Secret Agent Man
Anyone remember #kawhiwatch 2019? The utter and complete media frenzy/chaos surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s free agency this past summer? The sports world became the equivalent of the ultimate fan girl, hanging on every rumor and tweet that intimated knowledge of the young star’s thought process about where he would ultimately sign on to play. It was by turns fascinating, infuriating, and debilitating. Kawhi was in total control of his destiny, and we – the world – waited on him. He was exercising his agency.
Over the past few weeks, I have noticed an alarming trend. A broad and wide swath of articles have remarked upon various cohorts – from women, to teens, to millennials, exhibiting – and certainly feeling – a complete lack of personal agency. The pieces speak about this trend of loss as alarming and as something that must be stemmed. And certainly it must. But all of this has made me think about the very term ‘agency’. What is it? And why do we seem to be losing it?
Secret Agent. Free Agent. Change Agent. All super powerful terms. They speak to a human who has super-powers – people we want to be like. But we all have agency –we are born with it, aren’t we? When I looked the word up, however, I started to understand our confusion. The word – like so much today – seems to have two distinct meanings. According to Merriam-Webster, the word agency means both ‘a person through which power is exerted or an end is achieved’ as well as ‘an establishment engaged doing business for another.’ Yup. And therein lies the current conundrum of today. Gradually and insidiously, the classic frog in a pot of hot water analogy – we have turned the reins of our own agency over to others. Now, we must find our way back. Times are urgent. Things are scary. The world needs us whole and ready to act.
Where has our agency gone? Perhaps a lot of it has to do with human nature and our innate ability to choose. We have hundreds of thousands of micro-decisions that need to be made every day. As social scientist, Barry Schwartz once observed, too many choices can be a crippling thing. As much as we claim to want choice, what we want is choice curated into a series of equally attractive options. Because to choose one thing, is to NOT choose another. And that essentially means letting something potentially wonderful go.
“One effect (of choice), paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.” – Barry Schwartz
From Netflix, to Tinder, our world is currently rife with choice-a-palooza. People under the age of thirty who are forced to navigate these waters on the daily speak of the exhausting agony of choice. Their resulting hunger to therefore delegate as much as possible to other people and resources seems understandable. And tech companies naturally oblige. We have Waze to handle street navigation, StitchFix to select our wardrobes, Airbnb to design our vacation experiences and seemingly, thousands of companies willing to select and prepare our food for us each and every day. We never need to pick up a spice, a scarf or a person without a predetermined outcome built in. We are safe from the risk everyday living demands. Right?
There has been a lot of speculation about whether or not the kudzu-like growth of technologically driven algorithms has weakened our thought processes. Our reliance on GPS is thought to be possibly reducing the number of neural passageways that have previously recorded landmarks and routes we need to remember to find our way home. Companies are hiring social scientists and urban planners to create routes that fuel ‘serendipitous collisions’ on their campuses to replace the random acts of creativity that used to fuel innovation. Rare is the person among us who doesn’t utilize the neon signs of likes and stars to find our ways to the products or places we look to populate our own lives. Crowdsourcing, that advanced form of Darwinism, keeps us safe.
Or does it? What I do know is that every time we fail to exercise the muscle of choice, the practice of entertaining risk, we weaken our power of agency. To exist as a human on this planet is to live in threat. We entertain uncertainty and danger by simply drawing our first breath. And therein lies the thrill of the journey. We get to choose our dangers, to call in the dragons we meet. The game, then, is to have the skills and the wits to slay them, or to at least tiptoe past the ones who lie sleeping. By cultivating generations of children and young adults who cannot or have not self-selected an activity, a subject or a snack on their own, means we are raising dangerously vulnerable humans. And trust me – I am not pointing any fingers here. We all can look to a time and a place in the not so recent past where we may have abdicated our choices because of our belief in a larger ( and universally good) vox populi and it turned out badly. The point is that perhaps this practice, this deferring of choice, has led to a loss of self-reliance in other areas as well, and has set us up for dangers beyond our wildest reckoning. (Despite your views on the current situation in Hong Kong, one must applaud a people determined to stamp out smaller fires before an apocalyptic combustion engulfs them.)
Instagram has recently launched a test to hide its ‘likes’ function, responding to a global concern about the vulnerability of young people to the approval of some faceless peer tribunal. Facebook and YouTube are rumored to be considering the same actions. The goal seems to be to encourage people to live – and share – their lives in a strangely wild and free place that reflects their own internal desires as a guiding force. Baby Steps, but ones we all can take. Not every decision we make is mission critical, but the more we practice choice, the more we get to choose. We too can be Kawhi – looking at options, considering our next move, thinking about what We want. And knowing we have the power to make it happen.
In today’s anxiety economy, there is no shortage of reasons to be fearful. From Ebola outbreaks to the Climate emergency, there is ample proof that a disaster is imminent. Buffering ourselves by outsourcing decisions and choices is such a comforting thought. But maybe, it would be way cooler for all of us to practice ju-jitsu in the dark, and to come out swinging when the next Bat signal shines. Let’s be ready this time.