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How to Understand Your Role in the Choices You Make

Becoming a Personal Agent

"Man is not fully conditioned and determined,
but rather determines himself

whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them."
Victor Frankl

If you’ve ever felt like you’ve been thrown into a world where everything is already decided, where you don’t have any say, you’re not alone. Frankly, young people frequently feel this way, and it’s not uncommon for adults to feel this way sometimes, too.  But young adults are in a situation that inspires this feeling in a number of ways. There are many things you don’t choose for yourself – where you live, whom you live with, which school you attend, much of what you do, when you do it, even what you eat most of the time. Add all these externally-controlled details to the fact that you’re one person in a world of over seven billion people – one drop in the ocean, it sometimes seems – and you might not feel that you are in control of anything.

Things that affect us and that we don’t control are what writer Viktor Frankl calls “conditions” in the above quote. As human beings, we’re conditioned in many ways by our environments, the people around us, our upbringing, our biology, our current circumstances. As a young adult, your activities and options are partly determined by what the adults around you – parents or guardians, teachers, coaches, etc. – expect of you.  You also have to operate – and make choices – under the influence of your friends and what they want you to do.  There are many pressures in life that may encourage you to “cross the line,” regardless of what the right thing to do might be.

If you’re unfamiliar with Viktor Frankl and his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, you might be amazed to learn that the above quote came from a man who lived the life he did. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist from Austria who was placed in a concentration camp during World War II, where he was forced to work as a slave laborer. He was separated from his wife, who died in a different concentration camp. Frankl suffered the immense indignities of concentration camp life – indignities designed to destroy a person’s identity, conscience and will to live. In the face of unspeakable horrors, Frankl maintained that the Nazis ultimately did not have the power to determine how he would be; it remained his choice how he acted, reacted and behaved. Man’s Search for Meaning is, among other things, a book that emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility and its existence even in the most constraining of situations. 

Frankl’s quote points out an insight that may be hard to tap into sometimes, but acknowledging it can have a tremendous impact on how you live and the person you become. He says that, ultimately, you determine yourself – you determine, at least to a great extent, the influence of conditions on the choices you make.  

What is a Personal Agency?

“We need to conceive of ourselves as ‘agents’ impelled by self-generated intentions.”
Jerome Bruner

Agency is the capacity to act. What does it mean to act in this context? In a sense, you act any time you do anything. But agency involves something more specific than that. It’s the ability to make choices from within yourself, rather than going along with whatever conditions in your life push you into. Action in this sense is the opposite of reaction. I act – I practice my personal agency – when the thing I do is not completely determined by external factors (other people, for example).

What kind of action counts as a practice of agency?  Actions that go beyond conditions – that go beyond what is already given. These actions are self-generated as opposed to being determined from the outside.  What does such an action look like?  The following examples embody the type of action involved in practicing personal agency:

  • You’re having trouble with a certain subject in school, despite extra attention from your teacher. You could resign yourself to a destiny of poor academic performance, or you could get creative and seek out resources beyond school, such as helpful websites or adult mentors to give you extra help. In the former case, you’re staying within the limits of the given situation; in the latter, you’re going beyond it.
  • Your friends all want to get drunk. You can want to get drunk, too, just because they do, or you can think critically – by examining the reasons behind doing it for yourself – and determine whether you really want to drink. In the former case, you’re reacting to the unchecked influence of peers; in the latter, you’re consulting your own judgment, intentions and desires.

Besides making clearer what self-generated action looks like as opposed to actions driven by external conditions, these examples provide useful new information about agency. Two internal resources for personal agency are creativity and critical thinking. You can go beyond the given conditions in your life by making use of these resources to first identify your options and then make the best choices within any given situation.

