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In the psychological sense, agency entails a category of beliefs, a mindset. More profoundly, genuine agency includes the strategies and actions that accomplish what we want and bring us what we need.
Feeling that we have agency is nice. But feeling agentic falls far short of exercising agency—thinking and behaving competently and making real progress toward our desired goals.
To exercise agency is to acquire significant control over our outcomes in life’s various arenas, including school, work, sports, physical health, and psychological well-being.
Fully fledged agency requires believing we can achieve our goal and engaging in the following activities:
A mindset is a set of beliefs or assumptions—entrepreneurial, capitalist, global, environmental—that guide your perceptions, thoughts, and actions. Fortunately, a belief in one's competence and agency (the highest form of competence) can be learned and developed.
Two widely studied mindsets hold particular relevance to competence and agency. To have a fixed mindset is to believe that intelligence and other personal attributes and abilities are set in stone. In contrast, a growth mindset motivates and allows you to strengthen your competence through learning.
An agentic mindset—believing that we have a realistic chance to succeed and can competently apply the four pillars of agency—is the most productive of various competence-related mindsets. These mindsets influence, for better or worse, job performance, careers, and even efforts to adapt to and reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change.
Fixed and growth mindsets can influence whether a person will move upward in the hierarchy of competence mindsets shown in the accompanying figure.
The figure above distinguishes 5 mindsets representing different levels of competence, arranged from weakest competence at the bottom to the most robust competence (agency) at the top.
Someone might feel strong agency in their job but be less sure about their long-term career and helpless about climate change.
We should always remember that beliefs and feelings can change, shifting and fluctuating over time and from challenge to challenge. Changing a mindset, whether due to new circumstances or personal choices, can move a person up or down the hierarchy.
A fixed mindset can suffice if we don't care about improving our competence in a particular area. If we choose to aim higher, we can do so by embracing a growth mindset.
“My ability to perform is or soon will be slipping away.”
Examples of declining (technically, decremenral) mindsets include believing that specific physical or mental abilities are declining and not expecting a turnaround, the same outlook regarding technical skills or energy levels helpful to our work, or believing climate change will get far worse no matter what we do so we needn't even try to help.
“I don’t think much about my competence in this domain and probably won’t try to improve.”
This can result from a fixed mindset and believing we have little chance of improving or not deeming improvement in that area to be necessary. We might have checked out of a previous activity or never checked in. Passivity can be overcome with higher-level mindsets plus practice, but low effort usually characterizes this mindset.
“I can perform adequately and improve if I put my mind to it.”
This mindset may or may not be grounded in reality. This indicates reasonable confidence but sometimes overconfidence. A capable mindset probably feels good but may not translate into high motivation and effective action if circumstances change. It can be a hindrance if we are performing inadequately or in the eyes of others but don’t know or believe that our performance isn't measuring up.
“I have the skills and freedom to perform well and get even better.”
Being truly empowered is more than a feeling; it requires adequate autonomy, support, resources, and opportunities. Having these empowerment tools at our disposal is not the same as applying them effectively; that’s the engine of complete agency.
”I have the skills and resources I need (or can obtain them), I feel motivated to apply them, and I am acting in ways that will accomplish what is needed.”
Full agency requires enacting all four agency pillars to accomplish your goals.
A declining mindset may or may not be accurate. Sometimes turning around a decline isn’t possible. Or facts and circumstances can improve with concerted effort and practice. Changing your mindset doesn't magically bring about desired changes.
Still, a shift in mindset can prompt action—agency's engine—strengthening our mental or physical health, job performance, and career. It can even help prevent or reduce the worst effects of climate change.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Human agency is a mindset plus a set of learnable actions that help us attain what we want in life. Whatever our “level”, we can hold steady, decline, or grow.
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