in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #507: How to Increase Your Personal Agency

Many people today are feeling stressed or overwhelmed by life. The typical approach to treating these issues is to learn how to manage one’s symptoms through things like mindfulness or meditation. My guest today argues that mere management is insufficient. Instead, we need to tackle the root of what’s causing us to feel anxious, stuck, and generally lost — a decreasing sense of agency. 

His name is Dr. Paul Napper and he’s a psychologist and the co-author of the book The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms. Today on the show, Paul makes the case that the reason more and more people feel like they’re floundering, is that they don’t have a strong sense of personal agency. Paul explains what he means by agency, and why learning how to get better at thinking, acting, and making choices for yourself can be the real key to feeling less stuck in life. Paul and I then discuss the seven overarching principles of increasing your agency, as well tactics to put them into practice.

Show Highlights

  • The rise of anxiety and “overwhelm” among the patients of the authors
  • Why stress reduction is the wrong approach/fix 
  • What is “agency”? 
  • Why structured childhoods make for overwhelmed adulthoods
  • The 7 principles to increase your sense of agency 
  • What are the stimuli we need to manage to increase our agency?
  • Why you need to ditch multi-tasking and take up mono-tasking
  • The influence of the people we spend time with 
  • The role of exercise/movement in agency 
  • Why getting outside is so beneficial to our sense of agency 
  • What it means to position yourself as a learner
  • Managing emotions 
  • How to get better at making important decisions 
  • What impedes our taking action?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover page of "The Power Of Agency" by Anthony Rao and Paul Napper.

Connect With Dr. Napper

Book website

Paul’s website

Paul on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Many people today are feeling stressed or overwhelmed by life. The typical approach to treating these issues, to learn how to manage one’s symptoms through things like mindfulness or meditation. My guest today argues that mere management is insufficient. Instead we need to tackle the root of what’s causing us to feel anxious, stuck, and generally lost, decreasing sense of agency. Name is Dr. Paul Napper. He is a psychologist and the coauthor of the book, The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms. Today on the show, Paul makes the case that the reason more and more people feel like they’re floundering is that they don’t have a strong sense of personal agency. Paul explains what he means by agency and why learning how to get better at thinking, acting, and making choices for yourself can be the real key to feeling less stuck in life. Paul and I then discuss the seven overarching principles of increasing your agency, as well as tactics to put them into practice. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Paul joins me now via

All right, Paul Napper, welcome to the show.

Paul Napper: Thanks very much Brett.

Brett McKay: So you are the coauthor of a new book, The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms. So you’re a psychologist, you also co-wrote this with another psychologist. You’re in two different fields. The co-writer is Anthony Rao. So you both work in psychology, you work in the field of management psychology. Your coauthor is a child and family psychologist. And you start off the book saying that you’ve both seen a rise in anxiety and overwhelm amongst your clients. How has this been manifesting this itself in different ways to both of you guys?

Paul Napper: Yeah, great question. And it gets right to the heart of the book in terms of what we’re trying to address. In Anthony’s practice, I call him Tony. He has seen in the folks that he, his patients he’s seen, and primarily his patients are boys. So families bring boys in who are experiencing some trouble. Boys are actually overrepresented in therapy practices throughout the country. And how it shows up in boys, overwhelming anxiety, is the kids tend to get in trouble in school. Their grades go down, they get angry, more and more they’re escaping to screens. Some of them more and more he’s finding actually go on strike and just basically want to opt out everything.

So he’s seen that in kids, in the boys in his practice. What I see with the adults I work with. Again, I do executive coaching work, helping adults to realize full career potential. And what I see are people experiencing feeling stuck, feeling periodic overwhelm. Some people experiencing overwhelm almost daily. They’re also feeling a lack of decisiveness. A lot of people complaining that they have the sense that outside forces are more powerful than they are, and they just feel in some ways powerless to navigate in their lives.

So all in, both younger folks and adults, many people are kind of struggling to find their place in the world. So that’s how it shows up. So bottom line is we wrote this book to help people who are feeling that sense of stuckness.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Another one thing I thought was interesting, you talked to a minister. This guy in the book says that one thing he’s noticed in the past 10 to 15 years that more of the members in his congregation, they’re coming to them for help for things that people wouldn’t come for help a couple of years ago. They don’t know what to do. There’s like a lack of self reliance.

