How to Be More Agentic

It’s never too late to control your own fate

DALL-E/Every illustration.

To succeed as a startup founder is, in many ways, to be a high agency person—someone who finds a way to get what they want done, who bends reality to their will, no matter the circumstances. Cate Hall is a former professional poker player, lawyer, and medical startup cofounder (among other accomplishments) who was able to do all of these things because of her own high agency. The good news: She believes that anyone can learn how to exert more control over their lives. Read her tips to learn how to be the master of your own fate. —Kate Lee

I often hear agency described as an inherent trait: Either someone has it or they don’t—and if it’s the latter, too bad. They’re doomed to a life in the minor leagues. But this hasn’t been my experience. Over the years, as I’ve aged and made smarter friends, I’ve gradually grown dumber relative to my peers. I’ve compensated by dialing up my agency, which I think of as “manifest determination to make things happen.”

As a result, I’ve done a bunch of cool stuff in different domains: I was a Supreme Court advocate and the number-one female poker player in the world; I’ve started art and perfume companies; and most recently, I led operations at Alvea, a pandemic medicine company I co-founded that set the record for the fastest startup to take a drug to clinical trials. I did all of these things in my thirties.

In my way of thinking, radical agency involves finding real edges: things you are willing to do that others aren’t, often because they’re annoying, unpleasant, or obscured in a cloud of aversion. 

The idea of finding real edges, rather than eking out wins by grinding harder than everyone else, clicked for me when I started playing poker. I missed the mid-2000s poker boom by a decade, so by the time I started playing professionally, poker had gone from being a gold rush to a game with extraordinary competition. Pros spent nearly as much time studying as they did playing, using solvers—models that calculate the best possible strategies—to seek out tiny mathematical advantages. I noticed a massive edge that was almost entirely ignored: physical reads, or tells. (I know an example would make this more compelling, but I’m sorry, it’s like explaining a magic trick.)

Two friends and I maniacally studied reads together, and we all had out-of-distribution results. But when we’d tell other pros what we were doing, the response was often, “Nuh-uh, that’s not a thing.” They weren’t willing to consider the possibility that reads were valuable, maybe because they didn’t want to feel obligated to study them. (One of those friends was Charlie Carrel, who recently put his reads to the test on Poker After Dark’s Game of Gold. It was evident when watching the show that many more people now believe that Charlie’s reads are real, but most of them still aren’t trying to find their own.)

All of my agency hacks are kind of like this—seeking out big, glaring edges that most people might rather ignore. Here are some of the ones I’ve noticed and started seeking out.

Court rejection

Ask for things. Ask for things that feel unreasonable, to make sure your intuitions about what’s reasonable are accurate (try not to be a jerk in the process). If you’re only asking for things you get, you’re not aiming high enough. Jobs are a great example: Especially if you’re early in your career, you should aim to get rejected from most things you apply for. If you have not yet learned the skill of absorbing rejection, court it deliberately. Apply for some jobs you really don’t think you’ll get so you can learn to decouple “no” from surprise and dejection.

I recently sent an email that I wouldn’t have dared try a few years ago, along the lines of: “I’m planning to start an organization similar to yours; would you consider letting me run yours instead?” The response? Crickets. Maybe that person thinks I overstepped. But it doesn’t matter. A similar pitch delivered to someone else put us on a path to start a new project together, something much cooler than I could have managed on my own.

Seek real feedback

It’s hard to overstate how overpowered feedback is. If you aren’t trying to get real feedback from people who know you, you’re cooking without tasting. This is among the lowest-hanging fruit for self-improvement, but few people really try to pick it.

In many contexts, the way to get good feedback is to give people a way to provide it anonymously. Anything else creates friction by layering on social dynamics. To get honest feedback, you’ll want to make it as comfortable as possible for people to give it. You also want to make it easy to find—I have a link to my feedback form in my Twitter bio, and get a few comments a week through it.

I imagine some people will resist, because anonymity frees people to be assholes. In my experience, they rarely are. Ninety percent of what I get in my inbox is either nonsense or nice. I get lots of messages of the “Keep up the good work!” variety. In over a year, I’ve gotten maybe two messages intended to hurt my feelings. Once in a while, I get a message that’s a gut punch because it calls my attention to a real issue—but then I get over it and get to work fixing the issue. (I wish people gave me more feedback—I had to learn about my uptalk from YouTube comments.)

Increase your surface area for luck

The last couple of times I was looking for a project to work on, I made a point of meeting as many people doing related work as I could, even if there was no obvious benefit to doing so. At first, I did this just to advertise my existence to people as I entered a new field because someone is always hiring or looking for a cofounder.

