“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” —Dr. Seuss
By Tom Peterson
The other night, a few of us stayed up late discussing what direction we should go in our little world-changing movement. We wondered who could help with certain tasks. We explored ways to share the core ideas with the new folks, how to spread technical expertise and how to best learn from each other. We debated the shape this tiny effort should take as it tries to move the needle, to help hospitals move outside their walls to improve the health of their communities’ most vulnerable people.
This looking out a few years was mixed with some steps we had to take the very next day. So we’re talking about agency. Using the brains in our heads to decide what we could do. The next morning, based on that conversation, we used the feet in our shoes to steer in a (somewhat) decided direction.
Agency is the power we have
We all have a brain that decides our actions. I can choose to take a long walk this morning or to sleep late. What will I eat for breakfast? Bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits and gravy? Yogurt and fruit? Skip it altogether? Or I could have ice cream and Brussels sprouts. Agency is the power we have to decide what to do and then do it.
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” said William Ernest Henley. If we aren’t captains of our own ship, we need to lead a mutiny. If you don’t believe you have agency, quit reading this and go examine your life.
This is free will.
Within certain physical and other constraints—we can’t decide to teleport to Mars, at least not yet—we have the power to choose what we do. With that agency, we can do world changing. What do we want to do?
This is so simple, but it’s at the crux of world changing. When we understand that we can change our little part of the world and that others can change their parts, then we have power. We can engage and make a difference.
People made choices to do
A number of years ago, my friend, Gary Gunderson, was doing some work in South Africa. “That’s where I learned the language of agency—in the radical disconnection of apartheid, the shattering of families from HIV/AIDS, and the incoherence of apartheid using religion against people. Even in that setting people made choices to move, to do. They worked, healed, resisted. Those are all expressions of agency.”
“Sometimes agency is all you have to work with,” he says. “Life may be incoherent; you may be disconnected. But you still can get up in the morning and move. It’s a fundamental capacity to choose to move toward life.”
“Everyone thinks of changing the world,” said Leo Tolstoy. “But no one thinks of changing themselves.” It’s an easy default to drift through the day. Yet we have agency right now. We aren’t bound by our habits or our past. With our brains we can think of something new, put on our shoes and walk any direction we choose.