Edit in September 2022: I wrote a response to this post here, in which I lay out some concerns, some unexpected costs of taking "agentic" actions for me (and mistakes I’ve made), and things I’ve changed my mind on since writing this post.

 

Nearly all of the best things that have happened to me in the last year have been a result of actively seeking and asking for those things. I have slowly been developing the skill of agency.

By ‘agency’ I mean the ability to get what you want across different contexts – the general skill of coming up with ambitious goals [1] and actually achieving them, whatever they are. In my experience, I’ve found this is learnable.

Neel Nanda explains the concept of agency really well in this blog post, so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I’ll focus on how to learn it.

It’s worth acknowledging that agency is often socially discouraged in different minority groups. Speaking from my own experience, I used to feel shameful around being agentic – I associated it with being entitled or ‘too much’ or bossy – which seems to be a phenomenon that many women experience. [2] I sometimes still have a voice in my head saying, “who do you think you are???” But, fortunately, I’m paying less and less attention to it. 

In no particular order, here are seven ways I’ve found to become unstoppably agentic:

 

1. Figure out what you need, figure out who can help you get it, ask them for it 

 

There will (nearly) always be people who can help you achieve your goals better. Find them and ask them to help you. They might say yes!

If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

When I was self-studying for my A-Levels (UK high school exams), I reached out to an EA who I’d never met, asking to chat about why I was finding self-studying so hard. We ended up having a call, which I found extremely helpful. At the time, I had a huge ugh-field around my Anki flashcards, which he completely helped me clear up. I then started sending him my daily plan (after checking this was ok), which turned out to be a really valuable accountability system. He gave support and encouragement countless times over the few months. These daily check-ins were the best thing[3] that could have happened to my A-Levels, and led me to feel way more supported throughout my time self-studying.

Having a low bar for asking for help is a learnable mindset. Now, whenever I encounter something difficult or aversive, my first thought is, “who would be the best person to have on my side here?” Then I begin to reach out to people who could help. 

 

Things that make this hard in practice:

  1. It’s hard to actually know what you want or need;
  2. It’s hard to be creative about solutions and imagine how another person would help solve it;
  3. It can be intimidating to ask the person;
  4. You are making yourself vulnerable to rejection, which can feel crushing and bad.
     

Some tentative solutions:

  1. Questions that help me figure out what I need: If this was easy, what would it look like? What is the bottleneck here and what can I do to solve it? What would it look like if I could do this with 10% of the time/ effort? What’s weighing on my mind? Whose advice would help me solve this problem? See this list of questions for more.
  2. One suggestion is that you can ask people if they know anyone who can help you. I recently asked an EA for help with this, and they generated nearly ten people who I could reach out to. (Also see point number 7 about considering a wide option space to be creative about solutions.)
  3. People can be scary! One thing to bear in mind though, is that EAs really love agency. So if the person you are asking for help is an EA, they’re likely to be impressed that you were so proactive. But, yup, it’s scary to put yourself out there. I really think it’s worth doing anyway. Ultimately, there becomes a point where you have to choose to not let intimidation hold you back.
    1. If you decide to experiment with this strategy, you could just be explicit about that. For example, caveating a request with, "Hey, I don't normally ask for this kind of thing, but I'm experimenting with asking for more favours and being more accepting of rejections. So it's totally fine if your answer to what I'm about to ask is a straightforward no!"
  4. Thrive on rejections. See below!

 

2. My concrete strategy to thrive on rejections
 

If you are going to put yourself out there, you are going to get rejected. The solution is not to put yourself out there less, but to learn to get a kick out of rejections. 

Every time I get rejected, I write it in a Google doc. I am playing a game with myself, and the goal is to maximise my rejections. This technique has single-handedly transformed my approach to rejection.

