourselves, ask, “Is this something I can change or is this something over which I have no control?” We are to focus our efforts on that which we can and ignore the rest. Undertaking this practice accelerates our agency and builds our belief in our ability to make things happen while giving us peace of mind and less frustration by ignoring those elements outside our influence.
As Charles Duhigg writes in his book, Smarter Faster Better, “A prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.” Duhigg is helping us understand the power a belief in our own capabilities is to fueling our own efforts.
Perhaps, you’re familiar with the experience of being “reminded” that at the center of all our problems lies us when faced with a challenge. The message is rarely one we want to hear in the moment, but left with it for a while, it can sink in. I’m not a therapist and I don’t know you, but I’m confident predicting that one common element of every bad relationship you have ever been a part of is…you. Though it doesn’t feel good at the time, recognizing our own participation in our problems is deeply empowering. Viewing ourselves as at least a contributing factor to our challenges offers us the opportunity to see ourselves as the answer. It’s the most constructive way to frame a view of the world that allows us to not become a victim. Accepting our agency means that we have a chance. We can take some action towards influencing our outcomes. We’re not passive participants in our lives, but proactive players.
The key takeaway is that even though we can’t control everything, we can control some things. Life is more enjoyable from the perspective of trying to shape our direction. Let’s pick an aim, something to shoot for, and do what we can to move towards it. Agency is the essential element, the crucial component, the basic building block of progress in any endeavor. It offers the entry point to personal progress. First, we need to know and believe that we’re capable of change, then we’re more receptive to guidance and direction.
Marie Forneo offers a philosophy with which to approach life that she details in a book titled by the philosophy itself: Everything is Figureoutable. Marie learned this attitude from her mother and has built her entire life, to great success, by drawing strength from this idea. Believing that things can be figured out pushes us to take some step to finding answers to challenges we face. We don’t wilt and give up in the face of problems. We step back, think, then act. Albert Bandura describes it as “a belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the sources of action required to manage prospective situations.”. Or, the sweet simplicity of Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose!” William James is considered by many as the “father of modern psychology.” He encouraged people to, “act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” James also noted, “There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self.”