Validation as a bottleneck for agency

TL;DR: I think our capacity to act is a result of our social environments and, rather than rely on pure self-encouragement, we ought to focus on fostering supportive networks.

Vibes I get from other blogposts on this topic

Most blog posts I’ve read about being more agentic encourage being very explicitly ambitious, but I often find them sort of… sad? This might be because I’m personally repelled by ‘grind culture’ mindsets, and find proclamations that start with “you should” annoying.

Personally, I think of agency as "having ideas and doing them", often without registering the fact that you’re trying to “do a thing”. There are a lot of prerequisites to this, and I think a crucial one is being in an environment that gives you energy and confidence, rather than listening to bloggers telling you to grit your teeth and do socially-uncomfortable things.

Why are you telling me what to do? You don’t know me.

– Me, talking to my computer, after reading too many normative blog posts

I just googled ‘what does it mean to have agency’ and Wikipedia says that it’s the “capacity of individuals to have the power and resources to fulfill their potential”. I quite like that definition, because it’s made me realise that the blogs I’ve read on this topic either:

  1. tell the reader that they, as an individual, have the power and resources they need (and to act on it for God’s sake), or

  2. describe cultural forces that alter an individual’s sense of agency.

And this second category is one I like. It’s not just because I enjoy social commentary, but because this commentary can actually make “Yes, and...” thinking a norm.

This matters because I think an ambitious person's agency is bounded more by their environment than the strength of their determination. The latter helps, of course, but it seems hard to sustain (even if they are quite brilliant).

Below, I provide some examples of blogposts that I think nudge readers to be a little more encouraged and encouraging, in an indirect way. If you're not interested, skip to the next section.

Cultural approaches to increasing individuals’ agency

Illustrative example 1: labelling the automatic dismissal of ideas as part of a cheems mindset makes it very uncool and, consequently, pushes everyone who reads it to be a bit more receptive to new ideas.

To give some visual excitement to this blogpost, I generated this meme with GPT-3.

Representative case number two: Hero Licensing highlights how people can find ambitiousness to be outrageous and require it to be well-justified, even though this is often a waste of time. As well as dunking on the cheems mindset, I think Eliezer Yudkowsky is trying to motivate ‘uncredentialed nobodies’ to ignore the haters and save the world. (If you want to motivate me, tell me how others are wrong for not believing in me, rather than telling me to try harder.) Related: You Don't Need To Justify Everything

Well, I don’t think you can save the world, of course! (laughs) This isn’t a science fiction book.

— Pat Modesto, an insufferable figment of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s imagination

Specimen #3: Social Capital in Silicon Valley. I like this blog because it helps me understand a place I only know from afar, because it’s a celebration of advantageous ambiguity, and because it demonstrates how to minimise upside regret. But you probably didn’t intend to read 4 blogs and a Wikipedia article when you clicked on this post, so here’s an excerpt that explains what social capital is and why it matters:

Social capital ... is a form of wealth that can compound and throw off real dividends when it’s cultivated, or wither and die when it’s drawn down or neglected. Having access to social capital is a privilege. In the business world, social capital is earned over decades, and doled out carefully by those who have it: you can’t just give that stuff away.

Social capital is especially important if you’re trying to build something out of nothing, and need credibility and momentum in order to open doors and be taken seriously. Building startups outside of an established tech ecosystem is hard: there’s so much inertia and friction you have to fight that without existing momentum to draw from.

So what’s so special about who has social capital in Silicon Valley? It's given out by people trying to minimise upside regret:

Hang around for enough time in the Bay Area, and at some point you will meet someone – although you won’t know it at the time – who goes on to do something wildly successful. If you brush them off, it’ll come back to haunt you.

I like to think that if more of us assume that others could do something brilliant, we’re probably going to increase the “capacity of individuals to have the power and resources to fulfill their potential”.

But, do our social environments really matter that much?

Cute stories about supportive social circles

You’ll hear tales about well-known geniuses who were criticised and dismissed in their early careers, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore all criticism and plough on: just try and find critics that are encouraging rather than disparaging. In Collaborative Circles, Michael P. Farrell starts off by describing the friendship of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis:

Nordic epics had enthralled Tolkien when he was a child. His fascination led him to create his own imaginary mythology, and from the time he was eighteen he worked sporadically at casting his stories of elves and wizards into an epic poem. Only once had he allowed anyone to see this work. In 1925 he showed it to an old mentor, who advised him to drop it. The rebuff reinforced his decision to keep the work secret. But after discovering that Lewis shared his interest in "Northernness" and epic poetry, a few days after the late night conversation, Tolkien gave Lewis one of the unfinished poems to read.

