True Agency (in a Startup)

Real and authentic agency is incredibly difficult to come by, but it’s one of my core values and I talk about it quite a bit.

Which is peculiar because I do not believe that I have ever really written about it on this blog.

Wait, that’s not entirely true… I’ve just phrased it a bit differently:

I even started this post the same way! I’m so unoriginal it hurts.

Agency (from a sociological angle) is the capacity and freedom of an individual to make their own choices, to be independent and to act on one’s own free will.

It is debated, though, that social constructs and social systems may inevitably limit and constrain a person’s actions but the difference (and the arguments for / against) of these opinions and perspectives is, honestly, quite boring.

You see, pragmatically, one is technically able to do anything, but we always find ourselves in a variety of cultural contexts and we naturally adhere to those circumstances, more often than not for our greater (and collective) good.

How this applies to my life is quite simple: I value agency above nearly everything else in my life and this impacts the way that I think, the way that I feel, the way I behave, and ultimately the decisions that I choose to make.

This is why I work for myself and why I’m an entrepreneur. This is why I choose to build the products that I want to build and why the organizational structure of a startup is the best place for me to create value and earn a living.

This is an impossibility in all other professional situations as working for another person or organization compromises my agency (but if you have to, here are 4 tips as you consider your next gig). I learned this the hard way earlier in my life and I can’t imagine that I’ll ever go back.

In many ways, if I’m to be honest, I just didn’t want to be scared any longer; I didn’t want to live in fear. I wanted to really give a shit about my career.

I want the freedom to choose who I get to work (i.e. people worth working for) with and what I get to build and where I get to build those things and, of course, wrestle with the fundamental whys of building those things (and organizations) in the first place.

That’s real, authentic, practical agency in action.

But the burden and responsibility fully sits squarely on my shoulders and oftentimes this means that I lose out on a lot of things as well, like relationships. But, this is just the price of entry.

As a consequence, I try to talk about these things often with the folks that I work with and the folks that I hire. These are the fundamental norms that I create and that I signal to my team.

I don’t do this perfectly but I’m not going to stop trying because it’s so core to who I am as a person. I value agency for myself and I want that for other people as well, even when they may make decisions or behave in ways that are counter to the things that I believe.

This is what I tried to communicate on my vlog today but I’m not sure I did a very good job – you can be the judge:

One of the things that I didn’t communicate as strongly is that, in the context of a professional work environment (and in my case, a startup), true and authentic agency is allowing folks to make decisions that you may even fundamentally disagree with.

BUT (and this is a huge but…)… you let them make those decisions anyway, AND (and this is a huge and…)… you respect them for it, support them, and you do not judge or embarrass them or make them feel guilty or secretly discredit them for it.

The context in the above vlog is about vacation and, as I explained, I really don’t (and haven’t ever) taken time off and completely unplugg. I believe that I’ve tried but, if I’m to be completely honest, I never, completely, go one-hundred percent dark.

And right now, with my given situation with my current work, I won’t. It’s not that I can’t… it’s just that I don’t want to. You see, for me, maximizing mental health is about creating the right environment that lessens anxiety and actively engaging in my company while vacationing (although in a bit lighter format) helps me manage and cope.

For some this might be a complete and utter anathema and you may even disrespect me for it; I’m okay with that.

Completely unplugging would create so much anxiety that I’d have no time or interest in engaging with my children or spouse or enjoying the time in this new place.

So, for the sake of my own mental health, a vacation, at this point means reducing the workload and (greatly) reducing the amount of time I spend working and on the computer, but not to the point where I’m privately losing my fucking mind.

And that wouldn’t be good for anyone.

Agency is not feeling guilty about these things either because there’s real “meat and bones” behind the decisions and they are time-tested and personally, empirically true. I won’t feel bad about it and I won’t make anyone else feel bad about it either.

I want to build the best product and the best company (culture) that I can but even more important to me is making sure that I and my team are (becoming) the best version(s) of themselves and that they are better people in the end than when they began.

I’m going to work hard to achieve that end because that’s the only way that I want to do life – maximizing health, freedom, and responsibility.

That’s true agency.

[I have to give a huge shoutout to my good friend, Su Kim, who has helped me frame much of this and who helped me crystalize my thoughts into something somewhat coherent! Many, many thanks.]