A Lesson in Freedom: Building Agency


“I am. I think. I will.” -Ayn Rand

“Mastering others is strength.  Mastering yourself is true power.”  -Lao Tzu

My favorite book of 2016 was a gem called “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distraction” by Mathew Crawford.  I read a lot last year so that is saying something.  The reason I really loved this book is that it assimilated several peripheral ideas and concepts I’d been thinking about and aware of in relation to freedom, into one cohesive philosophical work.  Over the years, I kept noticing time after time in myself and others when it came to motivation, as well as ethical, moral and spiritual growth and maturity, and success in various endeavors, there was a primary problem of misunderstanding freedom, both what it was and how to achieve it.

One important thing I’ve learned about freedom is that it requires the “ability to act” because if you can’t take action, you’re not free.  

Let me explain.

Ironically, though what we think we are getting in our modern world is freedom, what we really face in an “individualized” culture (packaged and sold as providing “freedom”) is that of declining personal agency Agency refers to the ability or capacity of an actor to act.  Another way you could look at or describe agency would be power, or the ability, to act within a given context.  For example, if you can read, you have more agency to learn.  Someone who does not know how to read, does not have the agency to become a lawyer, to get a college degree, or to read a cook book.  Being able to read builds agency, and thus freedom.  This is a simplistic example, but it works.  

Someone who has agency can take action.  I know nothing about how to repair my Honda Pilot.  If it breaks down, I have no agency to fix it, only to bring it somewhere to have a repairman fix it, which fortunately I have the money to do.  I am a prisoner to the auto mechanics.  When it comes to driving the car though, I know how to drive it, and drive it safely, so I have that agency, that freedom.  I went to Driver’s Education classes in high school and I learned from my parents and from mistakes and experience.  I am a more powerful driver and have higher agency now than when I was started driving 20 plus years ago. I am more free as a driver now than when I started because I know how to drive, and am good at it.

Life is the same.  If you know how to live, you will be good at being human, you will be more powerful and free. The problem is that we want to be good at life, but we don’t want to learn how.  So how can we build agency, when we don’t want to learn?

Because our culture emphasizes individualism more than any other in history, we need to be aware that this is hurting our personal agency.  Ironically, our desire to be free is keeping us from truly being free, because we are not building the kind of agency we need to act.  We need to acknowledge the utility and necessity of agency again and be willing to humble ourselves and learn, so that we can truly build the resources we need to take action.

  • Our backs hurt, but we won’t read, learn and listen to how to care for the spine.  So we keep hurting.  
  • We want a better career, but we don’t have a mentor, or coach, or master to learn from and we don’t have the discipline to study on our own.  So we stay stuck.  We have no ability to act or change the situation.  
  • We want to be able to defend ourselves, but we don’t like being told what to do.  So we never show up to a class.  So when someone robs us, we are frozen and terrified.  We aren’t free to defend ourselves, because we can’t.  
  • We want to be more flexible and less stiff, but we never take the time to learn how to stretch.  So we lack agency.  
  • We eat too much junk food, but refuse to take the time to learn how to cook on a budget.  No agency.  
  • We want to learn to invest our money, but we never take the time to study finance.  No freedom or agency.  
  • We want to be happy and spiritually at peace, but we never study ancient religious wisdom, or learn from a spiritual teacher, methods proven to get us there.   We reject all inherited wisdom and try to reinvent the wheel.  No agency.  
  • We want to be able to play an instrument, but we don’t sign up for lessons.  We lack the agency to do anything meaningful with the guitar or piano.  We are powerless to make music.    
  • We want to be part of a vibrant community, but we refuse to commit to getting involved.  No power to change our culture.  No freedom.  
  • We want to be a better parent, but we never asked the older generations how they did things, or develop the kind of rules they had on how things are to be done.  So the kids rule and manipulate the parents, who lack agency and thus power.  
  • We want to run a marathon, but we think we can do it on our own without studying the best techniques, or working with a coach or team, so we get injured the during the first month and give up.  No power to run the marathon.  
  • We want to be physically strong, but we want “free time” to watch TV, so we “don’t have time” to lift weights.  No agency.  

You get the idea, right?

These are just a few examples of how our misplaced focus on radical individualism is holding us back.  Because we are so focused on individualism, we run from anything that looks like authority or submission to a discipline.   Ironically, we aren’t building the agency we need to become really be free.

If I saw a dog acting like a bird, trying to fly, flapping its legs and so on, I would not admire the dog, I’d pity it.   On the same hand, a dog that has been trained to sit, stand, stay, heel, fetch, retrieve, and roll over, and can hunt and catch it’s own food, is a dog I can admire.  It has agency and can act like a dog can act at it’s best.  It’s a powerful dog, as free as a dog can be.  I was watching a Hunting Dog Retriever Championship recently in person, it was a beautiful thing to behold.  

Building agency is the true key to becoming a free and healthy person.  To build agency, we need to tie ourselves up in a learning situation and develop the resources we need to act.   To be free, we need to focus on things that our culture rejects:

  • Humility 
  • Patience
  • Submission
  • Discipline
  • Focus

Achieving true freedom is counter-cultural.  Only when we learn to embrace a truer sense of what it means to really be free will we grow into the kind of person who can act, the kind of person with agency.  

If we can’t act, we’ll never be free.  

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