Paul Napper: That’s right. That’s really true. We see that all over. And in times of stress, people turn to other people for help. They look to other people also for validation. So we see that in the social media phenomenon. People are looking at other people and trying to figure out what are they doing. Am I doing what they’re doing?

So another person, we had the minister, we interviewed him. We also interviewed a woman who has been a therapist for 60 years and seeing clients over the span of a really long period of time. And she framed the issue as being that we’re really in a race to adapt as a culture. The culture has changed so much. The demands of modern life have changed so drastically in the last 30 years. That as she put it, we’re in a race to adapt.

I think that’s why the minister from Minnesota when we interviewed him, he said the same thing. People are hungry for advice. They’re running out of coping skills. And when people run out of coping skills, it shows up as overwhelm and anxiety. What happens from there is people have a harder time making decisions, sorting through options. It gums up the system.

Brett McKay: So you guys make the case that the past few decades, the focus on how to manage this anxiety and sense of overwhelm is managing stress. Stress reduction things. But you guys say that’s the wrong approach. Why do you think it’s the wrong approach?

Paul Napper: Well, this is a good question also. We’re not really saying that those things are the wrong approach. Managing stress is important and we all need to do that. But what we’re trying to get at in the book is that people are struggling with almost too much on their plates, too many things to do. So there are lots and lots of things being written that essentially are recommending people add more things to their to do list. Do this. Don’t do that. And people are already overwhelmed. So in some respects, we frame the problem not as you need to do this and don’t do that. But really, the problem is that people are feeling that they’ve lost the capacity to think for themselves. And we wanted to write in many respects, this is an ambitious undertaking. We wanted to write almost the granddad of all personal growth, self help books. Which is helping people think more for themselves, having more confidence in their capacity to make choices for themselves.

So they figure out what they need to do. We’re giving people overarching principles to put into place in their lives to guide them. But really, we’re saying the goal here is for you to become the expert in your own life and develop the confidence to make decisions for yourself.

So that’s a little bit different. The focus isn’t on simply do this, this, and don’t do that. It’s really about grabbing the bull by the horns, and developing the sort of mental toughness to make better choices in your life.

Brett McKay: So it’s all about making choices on your own. So that gets to this title of book. That’s agency, right?

Paul Napper: That is agency. We define agency as it’s the ability to act as an effective agent for yourself. So everybody understands the concept of a talent agent, or of a sports agent. That’s a person who helps guide someone along, helps them smooths the way for their career. Opens doors for them, opportunities for them. So you understand the idea of an agent working for someone on their behalf. But what we’re writing about is a concept that has long been discussed in the field of psychology, and philosophy, and sociology. And it’s about the, the, the capacity that each of us has inside ourselves to be an effective agent to do that for ourselves. And that’s what we’ve been finding of has been kind of declining. As people struggle to adapt, as they experience more anxiety and overwhelm. The capacity to find their agency and to put it into action is declining in many people. So that’s really, you’ve gotten to the nub of it, Brett, with that question.

Brett McKay: Is agency actually reducing or is it people sensing? Because we live in an age now where you can customize shoes however you want. You can make an iPhone case whatever you want it to say. Has agency actually reduced, or is it just people are overwhelmed and so they feel like their sense of agency has decreased?

Paul Napper: Deciding what is primary and what’s secondary is part of your question, which is good. What’s true of how we live today, we’re faced with more choices. It’s become a cliche to talk about the fact we live in the so called information age, but we do. We live in an age where there’s an enormous amount of information coming at us each and every day. And we are required as human beings to make choices each and every day in our lives. And because of the sheer volume of information coming our way, and the fact that the economy’s changing, jobs are changing. There are more demands, more thinking demands, mental demands being placed on us than existed 30 years ago.