Of course, Lewis spoke kindly of Tolkien’s work, saying:

I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight, and the personal experience of reading a friend's work had very little to do with it

and then provided Tolkien with detailed-but-playful criticisms, which he gladly incorporated. This became the start of The Inklings, the pair’s literary discussion group, where the members read aloud their works in progress.

In 1960, Lewis wrote:

Alone among unsympathetic companions, I hold certain views and standards timidly, half ashamed to avow them and half doubtful if they can after all be right. Put back among my friends and in half an hour—in ten minutes—these same views and standards become once more indisputable. The opinion of this little circle . . . outweighs that of a thousand outsiders..., it will do this even when my Friends are far away.

And in 1977, Tolkien wrote (about Lewis):

The unpayable debt I owe to him was not influence as it is usually understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my stuff could be more than a private hobby.

I think this is (1) incredibly cute and (2) important! We can kid ourselves about our sense of independence, but a lot of the most remarkable people needed encouragement from friends, and friends with whom they shared specific values and interests.

Farrell goes on to describe the French Impressionists, a prime example of a collaborative circle:

Each year on the first of April, all artists were invited to submit three of their paintings to a jury of fourteen judges ... The jury members were the gatekeepers to the artistic world. Their approval legitimated the works of art and assured the middle class that an artist's work was a worthwhile investment. In their reviews of exhibits, the journalists, who also played a part in shaping the tastes of the middle class, took their cues from the academy and jury members. Only by exhibiting through the Salon and receiving favorable reviews could an artist become known, win commissions, and sell paintings.

Outdoor painting was not approved by the academy members, who saw the studio as the only place a painter could acquire the concentration and discipline to produce the clean lines and Platonic forms they considered real art. Monet, the most rebellious member of the circle, played a catalytic role at this point by persuading the other members to try the forbidden activity.

During the next few years, the group frequently painted in the Forest of Fontainebleau. While working side by side, the young painters shared their ideas about what art should be and began to develop their own vision. ... There were numerous false starts, and some of the most daring steps resulted in apparent failure. At any given moment, the members did not know whether they were making progress or following a dead-end tangent. But at each step, the courage to take a risk emerged out of the group dynamics, and the evaluation of the results took place in the group discussions.

As usual, Monet incorporated the innovations into his paintings the most boldly, but it is not possible to say whether he or Renoir initiated the new techniques. At several junctures in the group history, when Monet had "led," he seemed to need an intimate audience for his experimentations.

It is not likely that either would have arrived at the new style alone, but together they had the courage to go beyond the limits, creating a new synthesis of the elements they had been working with. Perhaps Monet led, but would he have had the courage to pursue his own impulses or the judgment to know when they were worth retaining without Renoir as an alter ego? The paradigm that they were developing enabled them to reach consensus about which of their solutions to painting light and water were good solutions, and which should be abandoned.

After each rejection, or after a week of struggle and failure to achieve an artistic goal, the artists working alone must have begun to doubt their talents and the future of the group. But when meeting with the group in the ritualistic cafe setting, they would review recent events and interpret them in light of the group's emergent vision.

Having bypassed the Salon jury, the group's success depended on the evaluations of the public and the reviewers. However, the response to the first exhibit was nearly universal derision. Louis Leroy, the art critic for Charivari, wrote a satirical review in which he portrayed himself and an imaginary "old master" walking through the exhibit. Monet's Impression, Sunrise provoked Leroy's mocking attack on the whole exhibit. Over and over, when Leroy's "old master" expressed shock at an apparently unfinished work, the sketchy figures, and the bizarre colors, the reviewer would pretend to defend the work with the apology "Yes, but the impression is there." ... By the third exhibition of 1876, the group had adopted the name themselves.
The reaction of the public and the scarcity of buyers could have demoralized the group, but instead they rallied. The steadiness of Pissarro, "the brain of the young movement, " was important in keeping them together.

Rejection and meager sales continued at a group auction in 1875 and at a second group exhibition in 1876.

I’m quite struck by their persistence: the core group formed in the early 1860s, was continually rejected from the Salon de Paris, and resorted to running their own exhibitions in 1874 (which were, apparently, poorly received at first). Perhaps maintaining such persistence is ill-advised, but I don’t think their shared convictions were delusional — impressionism did turn out to be one of the most popular art movements of all time and, well, I think it’s all pretty good!