By casting a wide net, I learned that I have very little ability to predict how useful a call will be in advance. There is relevance, when work is closely related to something you’re working on, and usefulness, when work advances something you’re working on. Relevance is easier to predict, but it’s not a very good proxy for usefulness, which is a product of many other things including the other person’s enthusiasm and the breadth of their interests. To some extent, the more confident I am that a conversation is relevant, the less likely I am to discover something exciting from it. Nearly all of my most fruitful collaborations over the last three years have come out of meetings I booked almost at random. My best conversation last week was with someone where the introducer told me: “This person asked for an introduction but I’m not sure it’s a good use of your time.”

Assume everything is learnable

Most subject matter is learnable, even stuff that seems hard. However, beyond that, many (most?) traits that people treat as fixed are actually quite malleable if you believe they are and put the same kind of work into learning them as you would anything else. 

Agency is a good example. I learned agency late. In my teens and twenties, I occasionally made agentic moves, like taking a job in a new city to be with someone I hadn’t spoken to yet; we married a few months later. But I still managed to pick a career (law) I disliked, for no reason other than its obviousness. It was only after a decade that I stopped to ask what I was hoping to accomplish.

Many other supposedly fixed traits can likewise be altered: confidence, charisma, warmth, tranquility, optimism. Someone recently asked how one might go about learning charisma, and my answer was boring. Read a few books, watch many hours of charismatic people interacting with others, and adopt a few of their habits. This is surely a plan of action most people could come up with if they didn’t have the notion that charisma is innate lodged in their heads.

Whatever it is, assume it can be learned, and that the challenge is to figure out the best way to do it.

Learn to love the moat of low status

The moat of low status is one of my favorite concepts, courtesy of my husband Sasha. When you make changes in your life, especially when learning new skill sets, you’ll have to cross a moat of low status—a period where you are bad at the thing or fail to know things that are obvious to other people.

It’s called a moat both because you can’t just leap to the other side and because anyone who can cross it has a real advantage. It’s possible to cross the moat quietly, by not asking questions and not collaborating, but those tradeoffs nerf learning. “Learn by doing” is standard advice, but you can’t do that unless you splash around in the moat for a bit.

If you can learn to thrive in the moat, it’s incredibly liberating. I once played a hand in a big poker tournament so badly there were news stories about it. I’ll never entirely get over my embarrassment about the hand, but I still look back on it with great fondness, because it’s when I realized I’d crossed a threshold of unflappability. With cameras and reporters crowding around me, I could have safely folded and no one would have paid attention; I chose to call knowing it would mean certain ridicule even if I won. The call was quite bad, but I made it for the right wrong reason.

Don’t work too hard

This might be the most important item on the list. It took me almost 40 years to learn because my instinct is to think more hours mean more productivity—that’s just multiplication, right? No. The reality is that grinding kills creativity and big-picture thinking, even if it temporarily increases output.

Burnout is the ultimate agency-killer. This is so true that I’ve learned to identify a reduction in agency as one of the first signs of burnout, one that shows up even before I consciously realize what’s happening. A switch flips and I start looking for ways to rule out ideas and actions, to conclude they won’t work or aren’t necessary, rather than chasing better versions.

These days, I set boundaries that would have made me ashamed at earlier points in my life: I’m offline at 6 p.m. almost every night, and rigorously observe a Sunday sabbath where nothing with the flavor of effort is tolerated. These will seem like small things to some people but like a mortal sin to others in the communities I run in.

My rule is to never take instructions on how hard I should work from someone who hasn’t burned out before. Very few people take this seriously enough.

Agency has built our world

Agency is the skill that has built the world around you, an all-purpose life intensifier that lets you make your corner of it more like what you want it to be, whether that’s professional, relational, aesthetic, whatever. Build a better mousetrap. Have an enviable marriage. Start a country. No one is born with it, everyone can learn it, and it’s never too late.

Cate Hall is a former lawyer and poker player currently working on AI risk mitigation. This piece was originally published in her newsletter.

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Mark Modesti 2 months ago

I think it's harder to spend our brain (agency?) power than to spend more time, and it takes a long time to develop that kind of "brain power" (agency?). That's why many people work crazy hours. You have to compensate somehow.

@nigel_3126 2 months ago

Good sidelight on the concept of agency which is usually defined in terms of constraints (finance, education, race, gender). Recognise it isn't a level playing field but tackle what you can. Off to cross my moat now ....

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