So psychologists call this the cognitive demands, which is just basically the thinking demands. So in a lot of respects, our thinking skills matter more today than they ever did. And that’s a function of living in this information age with so many things coming at us. So many messages. We have to get clear on what our priorities are. And what we talk about is the importance of being able to think clearly for oneself. That forms the bedrock of having a sense of self confidence. And when you have a sense of self confidence, your anxiety goes down. And your level of agency goes up. So that’s what we are trying to help people to find is find their confidence, and allow their agency or their capacity to be an effective agent for themselves to increase that.

Brett McKay: And it sounds like the way you’ve written about in the book, agency is a skill that can be learned. I feel like I’ve noticed something with younger people, and even myself is that I grew up in the 80s and 90s. You’re told here’s the thing you do. You go to high school, and then you take the SAT, and then you go to college. And then you do this. There were some choices, but basically I had this pattern I had to follow. And that was it. So you have a lot of young people who haven’t really had to exercise agency because they just follow whatever they’re supposed to do. And now they’re in this fast changing world where the old pattern doesn’t work and now they’re having a hard time figuring out what to do now because they haven’t really exercised that agency muscle.

Paul Napper: It’s a great point. I think what’s true is over the last 30 years, and a lot’s been written on this. Kids are being raised with more and more structure all the time. So highly structured activities. A lot of times very structured academic tracks. So the idea behind that is to give kids a leg up. To increase their capabilities, to make them more competitive in the modern economy. The downside of that as you’ve pointed out really well is without structure, which is when you reach adulthood, there’s a lot less structure, right? You’ve got to invent that for yourself. That’s where agency comes in. So we’re seeing a lot of younger folks who without the structure, they feel lost and they don’t have a lot of resiliency. So they don’t bounce back as effectively as you’d like from setbacks.

So this book is for them. It’s also for folks who are older, who are further along in their careers, who are experiencing change that they need to adapt to. But agency can be learned is the bottom line. There’s no book out there that’s really set up to teach agency. There’s a lot of academic stuff on agency, on why it matters. It’s basically integral to the human experience. And I think why it’s coming up now is because people are really struggling to find it. Part of that is just we’re really distracted. Everybody is trying to sell us something. And it’s very easy to lose your way in today’s world. And part of this is also what we define as how do you look at success?

We’re bombarded with images each and every day telling us what success looks like. America’s a very achievement oriented country. In many respects, that’s what’s made us so strong. But too much of a good thing is not a good thing. And people being exposed to so many images of what success looks like, what it should look like. It can be distracting. It also can be demotivating. So what we advocate in our book is people need to do some deep reflection on what does success mean to you? Because it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. And it shouldn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

So agency is partly about finding out where do you stand in your life, in terms of what matters to you, and how you want to live. Because there are lots of different ways to live, not just one way. So it starts with that, with getting some clarity on what’s important to you.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig into how we can have more agency in our lives. So the subtitle of the book, there’s seven principles. What are those seven principles? And talk about how they interact with one another.

Paul Napper: Yeah, there’s seven simple, basic foundational principles that help keep people grounded. The first three we call behavioral principles. Behavioral in the sense of they’re simpler, they’re things you can just start to do behaviorally in your life.

The first one is called control stimuli, which revolves around the idea of controlling the amount of stimulation you expose yourself to. The second principle is called associate selectively, which is paying attention to the people you have around you in your life. The third is move. Move means using your body, paying attention to your physical health. Eating well, getting enough rest, and hitting the gym or running. Whatever type of movement appeals to you, get your body in motion. So those are the three behavioral principles.

The next four we call the cognitive principles, which are more about thinking and managing your emotions. These are a little more complicated because they involve thinking and emotions. So the first of the cognitive principles is called position yourself as a learner. The reason why this is one of our core principles is because our capacity to learn really defines us. Then the idea of positioning yourself as a learner, what that implies is it’s a very active thing that we all need to do. We need to actively position ourselves to learn in all situations, from all people. So learning is integral to a sense of agency.

The next principle is called manage your emotions and your beliefs. And this is probably the toughest one of all. It’s how do we manage our emotions? How do we manage our beliefs? How do we determine if our emotions and our beliefs are where they need to be? Are they in balance?

