Be unusually effective

posted on March 10, 2024

Most people don’t know this, but you can do just about anything.

The twin principles of ownership and agency underpin this belief.

Ownership is when, if you should do or want something done, you know that it's on you. It's not someone else's problem.

Agency is the belief that anything can be done, and that you are capable of deciding what you will do. Effective agency is demonstrated by a set of behaviors that boil down to the following.

It is deeply empowering to act as though everything that’s out there is a problem that you can solve, and if it's the right problem to solve, must solve. At times, this can be overwhelming.

In situations where others might say “that’s not my problem”, you say “let’s remove or avoid this obstacle, without prejudice.” Where others might say "I can't do that; I don't know how", and give up, you say "I’ve got this."

You will stop thinking of problems as misfortunes, but think of the solution to this problem as a goal to achieve. From there, you will formulate a plan. You will start to get excited that you know what the next step is, and stop viewing problems as a problem at all, and more like a glimpse of a strategy for your next success. Every problem is an opportunity; you know that by solving it, you're making progress. And if you don't know what the next step is, even after writing down the problem and trying to come up with a plan, just act in the world. Perturb the space and observe the response. Then you might know what to do next.

Just because you feel ownership and have agency doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for doing everything by yourself. This is a common failure mode of an ownership mindset. But you can and should rally other people and resources to your cause. Embrace as part of the challenge identifying which are realistic, who you can influence or direct, and what you may have to give up. You will prioritize and deprioritize. Never say “it’s someone else’s problem” and fold your arms. More than being ineffective, doing so is disrespectful to yourself. It diminishes your agency and discounts your ability to act in the world.

Finally, there aren’t rules. There are principles and values you will abide by while accomplishing your goals. There are structures (like the legal system) you choose to act within. Most of what keeps you from your goals are self-imposed and even unconsciously internalized rules. The limits of what is possible are further than you can imagine, so you must test them instead. You are an agent, and you can act.

You can prepare and learn forever, but only action gets it done. The belief you must cleave to is that you can do it, and that you are responsible for ensuring it is done.

A special thanks to Mark Ungerer for reviewing this post and providing invaluable feedback.

  1. Effective goal setting deserves its own post (or book), and shouldn’t be taken for granted. But it’s important to note that ownership and agency with bad goals is not effective (though you might call it unusually ineffective). 

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