Discovering Your Choices

"Agency presupposes choice.”
Jerome Bruner

In order to have and to practice agency – to act – you first need to have options. You can’t very well act if you don’t have any choices to choose from; if you didn’t have choices, you’d be completely conditioned. But, if you think about it, you’ll find that there are many areas of your life in which you do have choices. Consider the following:

  • You can choose who you’re friends with. The company you keep can be an immensely supportive and positive group of people that help you grow; on the other hand, you could choose friends who discourage being yourself and drag you down emotionally, mentally and physically.
  • You can choose your level of investment in academics, relationships and family life. Only you can decide to invest time, energy and effort into these areas of your life.
  • You can choose to cultivate your passions. This involves first identifying them, which may take some experimentation. Try new things – art, sports, reading, writing. Something may catch your heart. Alternatively, you can choose to bounce back and forth between boredom and temporary amusement with things that come and go.
  • You can choose to think beyond yourself, your home and your circle of friends. Get informed – whether about your local community, your state, your country or the world more broadly. Find an issue that you care about and want to change. Talk with an adult mentor and do your own research to find out what steps you can take to make a change. On the other hand, you could choose to be disengaged from the world around you and limit yourself to the relationships and concerns that immediately present themselves to you.
  • You can choose to improve or deteriorate your physical health. While you may not be able to control everything you eat, you can make healthier choices within what you have available, and you can always choose to be more physically active.

Jerome Bruner points out in the quote above that agency presupposes choice – that agency couldn’t exist without the presence of choices. At the same time, we can’t make good choices if we don’t have a clear sense of personal agency. As Frankl noted, we can make a choice – however unconscious – to remain within the limits of the conditions we find ourselves in. Or, on the other hand, we can shift the focus from things we don’t control to things that we do by thinking of ourselves as agents. Once we identify the choices we have, we can go about making good ones.

How to Become an Agent

How do you get started? You could try writing down a situation in your life that is causing frustration and a sense of powerlessness. Write down why you’re frustrated, what (if anything) you have already tried and why it was ineffective. Then, begin brainstorming as many reasonable options you have for acting. Use your internal resources – critical thinking and creativity – to analyze the situation and to think beyond its limitations. Write down your options, including the advantages and disadvantages of each. Eventually, you’ll be in a position to choose the best option.

For example, you may find that one of your teachers is giving you poor grades and you don’t know why. Instead of taking a “that’s just the way it is” attitude and assuming the teacher doesn’t like you, you can be proactive. Generate a list of your options. One would be scheduling a time to meet with your teacher before or after class to discuss the situation and clarify what you need to do to bring your grade up. Another option would be to gather your graded assignments and copy down all the questions you got wrong, then studying until you can answer them correctly. A third option would be to team up with a friend in the same class who is getting good grades and compare old assignments, perhaps asking your friend for tutoring help.

Some people may find free-writing to be the most effective way of completing this exercise. Others may prefer to use a more structured template, such as the following:

Describe the situation:

  • Describe the situation and circumstances you are facing
  • Describe what you have tried (if anything)
  • Being totally honest, describe why didn't this didn't work (poor choice, not well thoughtout, etc.

What options are available to you? (advantages and disadvantages of each):

  • Option #1
  • Option #2
  • Option #3

This practical exercise will train you to always seek the opportunities for agency in different situations. Aside from helping you gain power over your life in the short-term, this is excellent preparation for adulthood, when more choices become open to you. The more you cultivate decision-making skills in young adulthood, the better prepared you’ll be to make good choices later on.

A final word of caution: Critical thinking and creativity – your internal resources – aren’t perfect. It’s still important to consult with others and hear them out. Acting from within yourself doesn’t mean shutting others out. The dignity you’ll find in practicing your agency, after all, is within your fellow human beings as well. Respect them and listen to them, but make sure your voice is heard, too.

You can’t have control over everything in life no matter how old you are, but, as Frankl pointed out, you can choose whether to give in to the conditions in your life or to make choices that get you beyond them. When you think of yourself as an agent, your ability to make those choices becomes more apparent.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Serenity Prayer

Written by Amée LaTour
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Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

Good habits formed at youth make all of the difference in life. Aristotle