One of the key findings of our book, of our research is that when our minds and our bodies physically are in balance, our decision making improves. And when our decision making improves, we then create a life that’s more along the lines of what matters to us, what we want in our lives. So when your emotions and your beliefs are out of whack, it’s hard to be grounded. It’s hard to be a good decision maker. So this is one of the very important principle.

And there’s lots of things you can do in terms of better managing emotions and beliefs. The bottom line here is we are emotional creatures. Primarily, human beings are herd animals also, which is I think under emphasized. And being a herd animal. Just think of wild horses out in the wide open spaces, right? One gets spooked, and they all run. Human beings are like that too. We often don’t, I don’t think acknowledge that. So when you’re exposed to people who have high emotions, you start to take on some of those emotions yourself. So being careful about that, being aware of that is very important.

The next principle is check your intuition. Checking your intuition means doing a gut check. What do I feel about this situation? What’s my gut telling me? And making sure you use that information wisely. Which is to say, not impulsively, but as a source of additional data in making decision.

Then the final and pinnacle practice is we call deliberate then act. Which the bottom line with this final principle is that you want to separate your thinking and deliberation from your taking action. Especially on really important decisions. So when you need to make an important call, give thought to how am I actually going to make this decision? And separate that from taking action. Then figure out okay, so once I’ve made the decision, how do I put that into action?

Brett McKay: Perfect. Let’s dig deep into some of these principles. One of the the chapters that really stood out to me was the idea of controlling stimuli. So what are the types of stimuli that we need to manage in order to help increase our agency?

Paul Napper: Well, this is really important. The reason this is the first principle is because you need to have a clear head in order to really do anything of value in your life, right? If your head is clogged with all kinds of information and distraction, it’s really hard to be effective, and be present, and make good decisions. The other reason why this is our first principle is that when you achieve this, when you’re able to keep more of a clear head, it allows you to use the other principles.

So there’s a lot of things that you can do here, many different techniques. Some common ones that more and more people are starting to do that I’m seeing is putting your phone away, putting in a box or in a drawer for periods of time, so that’s out of sight. What we found is out of sight, out of mind is really good when it comes to electronic devices. And there’s a really simple reason for that.

From our interviews with all kinds of people in different walks of life, we arrived at a place that was a little scary. Which is that more and more, we are like trained monkeys tethered to devices that prompt us at all hours of the day. Where we put our attention is literally everything. It’s the most important decision you make for yourself and in your life. So if you are literally being led around by devices and your attention is simply going where other people are prompting it to go, you’re not going to be in control of your life. You’re not going to feel great ultimately, and your level of is going to decline. So simple acts of just putting that phone away, out of sight for periods of time, is enormously helpful.

One other piece of advice in terms of devices which is that a lot of times when you want to reach out for your device, do something different. Move your body instead, get up, take a walk, stretch. A lot of times, we reach for a device when we need a moment to recharge. Reaching for your device does not really recharge us.

So another thing to focus on in terms of controlling stimuli is do less multitasking. Do more what we call monotasking. One thing at a time. I’ll give you an example. I was backing out of my garage yesterday, and my phone was going off. I live in Boston, space is tight here. Garage is small, got snow piled up from the last snowstorm. And I was having to angle my car to avoid the mound of snow. And in any case, my phone was beeping and getting a text message. I was distracted. So not paying close attention, I nicked the mirror onto the side of the garage. It’s an example, a concrete, simple example. What can happen when we’re doing too many things at one time and our attention is divided.

So there’s a lot of research that suggests when we are multitasking, we actually think we’re doing a lot better than in fact we really are. So one of the other, as I said, simple practice here in controlling stimuli. Do less of that, do less multitasking.

There’s tons of other things in the book, other things you can do to control the stimuli in your life. But the bottom line here is in terms of technology, because technology has been a game changer. It has a lot to do with why controlling stimuli has become such an important thing for all of us to do. You want to make sure that you’re using technology rather than letting technology use you. This is something I bet you can relate to Brett because it seems to me that, and this is more just an inference I’m drawing. It seems to me that you’re someone who uses technology as opposed to letting it use you. So you find ways to productively employ it to enhance your life, and you probably try to limit the downside of it invading your life.