Impressionism, Sunrise
Claude Monet’s Impressionism, Sunrise (1872). You’d think you’d know you were good if you made this, but when neither the public nor the art establishment approve, you better have supportive friends.

So talking to people seems good! I bet you’re glad that you’re on this intellectual journey with me.

More seriously, I don’t think we should beat ourselves up over the fact we sometimes need some validation before we act on things.

But what if we find ourselves in unencouraging environments? What do we do about that?

Managing how we're affected by our environments

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a number of research ideas, which I’ve since found out are Certifiably Good and Cool, that I didn’t act upon straight away because my immediate contacts didn’t seem nearly as excited. In retrospect, I think I responded too strongly to people’s default, under-considered responses.

One response is to simply care less about validation and approval. Most of us sense that people will judge us for trying stuff out and making dumb things, but I expect it's our high expectations of ourselves that's really holding us back.

So care less. Give yourself slack so that it's easier to care less. Use your freedom to exploit your interest while it lasts. Keep the stakes low and do a side project, making sure it’s a project of your own. It’s still all upside!

In practice, it can be quite hard to give up our fears and work directly towards our goals, especially when there are non-imagined constraints. Perhaps you need to justify buying expensive equipment, maybe you need to make a decision that precludes other options (like a stable and obviously-impactful job), or you might know that any attempt you make will soon be derailed by crippling self-doubt.

I tend to think a lot about quite abstract things and I’ve mostly discussed agency with respect to actually doing something with those fuzzy ideas.

If you just want to build clearly-defined skills, nothing beats deliberate practice.

But beware, because your metrics may not be your goals! When I was in Year 12, I had a very clear goal, which was to get into Cambridge to study Natural Sciences. I’d previously read that you needed to average over 90% in your AS Levels to have a chance of getting in — and so optimising my exam grades across my 5 subjects became my one-and-only target for the year.

Weirdly, I have incredibly fond memories of the months before those exams; I knew every bit of the curriculum, I did a whole bunch of practice exam papers, and I understood every mistake I ever made. Having a metric to maximise (i.e., number of correct answers) and getting quick feedback gave me weeks worth of flow. And I smashed it. I got something like 97% across my 5 AS levels. But, while that was fun and I learnt a lot, I still got rejected from Cambridge, so you should really make sure your optimisation strategy is properly aligned! If you’re wanting to feel agentic, it’s easy to deceive yourself with the metrics that are most in your control.

So maybe we should give up on the idea of becoming überconfident and self-reliant, and simply hack our environments instead. It’s certainly rational to care about other people’s perceptions of us and our goals — especially since our ideas could be truly awful. But we have control over who we discuss ideas with and seek feedback from, and some people are considerably better placed to be helpful.

Some personal reflections

Clearly there are specifics to who we seek feedback from — just finding people and talking at them with our ideas can backfire. I’ve had a bunch of weird ideas, but the things that randomly-selected individuals quickly understand and get excited about might not be correlated with what’s actually sensible for us. For instance, a few years ago, I had a phase of thinking up lots of ideas for scaling up seaweed farming to single-digit percentages of the Pacific, and got lots of positive excitement from friends when I spoke about it (it’s pretty easy to understand how that could draw lots of carbon out the atmosphere). Since it was fun to talk about, I continued to think about how to make it work, even though I would’ve absolutely hated being a seaweed farmer.

Now, when I try to explain my ideas for enabling model-based, conditional forecasting tools, I mostly get blank faces. Perhaps I’ll read this back in a few years and realise that I should’ve pursued the seaweed farming all along 🤷🏻 but I think the blank faces are mainly a result of speaking with people who don't have enough context or ambitions in common with me.

I discovered that random university researchers can definitely be quite cheems-y because of these factors, but they’re relevant in more amenable settings too. Even at effective altruism conferences, where I tend to find people have lots of relevant intellectual context and shared values, I could still feel demoralised because someone didn’t have the time to fully understand what I was talking about. For sufficiently complex and nascent ideas, it can take a while before someone understands and says “yes, and...”

For me, the right people to test my thinking out with are friends I’ve made through EA and, it turns out, longtermist grantmakers. There is nothing quite as agency-inducing as someone else backing you and your ideas financially (but more on that in the future).

However, if the experiences of The Inklings and the French Impressionists are anything to go off of, fostering encouraging environments is more important than maximising our own sense of agency directly — we’ll probably get more out of it, too.


Many thanks to Fin Moorhouse and Morgan Simpson for providing helpful feedback on a draft of this post :)
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