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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Agency

Agency

To: Grads

From: Prof G

Subject: You got this

America, and the Western alliance it leads, is dysfunctional. It’s also less dysfunctional than any other society. Why? America’s alchemy of individualism, rights, education, innovation, capital, diversity, entrepreneurship and generosity creates a substance found elsewhere but not at this potency. I spend a great deal of time digesting data and media. And there’s a fissure between them. The data reflects a cold but comforting truth: The hand you’ve been dealt is better than you’ve been told.

There are paths to prosperity in our imperfect economy. There are paths to love and lasting relationships in our imperfect society. There are paths to fulfillment and meaning in our imperfect culture. The paths are there, and we collectively have an obligation to make the investments to ensure they stay broad and illuminated. However, you must walk them. Much of your future is outside of your control, but if you’re a graduate of an American university (the finest in the world), then more of it is in your control than nearly anybody else. What ultimately dictates your success relative to your environment is the choice you make to walk, and the resilience you find to keep moving. In a word, agency.

Agent You

Agency is the capacity to take the actions of your choosing, and through those actions shape your future and the world you live in. More than that, it is the recognition that you have the potency to make it happen. Agency is a fundamental aspect of human autonomy and identity. Individuals who perceive themselves as agents are more motivated, capable, and resilient. A society made up of immigrants has superior genes — they have DNA that naturally connects risks, and a propensity toward action, with better outcomes. I think, as a dad, one of my responsibilities is to help my sons connect actions, good and bad, with outcomes. To help them develop pattern recognition between action and reaction.

Gen Data

Pundits and policymakers have a fetish for statistics. “Women between 25 and 34 eat three times more yogurt than men older than 45 who make under $62,000 per year.” “The lowest income quartile of U.S. households use debit cards at Walmart on holiday weekends more often than the top three quartiles combined.” I spend much of my professional life looking at data sets and making broad generalizations. Many of which are not encouraging. However, you are one data point … not the set.

You are not your cohort. You are not sentenced to be the average of your peers, the median of your race, or the mean of your gender. Agency begins with this insight. Within the mass of humans lumped together by statisticians, on several dimensions, you are an outlier. Your range of possible outcomes is invisible to the statistician’s eye. Statistics are observations, not conclusions.

Big Pie

The pie of economic prosperity is not sliced evenly. It skews toward certain fields and backgrounds, and increasingly toward incumbents. Ours is a winner-take-most economy. Jeff Bezos’ net worth ($200 billion) is 100,000 times that of the median cardiologist ($2 million). Bezos is a brilliant entrepreneur, but he’s not 100,000 times more so than a doctor who literally holds patients’ lives in their hands. And while Bezos is the prime mover, Amazon’s value creation requires the work of 1.5 million employees, of whom only a handful enjoy a net worth 1/10,000th the size of Bezos’ ($20 million).

Yet even as our system allocates $200 billion to Bezos, there is more pie to go around. The U.S. economy generates $27 trillion in annual output, and more every year. That’s a prosperity volcano. In 2019 less than 10 million U.S. families had more than $1 million in wealth. In 2022 it was 16 million. We increased the number of millionaire households by 60% in just three years. This is mainly self-made wealth. Only 21% of American millionaires have received any inheritance, the same percentage as the population at large. There are 600,000 millennial millionaire households, and “while the average millennial has 30% less wealth at the age of 35 than baby boomers did at the same age … the top 10% of millennials have 20% more wealth than the top baby boomers at the same age.” In sum, we have inordinate income inequality, and that’s bad. However, the silver lining is the scales are tipped toward those who bring a sense of agency. If the previous sentence sounds as if I’m putting lipstick on a pig, trust your instincts. Still, there’s a lot of prosperity.

Paths to Prosperity

Many cultures and economic systems suppress agency, pushing people toward conformity, often to the benefit of existing elites. Ground zero for a lack of agency is the culture supported by the zombie apocalypse of useful idiots on campuses. But I digress. Last week on Prof G Markets, my co-host Ed Elson made a powerful point about the U.K., where he grew up. His school gives two kinds of grades, one for the quality of the work and one for effort. Officially, the “best” grade was to score at the top in both categories. But the culture rewarded something else: The true best grade went to the student who got the highest mark on quality and the lowest mark for effort. Success should be accidental; striving is uncouth. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson personified this — a man of undeniable brilliance who was utterly committed to the culture of non-effort, reflected in a highly manicured image of dishevelment.