Brett McKay: That is true. Yeah. I’ve used apps to like control, actually I don’t have Instagram on my phone. I don’t look at Twitter really anymore. Facebook, don’t use that anymore. It wasn’t bringing me any value.

Paul Napper: That’s huge. Now those are really great examples of controlling stimuli. It’s become much, much more important that we all do this. And for each person, there are different things to do, different ways to go about. It’s not a one size fits all thing. But to your credit, you actually made some very clear choices. And I’m sure you probably reflected on those choices before you acted on them and made them for good reason.

I got off of Facebook four years ago. The strange thing is I was not a heavy user of Facebook. But the strange thing is just thinking about doing it. Getting off. I felt anxious. What will I be giving up? What will I be missing by making that decision? It was strange because again, not being a heavy user, it wasn’t like it was that important to me. But once I made the decision and did it, I never looked back. And I frankly didn’t miss it.

But the thing is that there’s an opportunity cost, which is an economic principle, for every decision we make. And the opportunity cost is when you say yes to something, you’re in effect saying no to something else. So when you’re on social media just for example since we’re talking about it, when you say yes to social media and if you spend two hours on it every day, that’s two hours that you don’t have for something else. And there’s a huge cost to that.

So in any case, that’s an important topic in its own right on how to control stimuli and all the different ways to do it, and all the different ways that you do it Brett, the ways that other people do it. And it is a really, really critical thing for us today.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the next principle, which is associate selectively. How do the people we choose to associate with influence our sense of agency?

Paul Napper: They influenced us hugely. And this is one of the more critical principles as well. The main reason is we pick up the emotional states of other people. When other people around us are confident, happy, motivated, open, we are too. So if you’re surrounded by people who are not those things, if you’re surrounded by people who are depressed, angry, negative most of the time, you’re going to become that way yourself. It’s how we work. It’s called mirror neurons, and we all have these mirror neurons that function. And we don’t have full control over those. We just don’t.

The other important thing about associating selectively, and what that means is, to associate selectively, what it means is actively choosing the people that you have in your life. And especially the people that are closest to you.

You’ve got some great information on your website about the different types of friendships, especially the types of friendships men have. How many people generally we have in our closest circle. The common numbers is five people, six people are in our inner circle. Those people closest to us having an enormous effect on our level of agency.

The other thing that’s critical here is isolation for human beings is like Kryptonite. It really, really diminishes our agency. And that’s why agency really is always expressed with and through the relationships we have with other people. So it’s both about making sure you’re not isolated, making sure that the inner circle of folks really are supportive, confident, motivated people. People you can learn from, people you can enjoy. So you want to move toward people like that. And if you can’t fix a relationship that’s gotten really negative, we’re not suggesting you abandon people when they become difficult. That’s not appropriate. But if you can’t get relationships onto a better path, then limit the amount of time you spend with those people. Or if you absolutely have to, move on because those people are really going to cost you a lot.

So anyway, that’s what associate selectively means. There’s a lot of different ways that if you read the chapter, there are a lot of different ways to practice associating selectively your life. But it’s probably the most important decision that you’re going to make is who you surround yourself with.

Brett McKay: And it can be the hardest one to. Like you said, there might be some really good friends or even family members who are bringing you down. And in order for you to move on in your life, you might have to separate yourself a bit from them or a lot. And that can be really hard.

Paul Napper: That’s right. It can be very painful. But it starts with an awareness of, sort of a taking stock of who’s in my life? Who in my life really supports me? Who in my life do I learn from? Who in my life gets me motivated and charged up each and every day? Do I have anyone? If I don’t have anyone, that’s a real problem. So there’s ways to set boundaries, set limits on some of the people who are really negative. For certain family members, it’s impossible. You don’t cut family members out of your life entirely. But there are ways to diminish the impact they have on you so you don’t fall into the same traps over and over. And again, also having really good quality people in your life who support you and push you forward in your life. Those people can make up for other people who have a more negative influence. But this is an important one again, people you surround yourself with. I want to make really good choices.

Brett McKay: Well in a book about making choices for yourself, I was surprised to find a chapter on just movement, exercise, moving your body, taking care of yourself. What role does that play in agency?

