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Fighting a final boss: The dark side of too much high agency (1/n)
Finding the right balance of ownership and personal mental wellness
First, I’m giving Shreyas Doshi a shout-out for inspiring this month’s essay.
Coincidentally, this tweet of his coincided with a major crossroad in my life that I was processing and managing at the time—it was something I didn’t know I needed to be reminded of, so thank you, Shreyas.
To kick off my undecided, n-part seriesabout the inner demons that I’ve been learning to overcome, here is part 1.
🤔 What is high agency—to me?
To me, high agency manifests as:
Pursuing every action that is within my full control until I’ve run it to ground
Having and getting clarity on what is within my control and what is not
Forgiving myself when I am in a moment of low agency—and getting curious about what is happening in my mind. This involves reflecting on:
What might I need to get back into a state of high agency?
What exactly about the situation is causing the mental friction?
👀 What does high agency look like in my day-to-day work?
To be more specific, this is how high agency shows up in my work, through actions I carry out or internal self-talk:
Macroscopically, feeling invigorated by a new challenge on the road, even if my initial gut reaction is, “This kind of sucks! 😂”
Taking the initiative to start writing or kick off conversations with my cross-functional partners to figure out something that will slow us down or bring us to a full stop if we don’t figure it out now
Drafting our product strategy as a non-executive level team member
Only focusing on misses, mistakes, or things that could have gone better, without keeping a fair tab that includes wins, lessons learned, or things that could have gone worse.
Being invigorated to work through thorny problems and coming across as seemingly too excited to climb a certain hill.
“If I don’t give a shit, why should I expect others to?”
😄 High agency sounds great!
High agency is a sweet asset to have, albeit in moderate amounts.
There is a proverb from Confucianism:
The golden mean or the doctrine of the mean was understood as a primary virtue.
More simply put, balance is key.
Dr. Alok Kanojia recently released a video about the struggle to feel the need for control nowadays. I highly recommend watching the video in full; however, at 10:28 of the video, he shares a simple yet powerful meditation technique.
This meditation technique has now become one tool in my toolkit that I turn to when I am feeling a loss of control, as it grounds me in everything I do have control over—many of my thoughts, the words I say, and the actions I perform (or don’t perform).
🤪 What does too much agency feel like to me?
The default assumption is that I really f*cked up.
Taking full ownership over things that really should sit with somebody else. Admittedly, this is less inappropriate in a startup environment—but still.
Never feeling good enough or like I deserve the opportunities I’ve had access to.
A lot of “should” statements in my internal dialogue, such as:
I should have seen this coming.
I should have known to ask about x, y, or z.
I should have done this myself.
Being highly prone to hindsight bias.
Questioning myself as to why I’m not an omniscient being, as if I could be anything else other than human.
🥊 Now: overcoming this final boss
I’m learning to accept that a part of me will always ruminate on whether I could have done things differently (read: done more or approached things differently to have more control over the outcome).
These are the tactics that I’m practicing to keep my high agency in check at my day job:
Notice when I’m leaning too hard into high agency by noticing one (or multiple!) of the signals above.
Reflect on which role I ought to act as or which professional hat I ought to wear.
As a former first Product Manager, I frequently (and still do) come across rhetoric out there that makes it seem like Product Managers have to be doing literally anything and everything—whatever it takes—to help their product succeed. I think it may be important to assume temporary responsibility to ensure certain work got done. However, responsibility and accountability are two different things.
As a Technical Program Manager, the lines of responsibility across various business functions can get blurry.
Ask myself, “Who is the best individual to make sure this work gets done well?”
As a Technical Program Manager supporting 9 product development teams, wise advice I received from a senior, tenured colleague is, “You cannot become the bottleneck to your own programs and ensuring their smooth delivery!”
💪 Next: what does facing this final boss with courage look like?
Being in a situation and getting my bearings on what I have control over and to what extent—as quickly as possible
Holding the individuals who are accountable over the outcomes of the situations up to that bar of accountability, with the compassion and patience due
Having clarity about where my personal bottom lines are—what are the situations that absolutely do not tolerate, what do I conditionally tolerate, what do I conditionally accept, and what do I accept
Thanks for reading this June edition of Product Muses! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I will likely post on and off about topics in this n-part series, as opportunities present themselves and I’ve had the time to process them and synthesize them into meaningful lessons learned worth sharing.