 

Reasons why this is useful:

  1. Rejections are evidence that I am properly exploring the option space. If I’m not being rejected from anything, then I’m not properly exploring the boundaries of my option space. I want to know the limits of my current capabilities. If I was accepted to everything I applied for, then I clearly wouldn’t have been exploring enough. I would have been staying too much within my comfort zone, and in expectation, missing out on valuable opportunities. There’s a sense in which this is more of a ‘failure’ than getting rejected, in my opinion.
  2. If I apply to more stuff, I’ll likely get more acceptances as well as rejections.
  3. Feeling fine about being rejected lowers the expected (psychological) cost of applying or asking for things.
    1. Being comfortable with rejection removes a fear that would normally prevent me from proactively seeking opportunities and making myself vulnerable to rejection. As a result, I want to internalise that it is virtuous to be rejected often, and decouple rejection and shame. It is empowering that external circumstances have less and less control over me.
  4. It is fun. Lately, rejections have felt almost thrilling. This is because it feeds into the narrative that I am becoming the person I want to be. When I imagine the most unstoppable/confident/agentic version of myself, it’s not that I am getting accepted to everything. Instead, I am pushing myself and exploring my limits, and – most importantly – I have compassion for myself when I don’t achieve my goals. I want to use my rejections to update my model of the world appropriately, but not take emotional damage or conclude I am deficient. Each time I am rejected, I use it as an opportunity to self-signal that I am becoming this unstoppable version of myself. This is a superpower.
  5. As a bonus, it will likely strengthen your resilience to romantic rejections.

 

How do I get the ‘I love rejection’ superpower?

  1. Find a friend or stranger who also wants to become unstoppable in this domain[4]
  2. Create a shared Google doc
  3. Commit to writing all of your rejections in it for a fixed period of time
  4. Decide a prize for the winner and agree to constraints (e.g. what counts as a rejection?)
  5. Whoever has the most rejections by the end of this time period wins.

 

I was rejected from nearly every US college that I applied for this year, and it sucked. But I also had a liberating feeling of ‘this is making me stronger and more resilient; I am becoming more immune to bad feelings from rejection! That’s cool! Go me!’ 

 

3. Increase your surface area for serendipity

 

This basically means increasing your exposure to new people and opportunities: deliberately setting yourself up for spontaneous stuff to happen. It’s really hard to predict when life-changing moments will occur – one conversation can drastically improve the trajectory of your life. However, you can increase the rate at which these types of conversations happen by increasing your surface area for serendipity.

This Twitter video is the best explanation of this idea, and I encourage you to watch it. I’ll summarise the key ideas below though.

  • You can increase your surface area for serendipity by creating ‘serendipity vehicles'. A serendipity vehicle is a thing that is out there in the world that allows you to manufacture serendipitous events.
  • It’s often hard to see the explicit benefits beforehand – putting yourself out there doesn’t have explicit CV points.

 

To me, creating serendipity vehicles looks like:

1. Having a low bar for sharing what you’re doing online. For example, if you are confused about an idea, consider writing a blog post about it. 

2. Having a low bar for reaching out to people (e.g. by actively using Twitter and sending cold emails – see below!). For example, if you read a blog post that resonated, consider reaching out to the author and letting them know. 
 

4. Get on Twitter and post stuff and interact with people. Also get in the habit of sending cold emails.

 

Sending this Twitter DM accelerated the trajectory of my life by one to three years. And prevented me from applying to a medical degree (thank God).

Alexey Guzey makes the case for Twitter in this blog post, which is well worth a read. He discusses how to get the most out of Twitter here

“Cold emails and Twitter are a godsend for people who have high potential, but lack the opportunity to realise it. A few emails or tweets to a person you don’t know can literally change your life (they changed mine for sure!)

If you can demonstrate that you have high potential and/or can be useful to somebody, you should just email/tweet them and let them know about it. If you’re thinking “well, I’m not impressive enough” you’re likely wrong.” – Alexey Guzey.

 

5. Seek forgiveness rather than permission
 

It’s easy to have an implicit assumption that you need permission to do anything that feels unfamiliar (e.g. to register a business, apply for a grant, start a project, move across the country). Turns out, you often just don’t.