Who succeeds in a culture that discourages agency? The incumbents, those who already have wealth. Agency is churn, the essence of upward mobility. Caste systems are meant to relieve you of existential stress, because agency has a dark side. In America, the view/belief that you can accomplish anything implicitly whispers in your ears that, if you don’t, it’s your own fault.

America offers unprecedented agency. That is why millions of people walk across continents to reach this place, and why we spend billions militarizing our southern border to keep the inflow manageable. Pro tip: America has not only benefited from immigration, but illegal immigration specifically, because the undocumented do dirty jobs at modest wages, pay taxes, and use fewer resources. Anyone who tells you immigrants are here for a handout is taking you for a fool. People don’t walk through jungles and traverse rivers for a welfare check. They come for the same reason my parents crossed the Atlantic in a steamship: to exercise their agency. Open borders are unacceptable, and a security threat, but we need to have a sober conversation re why we have turned a blind eye to illegal immigration for 40 years. Hint: money.

Nowhere can a business idea attract so much funding ($260 billion in VC last year, $50 billion in SBA loans) or recruit so much talent (nearly 60,000 new Ph.D.s per year, 120,000 MBAs). These resources attract high-agency individuals — 5.5 million small business applications were filed in the U.S. in 2023, a record number that’s nearly doubled in the past eight years. Living in London, when speaking at an event, people usually ask me to compare/contrast the U.S./U.K. It’s fairly simple. Some people thought it was a good idea to leave everything behind, and get on a boat. Others thought it was a stupid idea and stayed. Fast forward a couple centuries and Americans are 25% more likely to start a business with access to five times the venture capital.

We live in an era of unprecedented reach. This is not limited to the U.S., but the U.S. is the epicenter. If you have something to say and a compelling way to say it, you can reach hundreds of millions of people without gatekeepers or sponsors. In 2012, Jimmy Donaldson was a 13-year-old with a YouTube channel. Today, MrBeast is 26 and has a YouTube channel … with a $48 million production budget reaching hundreds of millions and generating $700 million in annual revenue. Entertainers, activists, and commentators from Greta Thunberg and Liza Koshy to X González and Charli D’Amelio have exercised their agency to achieve global influence without relying on traditional gatekeepers.

This is a profound shift. Before he became “the most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite edited his high school paper, worked on his college paper, called baseball games on the radio for two years, spent nearly a decade reporting on WWII from Europe for UPI, and worked for another decade hosting a slew of news and opinion shows for CBS before finally getting the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News in 1962. He was 52 years old. Before Samuel L. Jackson became the highest-grossing actor of all time, he performed Off-Broadway for 16 years; then another unknown, Spike Lee, started casting him in small film roles; and it was another six years of minor parts before Pulp Fiction made him a star. He was 46 years old. You can get further, faster in the U.S. in our era than in any place or time in history. Until tomorrow. The bad news is there are more people with more agency (i.e., competition) and a crowding of spoils to the winners.

Agency is not individuality. You exercise agency whenever you make a choice to shape your own life. Choosing marriage is exercising agency. Asking for more responsibility at work, or volunteering at a local institution, or putting $100 a month into an IRA — these are all choices to act and shape the world. Using social media to connect to people and share ideas can be an exercise of agency; scrolling TikTok all evening is not. The stoics taught us to focus on what is in our control. Agency is an embrace, and broadening, of what is in our control.

Passivity Party

America rewards agency, but American politics is experiencing a crisis of passivity. For generations, conservatism served as a bulwark of personal responsibility against the left’s nanny-state tendencies. The modern Republican party, however, has embraced the brand of victimhood. Its leaders have figured out the best way to be heard is to claim they’ve been censored. Censored … give me a fucking break.

It’s an act. The leader of the GOP owns his own social network. The nation’s self-appointed protector of free speech from the woke mob owns another. The wealthiest and most powerful tech bros find common cause in their victimization. Meanwhile, on the left, cataloging and obsessing over every historical wrong ignores our progress and (worse) robs young people of their agency, leaving too many believing the die has been cast re their fate. No, it hasn’t.