Paul Napper:                Yeah, this is huge actually too. Movement increases brain activity. It’s as simple as that. We need our brains. We need our brains each and every day, obviously. It sounds silly to say it, but our brains are the thing that make us unique. Anything that helps us in terms of allowing your brain to function better is positive.

Paul Napper: So movement increases brain activity. Anything from a brisk walk on up will increase the blood flow to the brain. This recalibrates our mood. It affects all our neurotransmitters. It’s the thing that that allows our brain to function at its best.

So we’re designed to move. We are designed to be in motion as people. And what’s happened is over the last, this is true for the last 30 years in particular, we’ve become much more sedentary. We sit around way too much in general. There are plenty of people who don’t practice movement, but there are a lot of people on a cultural level, on a population wide level. Many, many more people are spending more times sitting. A lot of this has to do with screens. A lot of it has to do with devices. Because most often, we’re sitting down when we’re on devices. Obviously you’ve seen people walking while looking at a device. You’ve probably seen that, that doesn’t always work out so well.

So there’s a lot of information out there about the importance of movement. But when we say movement, we’ve been something that goes beyond just physical movement. And what we mean is paying attention to your physical body and what it needs to be in tip top shape. So it’s like taking your car in for service. There are a lot of men who I know who keep their car in better working order then they do their own physical bodies. So it’s about what are you eating? It’s about how much exercise you get. It’s about how are you sleeping? What are your sleeping habits? There’s a lot of research about how chronically sleep deprived most Americans are. That is really a problem. Because when we’re sleep deprived, we actually lose IQ points. We don’t feel as good. It sets us up for chronic illness later in life. So there are a lot of things, simple things to pay attention to here in the move chapter, which is essentially all related to your physical body.

The bottom line here is our physical bodies are connected to our brains. So again, overarching principle of the book is when we are in better balance physically and mentally, we show up in life differently. And we have higher levels of agency, and we make better decisions for ourselves.

Brett McKay: I think the other thing it does too by exercising regularly or choosing to take care of yourself is that it increases your sense of agency because you’re exercising your agency when you decide to do those things.

Paul Napper: That’s exactly right. That’s a beautiful thing you just said. Because when we are sitting, we essentially are in some ways communicating that we are stuck. And more and more people, people I coach in my work. We talk about this. When I ask them to review, “Well tell me about a typical day in your life. What is it like?” And I pay attention to how much time are they actually in moving around. And for a lot of people who feel very stuck in their lives, simply moving more has an enormous impact. Again, movement boosts creativity and fluid thinking. It jumpstarts motivation. And if you’re sedentary for long periods of time, it basically can produce what the psychologist Martin Seligman referred to as learned helplessness, which is that you feel trapped, you feel stuck.

So it’s very important to move your body. Any of us can relate to that, right? If you sit around for a day or two and don’t do much anything, you start not feeling so great, right? Your thinking is less clear. Your emotions can get out of whack.

The other point I’ll make on the chapter on move is the importance of being outdoors, getting time in nature. Because part of what’s happened over the last 30 years is not just that we are sitting too much, but we’re also indoors too much. So getting outside is so beneficial to our sense of agency. It improves our mood. It improves our creativity. So get outdoors. Even if literally just if it’s for 10 minutes, it can be a game changer.

Brett McKay: So those are the behavioral principles. Let’s talk about a few of the cognitive principles. And the first one you talked about is positioning yourself as a learner. What does that look like and why is that important to increasing agency?

Paul Napper: Yeah. This is something that has become more important now than ever before. Position yourself as a learner. I talked about this a little earlier. The bottom line with this principal is when we are well informed, we make better decisions. So our book teaches you how to get the best information. We also help you to identify your best learning style. Everyone learns differently. There are a few different learning styles. It’s really useful for all of us to know how we learn best.

Again, back to the point I made earlier about living in the information age. Learning is really required of us now. Anything we do that can expand our capacity to learn increases our personal power. It increases our level of agency. So it’s really, really important to think about how to best position yourself to learn. And we can learn throughout, each day we can learn. There’s opportunities. Learning from the people around us, there’s always opportunities to pick up a new information just by being curious and opening ourselves up to new learning. And again, this increases agency because our capacity to take things in and learn allows us to exert power in our lives.