Instead, just do things. If institutions have a problem with it, then you can seek forgiveness further down the line. If you’re not doing harm, you probably don’t need to assume that you must seek permission, in the absence of clear evidence that you do.

I’ve noticed that the people I know who I’d describe as the most ‘agentic’ are least likely to worry about seeking permission from others before just doing cool stuff.

Note – I don’t endorse doing this on an interpersonal level! It’s super important to respect others’ boundaries. I am mostly talking about not asking school or university or other bureaucratic institutions for permission here.
 

6. To get smart, ask dumb questions

 

Being unafraid to look stupid is a truly formidable quality.

“Most people are not willing to do this -- looking stupid takes courage, and sometimes it’s easier to just let things slide. It is striking how many situations I am in where I start asking basic questions, feel guilty for slowing the group down, and it turns out that nobody understood what was going on to begin with (often people message me privately saying that they’re relieved I asked), but I was the only one who actually spoke up and asked about it. 

This is a habit. It’s easy to pick up. And it makes you smarter.” – How to understand things

The above blog post was pivotal for the way I now see intelligence. I also love this podcast episode discussing the blog post.
 

7. Consider a wider option space – what is the upper bound scenario?
 

Akash Wasil presents this idea brilliantly here – the example he uses is really illustrative, and I recommend reading it.

To summarise:

  1. Most people only consider the opportunities in front of them, rather than considering the entire action space of possibilities.
  2. People generally dismiss ideas prematurely and fail to seriously consider what it would look like to do something that deviates from the natural, intuitive, default pathways.
  3. The two traits “considering wide action spaces” and “taking weird ideas seriously” are rare and valuable.

For example, when I was sixteen, my school told us that we had some time off school to do ‘work experience.’ I had just learned about EA and was obsessed. I remember thinking “what is the craziest and most ambitious EA related work experience that I could do?” After reaching out to tens of strangers on the internet, I ended up at the Future of Humanity Institute – an extremely good outcome. 

I find it helpful to ask myself "what is the upper bound scenario here?" to generate ambitious goals. 
 

Further reading: some of my favourite related blog posts 

 

Note that I have included all blog posts mentioned above in this list. They are roughly ordered in how excited I feel about recommending each post at the time of writing.

  1. How to make friends over the internet – Alexey Guzey
  2. Learn in public – Swyx
  3. Networking for nerds – Ben Reinhardt
  4. It is your responsibility to follow up – Alexey Guzey
  5. Show your work – Austin Kleon
  6. Why you should start a blog right now – Alexey Guzey
  7. Half assing it with everything you’ve got – Nate Soares
  8. What should you do with your life? Directions and advice – Alexey Guzey
  9. What’s stopping you? – Neel Nanda
  10. How to understand things – Nabeel Qureshi
  11. How to use your wife/husband/gf/bf correctly – Alexey Guzey
  12. Getting over the fear of personal blogging – Ali Abdaal
  13. Examples of barbell strategies – Dwarkesh Patel
  14. An easy win for hard decisions – Alex Lawsen
  15. Three reflections from 101 EA Global Conversations – Akash Wasil
  16. On reflection – Neel Nanda
  17. Why and how you should learn to code – Ali Abdaal 
     

I have clearly been reading a lot of Alexey’s blog recently! I find it valuable and binge-worthy – would recommend.

 

You can be intentional about the content you consume

I listened to hundreds of hours of Ali and Taimur Abdaal’s podcast over lockdown, and I felt like it rapidly accelerated the rate at which I became – ruthlessly – proactive. I now consider them to be unusually agentic, and realise that after a while I began to internalise parts of their worldview (e.g. ask people for stuff; put yourself out there on the internet; don’t ask for permission).

The content you consume can heavily shape your thought patterns – it’s worth being intentional about this (e.g. by stepping past your ‘comfort zone’ content). I actually think that tech-bro entrepreneurs are great for the purpose of building agency.

 

Thank you to Fin Moorhouse and Bella Forristal for helpful feedback on this post!