Besides being no way to govern, leaning into the rhetoric of victimhood suppresses agency. If you tell people from an early age they are doomed, you will suppress their confidence and increase the likelihood they won’t try. Why would they? Agency and democracy go hand in hand, and the first task of the authoritarian leader is to diminish agency. The likely misinformation lollapalooza surrounding this fall’s election won’t be advocating for a specific candidate or position, but flooding the zone with so much misinformation that people feel overwhelmed and decide just to stay home. The Biden team has stated that their real competition is the couch.

I-agency

More than elections, or your career, your well-being and happiness are a function of your relationships. One of my biggest mistakes, something that’s stood between me and a sense of peace and reward, is not recognizing that I had the power to protect, repair and enhance my relationships. More than “find your passion” (bullshit), or other advice some formerly important person, dressed up as a kitchen utensil vomited at you at commencement … this is what I wish I had known post-graduation:

Don’t keep score.  

Whenever I felt I was in the minus column re a relationship (i.e., giving more than I was getting), I would be frustrated and inject disappointment and anger into the relationship. However, we all naturally inflate our contributions and diminish the other party’s. In addition, relationships are a give-and-take and rarely in perfect balance. Decide what type of friend, lover, son, colleague you want to be … and put away the scorecard. Rather than constantly revisiting if/when my dad was there for me as a kid, I now just focus on being the son I want to be. It’s liberating.

Notice.  

Your job in an intimate relationship is to show up, to give witness to someone’s life. That you notice. Sometimes you need to push back, or offer a solution. However, I’ve found, most of the time, our job is to notice. To care that the person is upset, to listen, to empathize with their upset and register how much their happiness and well-being mean to you. I am exceptionally rational, and this has been a superpower professionally. But it’s been a weakness personally, as I believe there are a series of steps to fix and understand everything. When the better solution is just to listen … and notice.

Forgive/check yourself. 

You do have agency, more than you think. But a cruel truth is that much of what happens to you is in fact out of your control. My best decision was to be born in 1960s California. So try hard and be kind. But when things go poorly and you are hurt, really hurt (heartbroken, laid off, make poor investments, lose someone you love), realize there are millions of people who’ve experienced the exact same thing and gone on to live wonderful lives. On the flip side, realize that when you get promoted, register professional success, or find yourself in a good relationship, you should acknowledge (again) much of this isn’t your fault, and you should be grateful and lower your risk profile. You are never more susceptible to a big mistake than after a big win, as you fall under the delusion that it’s (all) you … vs. good fortune.

Finite.

“Wow, life has gone SO slowly,” said nobody, ever. My superpower is atheism … no kidding. I believe, at some point, I will look into my son’s eyes and know our relationship is coming to an end. And that’s OK. I like what the great philosopher Mae West said: “You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough.” This belief in the end has unlocked the courage to take risks and (mostly) ignore social constructs that get in the way of coloring outside of the lines or risking embarrassment expressing my emotions. I got emotional on the Chris Wallace show yesterday. I was discussing some of the men who mentored me when I was a boy, and felt a rush of embarrassment. Jesus Christ, who cares? When on my deathbed, I will find comfort in having lived out loud, even if that meant shedding a few tears on CNN.

We are a mite on an unremarkable rock circling a pedestrian star in one of 200 billion solar systems that make up billions of galaxies. You are insignificant and remarkable all at once. To dwell on your failures, not take risks, and not love and register the beauty around you with reckless abandon fails to recognize a universal truth: Everything and everyone you’re worried about will be gone soon, really soon. This is your instant, your moment. Why wouldn’t you be kind to yourself, love others, forgive yourself, forgive others and create joy for you and your loved ones wherever, whenever possible? Your heartbreak, disappointment, and grief will be the receipts for the joy and the agency you forge. Heartbreak, disappointment, grief, joy … I wish for you all of these things.

Life is so rich,

P.S. This week on the Prof G Pod I spoke with London Business School Professor Andrew Scott about the road to a healthier, longer life. Listen here

P.P.S. Section is sitting down with Superhuman’s Zain Kahn next week to talk about Supercharging Your Career With AI.

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