So one thing I wanted to mention, your interview with with Mike Rowe was interesting to me because Mike makes a good case for they are different ways that people learn and express agency in their lives. Not everyone’s talent is expressed by sitting at a desk. And traditional college is not necessarily for everyone either. And so a lot of people ask me, “Well in this information age, everyone’s required now to go to college.” And to some extent it’s easy to see how people come to that determination. Because one of the better things about attending college is ideally, it teaches you how to think better. It’s not so much about all the information you learn there, but it’s teaching you how to think and how to learn.

So there are other ways however, to learn how to think, and to learn how to learn. So what we talk about in our book is learn how you learn best. Increase your level of awareness of that. And make sure you incorporate learning into your everyday experience and make good choices around how you educate yourself. And realize it’s not necessarily a one size fits all approach.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I imagine just learning how to learn is going to be the skill that will allow you to have more agency in today’s world. Because jobs are always changing. Businesses are always changing. What worked 10 years ago doesn’t work today. And that’s probably why a lot of people in their careers feel overwhelmed. They’re like, “The stuff I learned in college or when I first started my career, that doesn’t work anymore.” They don’t know what to do because they never really learned how to learn. So if you constantly position yourself as a learner, you’re able to adapt as things change and exercise agency.

Paul Napper: That’s exactly right. If you pay attention to how you learn and you develop a habit of learning in your everyday life, that helps you to adapt to whatever comes down the pike later. And I think you said it well Brett, there’s a statistic that speaks to this as well. Kids born today, more than 50% of the jobs that are out there will no longer exist by the time they’re adults.

So for someone born today, it’s really in some ways impossible to prepare them for a specific thing. So we’re better off helping kids to develop greater agency, which is to say helping them to be able to better adapt to whatever comes along. And the capacity to learn is really probably the most important thing there in terms of helping you to be more adaptable in your life.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned at the beginning, earlier in the show that managing your emotions, that’s one of the cognitive skills that’s really hard. But just like associating selected, he has a big payoff. So why is being aware of our emotions and knowing how to manage those, an important part of increasing agency?

Paul Napper: Well, we’re emotional creatures. I think that sometimes, we underemphasize that or forget that. But we’re living in a world that is more and more complex every day. More and more information that we have to deal with. Again, we’re emotional creatures. A lot of people feel things first. And our feeling affects our thinking. They’re in some respects, hard to separate.

So the reason why managing your emotions and beliefs is one of the core principles of agency is that emotions are the strongest things happening in our heads. Our emotions can derail us. They can take us down blind alleys if we’re not self aware. So this capacity to reflect on your feelings, to understand better why you feel the way you do. Really helps to ensure that you have your emotions rather than your emotions have you. Because when our emotions are in charge, it often leads to less positive outcomes.

So in other words, said differently. When we apply some thinking to our emotions, we usually end up in a better place. We make better decisions for ourselves.

So that’s the bottom line with emotions and beliefs. The other point I’ll make in terms of beliefs is beliefs are better off when we actually question them and update them over time. As we learn more, as we grow, we sometimes need to update our beliefs. We talk about the difference in the book about the difference in values and beliefs. Values tend to be bedrock things. The things we value, the things we think of as most important, unchanging values. Beliefs are connected to emotion, and they’re connected to what we know. And if we’re actually learning in our lives, we will modify some of the things we believe as we learn more. And that helps us navigate in the world better. Because when we navigate in the world with outdated beliefs, we don’t make good decisions for ourselves. So it’s important to realize how beliefs and emotions affect our thinking. And when you understand that relationship better, again you make better choices for yourself.

Brett McKay: Well agency comes down to making choices and taking action on those choices. The problem is as we said earlier, a lot of young people, they haven’t had a lot of practice making really important choices. So how can we get better at making choices? Is there a system you can follow? Or is there not a system? What does that look like?

Paul Napper: Interestingly enough, most of us are not trained or don’t get educated specifically on how to make decisions. It’s very interesting to me that we don’t get more along the way in school, in high school. And then whether we go to college or whether we got to trade school. In some ways, learning more specifically about how to make better decisions, it’s so important to determining what kind of life you have. Because at the end of the day in many respects, we are the sum total of all the decisions we’ve made in our lives. So getting better at making decisions is pretty important.