 

  1. ^

    When I use the word ‘goals’ throughout this post, I mean it in a very broad sense. Examples of goals: get an A* in my maths exam; figure out why I keep waking up at 4am and take actions to stop myself waking up; have a better relationship with my sibling; make more friends; start a blog; write a forum post; build the skill of being able to focus for long periods of time; feel less anxious throughout the day; become more knowledgeable about geopolitics so I can understand what’s going on in Ukraine, etc.

  2. ^

     This article doesn’t seem super epistemically rigorous, but gets at the idea I’m trying to convey.

  3. ^

     Well, obviously not the actual best thing in the whole of the option space, but you know what I mean.

  4. ^

     I tentatively suggest the ‘Bountied Rationality’ Facebook group as a starting point for finding a stranger.

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27 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:53 AM
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I like quite a bit of this post (particularly points #2,3,6,7), but also left it feeling uneasy and with a desire to downvote (although I haven't done that because I'm conflicted).

I'm having trouble putting my finger on what I don't like. I think it's something like "I expect some people to be allergic to this, and it to correlate with the people who most need to hear the advice" (and the people who most feel excited about this correlating with those who most need to hear the opposite advice). So I'm feeling good about its existence as a resource to point specific people to (although a version which was less likely to trigger allergies would be even better!), but bad about the idea of it entering into EA cannon or being broadly seen as representing what EA is.

I guess I've talked myself into downvoting (since I currently think there are better effects from it having low karma), but I want to attach this to a "thank you for writing it".

Oh maybe another thing that I feel uneasy about is the reinforcement of the message "the things you need are in other people's gift", and the way the post (especially #1) kind of presents "agency" as primarily a social thing (later points do this less but I think it's too late to impact the implicit takeaway.

Sometimes social agency is good, but I'm not sure I want to generically increase it in society, and I'm not sure I want EA associated with it. I'm especially worried about people getting social agency without having something like "groundedness".

(Thoughts still feel slightly muddled/incomplete, but guessing it's better to share than not)

Thank you for the comments!

I agree with some of what you wrote. I don't want the subtext of the post to be "you should amass social capital  so that senior people will do you favours."

Some thoughts:

  • It’s generally the case that ‘social domineeringness’ is a trait that is rewarded by society. Similar to intelligence, people who have this quality will probs be more likely to achieve their goals. (This makes me kinda uncomfortable, but I think it’s broadly true and it doesn’t seem good to ignore it).
  • Given that this is the case, I want to encourage this quality in EAs. 
  • However, I would rather see EAs have this quality when interacting with non-EAs. Like, if young EAs all start asking senior EAs for favours, the EA landscape will become competitive and zero-sum.
  • BUT it seems strictly good for EAs to be socially domineering in non-EA contexts. Like… I want young EAs to out-compete non-EAs for internship or opportunities that will help them skill build. (This framing has a bad aesthetic, but I can’t think of a nicer way to say it.)

I’m curious about the specific parts that you think people would be allergic to.

I get where you're coming from (although I think domineeringness is less universally rewarded than intelligence across different parts of society). But given that we don't think the ideal society consists of people being very domineering, I worry that the indirect harms of pushing this in EA culture may be significant. I think it's harder to know what these are than the benefits, but I'm worried that it's a kind of naive consequentialist stance to privilege the things we have cleaner explicit arguments for.

At the very least I think there's something like a "missing mood" of ~sadness here about pushing for EAs to do lots of this. The attitude I want EAs to be adopting is more like "obviously in an ideal world this wouldn't be rewarded, but in the world we live in it is, and the moral purity of avoiding this generally isn't worth the foregone benefits". If we don't have that sadness I worry that (a) it's more likely that we forget our fundamentals and this becomes part of the culture unthinkingly, and (b) a bunch of conscientious people who intuit the costs of people turning this dial up see the attitudes towards it and decide that EA isn't for them.

This is exacerbated by the fact that I don't think there's a clean boundary between EA and non-EA worlds (e.g. if there are EA-adjacent professors perhaps lots of the applicants to work with them are EAs, and we don't really want the competition between them to be in terms of domineeringness).

