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Book Review—The Power of Agency

Reviewed by: Karen R. Koenig  (Originally published at New York Journal of Books)

The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms

“If you’re looking for a read that spotlights exactly how to take control of your life, this book provides a tidy amalgamation of theory and practice that’ll get you up and running with the tools you need.” 

The Power of Agency provides the essentials for managing your life by referencing and recapping the best ideas that have been written on the subject over the past few decades. The authors keep us engaged with brief, to-the-point case examples and studies, check-list suggestions at the end of each chapter, and readable language that explains theoretical concepts by getting right to the point. The book includes a handy inventory/self-assessment on the components of agency at the start of the book, as well as an appendix on potential biases which may unconsciously deter us from achieving it.

Many of us spend our lives seeking agency, though that’s not the word we use to describe what we yearn to feel. “Agency is about being active rather than passive, of reacting effectively to immediate situations and planning effectively for your future.” It’s what “humans have always used to feel in command of their lives.” Call it empowerment or taking charge, agency sums up the traits and life skills we often don’t even know we lack.

Many of us feel stressed, overwhelmed, frustrated, exhausted, and powerless. But rather than identify and build the skills we need to get and stay on track, we latch onto quick-fix strategies for change. Wishing to succeed, achieve, feel good, and enjoy our families, friends, work, and play, we honestly don’t know how to make that happen. Too often, we keep ourselves stuck by repeating the same mistakes we’ve made before while hoping for a different outcome or giving up entirely.

The authors start out by making the point that, due to the pull of 24/7 technology, our obsession with comparing and competing, dwindling real-life connections, sedentary lifestyles, and work overtaking personal time, there are “an increasing number of people who have lost their ability to respond to stress.” The authors see this deterioration as escalating with overwhelming anxiety, eroding our ability to effectively chart our own course. Keeping it simple, they then lay out seven agency-promoting principles to guide our lives: Controlling Stimuli, Associating Selectively, Moving, Positioning Yourself as a Learner, Managing Your Emotions and Beliefs, Checking Your Intuition, and Deliberating, Then Acting.

The book is anchored in best practices from business and psychology—employing patience and persistence to make small changes, de-cluttering our surroundings and our minds, practicing mindfulness, saying no more frequently in order to take care of ourselves, choosing mentally healthy people to be around and learning how to deal effectively with those who aren’t, recognizing and curbing our emotional triggers, paying attention to positive and negative shifts in focus or mood, staying open to new learning, and being wary of group think and culture.   

There are terrific nuggets of wisdom to be found in this book, including an explanation of the difference between impulsivity and three types of intuition, the elements of critical thinking, the value of discernment, the necessity of having rational and healthy foundational beliefs, the crucial importance of self-reflection and self-knowledge, and why a fixed mindset leads to failure and a growth mindset to success. The authors address problems we all face, such as how to be less emotionally reactive, decrease procrastination, and harness “fast” and “slow” thinking to our advantage.

Although there is no startling new material in this book, the information is presented in such a way that the reader can easily understand how each principle of agency fits together with every other principle to create the stepping stones from powerlessness to power. The authors’ advice is best summed up as encouraging the reader to “Think carefully about where your brain is at all times.” If you’re looking for a read that spotlights exactly how to take control of your life, this book provides a tidy amalgamation of theory and practice that’ll get you up and running with the tools you need. 



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