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Growth Mindset

Agency Is the Highest Level of Personal Competence

Whatever your level, you can hold steady, decline, or grow.

Key points

  • Human agency is a mindset plus a set of learnable actions that help us attain what we want in life.
  • Agency is a psychological concept and comprises four activities: forethought, implementation, self-management, and learning and adapting.
  • "Agentic" is the strongest competence-related mindset, sitting atop a hierarchy including empowered, competent, passive, and declining.
Dick Close
Source: Dick Close

Consider the challenges of your job, your career, and climate change. What do they have in common, psychologically? In each case, success requires high-functioning human agency.

In the psychological sense, agency entails a category of beliefs, a mindset. More profoundly, genuine agency includes the strategies and actions that accomplish what we want and bring us what we need.

Feeling that you have agency is nice. But feeling agentic falls far short of exercising agency—thinking and behaving competently and making real progress toward your desired goals.

To exercise agency is to acquire significant control over your outcomes in life’s various arenas, including school, work, sports, physical health, and psychological well-being.

The Four Pillars of Personal Agency

Full-fledged agency requires believing you can achieve your goal and engaging in the following activities:

  1. Forethought: deciding to take on a challenge, thinking ahead, setting goals, and making plans.
  2. Implementation: taking first steps, enacting plans, and persisting toward success.
  3. Self-management: taking care of yourself, dealing with emotions and stress, and maintaining good health to sustain your efforts.
  4. Learning and adapting: monitoring progress, rethinking strategies and tactics, and making effective adjustments.

Thoughtfully executing all four pillars of agency contributes to your personal and professional growth while helping you perform over time. Agency is thus a vital source of power, a capability, a competence that can contribute to your overall well-being.

Competence Mindsets

A mindset is a set of beliefs or assumptions—entrepreneurial, capitalist, global, environmental—that guide your perceptions, thoughts, and actions. Fortunately, a belief in one's competence and agency (the highest form of competence) can be learned and developed.

Two widely studied mindsets hold particular relevance to competence and agency. To have a fixed mindset is to believe that intelligence and other personal attributes and abilities are set in stone. In contrast, a growth mindset motivates and allows you to strengthen your competence through learning. If you want to increase your agency on any task in any arena, embrace a growth mindset.

An agentic mindset—believing that you have a realistic chance to succeed and can competently apply the four pillars of agency—is the most productive of various competence-related mindsets. These mindsets influence, for better or worse, job performance, careers, and even efforts to adapt to and reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change.

Fixed and growth mindsets can influence whether a person will move upward in the hierarchy of competence mindsets shown in the accompanying figure.

A Hierarchy of Competence Mindsets

The figure above distinguishes five mindsets representing different levels of competence, arranged from weakest competence at the bottom to the most robust competence (agency) at the top. You might feel strong agency in your job but be less sure about your long-term career and helpless about climate change.

As you read on, remember that beliefs and feelings can change, shifting and fluctuating over time and from challenge to challenge. Changing a mindset, whether due to new circumstances or personal choices, can move a person up or down the hierarchy.

A fixed mindset can suffice if you don't care about improving your competence in a particular area. If you choose to aim higher, you can do so by embracing a growth mindset.

Starting with strong agency at the peak of the pyramid, the five levels of competence-related mindsets are:

  • Agentic: “I have the skills and resources I need (or can obtain them), feel motivated to apply them, and am acting in ways that will accomplish what is needed.” Full agency requires enacting all four agency pillars to accomplish your goals.
  • Empowered: "I have the skills and freedom to perform well and get even better." Being truly empowered is more than a feeling; it requires adequate autonomy, support, resources, and opportunities. Having these empowerment tools at your disposal is not the same as applying them effectively; that's the engine of complete agency.
  • Capable: “I can perform adequately and improve if I put my mind to it.” This mindset may or may not be grounded in reality. This indicates reasonable confidence but sometimes overconfidence. A capable mindset probably feels good but may not translate into high motivation and effective action if circumstances change. It can be a hindrance if you are performing inadequately or in the eyes of others but don’t know or believe that your performance isn't measuring up.
  • Passive: “I don’t think much about my competence in this domain and probably won’t try to improve.” This can result from a fixed mindset and believing you have little chance of improving or not deeming improvement in that area to be necessary. You might have checked out of a previous activity or never checked in. Passivity can be overcome with higher-level mindsets plus practice, but low effort usually characterizes this mindset.
  • Declining: “My ability to perform is or soon will be slipping away.” Examples of declining (technically, decremental) mindsets include believing that specific physical or mental abilities are declining and not expecting a turnaround, the same outlook regarding technical skills or energy levels helpful to your work, or believing climate change will get far worse no matter what you do so you needn't even try to help.

A declining mindset may or may not be accurate. Sometimes turning around a decline isn’t possible. Or facts and circumstances can improve with concerted effort and practice. Changing your mindset doesn't magically bring about desired changes.

Still, a shift in mindset can prompt action—agency's engine—strengthening your mental or physical health, job performance, and career. It can even help prevent or reduce the worst effects of climate change.

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