But ... I don't think sadness is always correct around this! In particular I think many people do much less of putting themselves forwards // asking for favours than is socially optimal! I think most of the benefits of getting EAs to do more of this comes from the uncomplicated good of getting those people up to the social ideal rather than from the complicated case where there are tradeoffs. I think something which helped people to get up there (by helping them to think about what's socially ideal and when it's ambiguous whether to do more) would be really great.

[Was this title written by an inner optimiser?]

More seriously, this is a very powerful set of ideas and attitudes and I wish I had known them about 15 years earlier. (For contrast, during my school work experience I painted lines on country roads.)

You know my views about high schoolers being systematically underestimated and fully capable of greatness, so well done for bucking the trend. That said, there is such a thing as too much agency (e.g. starting a company without checking the competition or without knowing what the market fit is; e.g. starting a big impact-oriented project without looking to see if it's been done).

It seems likely that summers spent reading whatever you feel like, and even years spent just becoming yourself, yields certain virtues and groundedness which full blown first-order life optimisation doesn't. The annoying thing is that I can't say which of the two any given person needs more of on the margin.

(See also Owen on overoptimisation or Elizabeth on being a potted plant.)

[On the title -- you gotta have fun with these things haha]

Thanks Gavin! 

Yes, the laws of equal and opposite advice defo apply here. 

I also wonder whether this sort of thing becomes zero sum within a small enough environment (e.g. if everyone starts lowering their bar for asking for help, people will raise their bar for saying yes, because they will be inundated with requests). Could lead to competitor dynamics (discussed in the comments of this post), which seems unfortunate.

I really like the point of spending years 'becoming yourself'. Like, I probs just want my younger siblings to chill out and spend a lot of time with their friends and doing stuff that feels hedonically good to them. I like the point about groundedness. I felt ungrounded and uncertain when I was first immersed in EA, and I think this could (?) have been less if I was older. I'm kinda unsure, and think it's maybe inevitable to feel unsettled when you are introduced to and immersed in a very new culture/worldview in a short space of time. 

Where is Elizabeth's post on being a potted plant? Could you send it?

To avoid the "opposite advice" thing, maybe we can just talk about in absolute terms what are good amounts to ask for help?

My guess is that people should ask their friends/colleagues/acquaintances for help with things a few times a week, and ask senior people they don't know for help with things a few times a year. This is based on a sense of "imagining everyone was doing this" and wondering where I want to turn the dial to. I'm interested if others have different takes about the ideal level.

I think if people are asking noticeably less than that they should be seriously asking themselves if they should be ramping it up. And if people are asking noticeably more they should be seriously asking themselves if they should be turning it down.

I think that people receiving requests should tend to look for signals that suggest that the person makes few/many requests, and be more inclined to be positive if they make few or more inclined to be negative if they make many -- in order to try to get the overall incentive landscape right to encourage people to make about the right number of requests. Of course this is kind of hard to detect particularly if someone is cold emailing you ... anyone have better ideas?

My guess is that people should ask their friends/colleagues/acquaintances for help with things a few times a week, and ask senior people they don't know for help with things a few times a year. T

Is this a few times each person, or a few times total? It's hard for me to tell because either seems slightly off to me.

I meant like maybe 3-15 times total ("few" was too ambiguous to be a good word choice).

Writing that out maybe I want to change it to 3-30 (the top end of which doesn't feel quite like "a few"). And I can already feel how I should be giving more precise categories // how taking what I said literally will mean not doing enough asking in some important circumstances, even if I stand by my numbers in some important spiritual sense.

Anyway I'm super interested to get other people's guesses about the right numbers here. (Perhaps with better categories.)

Sure that makes more sense to me. I was previously reading "few" as 2-4 times, and was thinking that's way too few times to be asking for help from coworkers total in a week, but a bit too high to be asking (many) specific senior people for help each year.

My guess is that it’s just very context dependent — I’m not sure how generalisable these sorts of numbers are. 

It also seems like the size of favours would vary a ton and make it hard to give a helpful number.

