A few weeks ago I was talking to a very high-agency friend (the best kind) and I had the interesting realization that I’ve been role-playing having agency my whole life. Which was a shock!
What I mean by this is that I act like I have agency, and I believe I have agency, but I don’t actually have the internal experience of having agency. The realization was prompted by many interactions with this friend and crystallized during a conversation about hearing her describe what it was like to be a founder. My story was that her internal experience was almost like a video game—despite the open-ended nature of the worl
d there is a clear and deep belief that high-level goals are achievable and it’s just a matter of putting together the right pieces.
Intellectual vs experiential knowledge
I don’t have a great name for this concept. I generally think of it as either the difference between intellectual knowledge and experiential knowledge or the difference between System 2 and System 1 (respectively) beliefs.1
The key point is that you can believe something very deeply, but not actually feel the belief and a gut/emotional/instinctual level. And that that’s a very important distinction to notice.
The implications of this realization were immediately obvious. There are many ways in which I’ve not achieved what I desired to or even actively self-sabotaged that I can now see trace back to the lack of my gut-level self-agency belief.
In the IFS I’d say that just because I have deep intellectual belief about something doesn’t mean my unified self is behind it. Some other part of me lacks this belief and that is creating dissonance, loss of energy, and decreasing the force of will I’m able to put behind things that I think I believe in.
Arrested fake it ‘til you make it
Another lens with which to view this though is that one potential process for gaining both System 2 and System 1 belief around something is to first develop the intellectual knowledge through reasoning or the shared experience of trusted others, and then to experience enough real examples of it to also develop the gut-level knowledge. The first part of which is actually just oft-shared the “fake it ‘til you make it” advice. Pretend you are a certain way that you could reasonably believe being, and then eventually you will become and believe you are that.
The danger is getting stuck in just the pretend part, making it a habit, and then thinking that is equivalent to actually becoming the thing. Which is what I think I’ve done. I went through a very low-agency period of my life in college, hit a breaking point and realized I needed to make massive changes, and basically decided2 I was going to turn my life around and become a completely different person.
I then willed myself into this mindset and embraced the story3 that I was high agency and then started to believe it (S2) because I did lots of “high-agency” things4. And then never moved beyond that step.
Learning to feel agency
This is still something I’m working on and hope to write more on it soon. But one of the interesting tools I’ve been trying to use that I will say a little about is something I’ve been thinking of as “somatic snapshotting”.
There are very brief times5 when I think I’ve believed and deeply felt high-agency on every level. I’ve tried to capture the imprint of that on my body; the feelings, sensations, emotions, and gestalt state. I’ve found if I concentrate I can sort of picture it as a unified whole in my head that also has an accompanying bodily sensation.
I’m trying to do this more intentionally during times that I think I should feel high-agency, but don’t.
As a side note I think there are so many other things where transitioning from intellectual to experiential knowledge is incredibly valuable. A good example is the transition that happens at meditation retreats. Nearly everyone knows that meditation is good for you, and many people have had some experience of this e.g. meditating twenty minutes a day and feeling less stressed. I’d personally had this belief and experience. But after doing a ten day silent retreat my practice was completely transformed. I experienced such lightness and peace, and so many interesting mental phenomena after that my conception of what meditation was and could do was fundamentally altered on a deep level. I gained a gut-level knowledge of the power of meditation that matched my previous intellectual-only belief, but was far more behavior altering.
Was very lucky to have read Carol Dweck’s growth mindset stuff during this period.
There are a few fantasy authors that I think of as my third parents which played a formative role on how I view the world, and specifically the types of narratives I try to create or match on to it (for better or for worse). Authors Ender’s Game also very much shaped who I am.
EG I started my current company after semi-randomly pitching an idea to the president of YC at a bar, getting lots of positive feedback, and quitting my job the next day. Mostly because it was a great story but also because I had a story in my head that this was what high-agency people did.
After things like really big accomplishment. Getting a great night of sleep also seems to help make these states arise more frequently. And they can also be pharmacologically induced I think, which is one of the reasons mind-altering drugs can be so useful imo— because they allow you to experience gut-level states which would normally be inaccessible or require inordinate amounts of effort. If you experience them once though, perhaps you can “snaphshot” them and use them as a guidepost or S1-level belief, with all the accompanying deeper levels of motivation, back.