I'm sure it's context dependent and depends on size of favours. But I'm not sure it depends that much -- and I'm worried that if we don't discuss numbers it's easy for people who are naturally disinclined to ask to think "oh I'm probably doing this enough already" (or people who are naturally inclined to do this a lot already to think "oh yeah I totally need to do that more").

Maybe you could give a context where you think my numbers are badly off?

From memory:

As an occasional antidote to forced-march life: consider yourself as a homeostatic organism with a particular trajectory. Like a plant in a pot.

What does a plant need? Water, light, space, soil, nitrogen, pest defence, pollinators. What are the potted human equivalents? What would an environment which gave you this without striving look like? What do you need to become yourself?

(You can reshape a plant, like bonsai, but really not too much or you'll kill it or stunt it.)

Some rejections are inevitable, and never getting rejected is a sign of unhealthy risk aversion. But I think if you get rejected much more than equivalent people in your situation (eg. applying to twenty colleges and getting no acceptances), changing your strategy is more important than just trying harder.

Every time I get rejected, I write it in a Google doc. I am playing a game with myself, and the goal is to maximise my rejections. This technique has single-handedly transformed my approach to rejection.

I love this. Moreover, this framing seems applicable across a whole spectrum of experiences, from job applications to social situations.

Gorgeous post! Up next, I'd like to see a followup from an older person's perspective about preservation of agentiness, because I have a number of friends who started out very agenty then kinda tapered off by their mid 20s. 


In reading the post, I do appreciate the sentiments. However, I do think there's still that idea that system-level / organizational-level barriers (unable to develop psychological safety, toxic work environments, internal biases in the workplace, organizational leadership hierarchical structures having no diversity, etc.) can prevent people from becoming more agentic. While I see that the blog focuses on what individuals can do, I wish it explicitly acknowledges that it WILL be harder for some individuals. While individuals can try and overcome this, there is work to be done at the overall level to make it easier for people to become more agentic.

Good post!

I really liked the idea of a rejection doc when I first came across it. I have one with my brother, and it's been super helpful in keeping us motivated. 

Just what I needed to hear. It's easy to become discouraged, but often finding an EA who can help you in your project to work toward a better world (and finding someone whose project you can help) is a numbers game. Like you say, developing resilience and empathy regarding gaps in perspective is critical toward advancing others' good ideas and finding help for yours to be advanced by others. This is definitely something I'm acutely struggling with.

"Agency" needs nuance - an update from the author.

This is great - really inspiring, makes me want to do more of all of those things! Thank you for writing this! I'm going to create a rejection list right now.

One thing I thought in reaction to this is that a reason we might hesitate to be more agentic is being uncomfortable setting boundaries. 

When you put-yourself-out-there a lot, you will also start being asked for things more. Or you might put yourself in a situation that feels bad for some other reason. Being comfortable rejecting requests or removing yourself from a situation seems like a really important related thing to work on. 

Re: #2, you might enjoy this piece on shared rejection spreadsheets and rejection parties: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/01/celebrate-your-rejections-failures/621327/

Great breakdown of the skills and concrete steps,  thanks for writing this! I can already tell I'll be linking people to this fairly often :)

Thanks! I liked these a lot -- especially endorse #2 and #6. 

I love this post, it is so engagingly written.  And the links are great, and have opened up valuable new ideas and sources for me.   I strongly recommend your list of further reading and. indeed, all the links you provide.

You and your sources make the case for a number of very valuable ideas including  asking for help, using social media, writing blogs, taking action, taking risk.  How far to pursue each of these will obviously depend on personality and circumstances and will be a matter of balance. 

I love this post, it is so engagingly written.  And the links are great, and have opened up valuable new ideas and sources for me.   I strongly recommend your list of further reading and. indeed, all the links you provide.

You and your sources make the case for a number of very valuable ideas including  asking for help, using social media, writing blogs, taking action, taking risk.  How far to pursue each of these will obviously depend on personality and circumstances and will be a matter of balance.