So what we recommend in the book is using a process, having a framework to make important decisions. And again, these are the decisions that are not for each and every decision, whether you’re going to the supermarket to buy a can of peas. For the important decisions you’re going to make, use a framework. We provide one in the book, actually a fairly simple framework. We interviewed a judge, detective, doctors, and business people to understand how these expert decision makers arrive at their judgements. So using them as examples. And the interesting thing about it is everybody can become a better decision maker, if they focus on it.

So I think the issue is that again, it doesn’t receive enough focus or attention. So when you actually do focus on how you make a decision, the quality of your decisions will go up. So we talk a lot about in this chapter about being aware of the common thinking traps or biases you fall into. It turns out we all have them. And there’s some really terrific research out there that’s been conducted over the last 20 years or so on decision making, on the human capacity for decision making.

And the results are pretty startling, which the bottom line is we actually are not as good at decision making as we think we are. I see it in my work with people who often work in business. Lots of bad decisions get made each and every day. So improving your hit rate there will improve the quality of your life.

Brett McKay: The big takeaway for me from that chapter was understanding that our brain likes to be lazy when making decisions so that we rely on these biases or heuristics. that in some situations they work. They’re fine, they’re there for a reason. But when you’re making longterm, really important decisions, you actually don’t want to be efficient with your thinking. You want to slow things down so you can be more effective. So things are going to be a little more clunky. It’s going to be more intentional, it’s going to feel harder. But, that lets you know you’re actually using that prefrontal cortex of yours that makes you a human. So instead of just relying on your emotions, and those biases that we have.

Paul Napper: That’s right. Simply slowing down the thinking process can have enormous benefit. Because we all, to your point, we all prefer as human beings to engage in what we call fast thinking. This all comes from research. Really terrific research done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Two psychologists who did a really deep dive on human decision making. They basically have a two stage model that they built upon, which is the idea that system one thinking is fast thinking, which is more intuitive, more automatic. System two thinking is more deliberate. It’s more rational and analytical. To engage effectively in system two thinking, you need to slow things down. And certain decisions really require system two thinking.

There’s some decisions we make that it’s okay to be automatic. It’s okay to be, you don’t have to give them a tremendous amount of thought. Again, back to the supermarket. Picking up a can of peas. It’s not a big deal either way which can of peas you end up with. But when you’re making an important career decision or you’re thinking about getting married, or you’re making a really important life decision, that’s really important to give some thought to how you’re making that decision. And that requires employing what’s called system two thinking. Which is slowing things down, using all your human capability to apply to that decision.

So again, the bottom line here is that we as human names have a lot of capability within us that’s undeveloped. And agency is the capacity to pull all of that together. All of our ability, all of our capacity as human beings, pull it all together and make use of it to make good choices and to be effective agents in our lives so that we create a life on our terms. Not on somebody else’s terms, not on what someone on Instagram or Facebook, what somebody else has defined as being the good life. But really on our terms.

That’s the key to to a well lived life. And that’s what agency is. Agency is making these decisions for yourself. It’s thinking for yourself. It’s creating a life again on your terms. So deliberate and then act, the final chapter of the book is really where it all comes together. And it’s designed to help you to become a much better decision maker in your life.

Brett McKay: Well I think a lot of people, there might be not a lot of people. I think some people, they can make the choice, do the deliberation part. But they have trouble taking action on that decision. What do you think’s going on there? What’s stopping them from taking action, and how do you get over that hump?

Paul Napper: It’s a really good question because I think some people, we’ve all probably come across these people. They’re smart, they seem really able. There are people who make good decisions, but then don’t act on them.

We talk about the four large impediments to taking action in your life. One of them, not surprisingly is procrastination. Procrastination gets in the way. Impulsivity is another one. People jump too quickly to making decisions. So that prevents them from taking the best actions.

Obsession and perfectionism are the two other impediments. When we obsess over something, we are trying to make sure we’re making the perfect decision. We can’t pull the trigger and just move forward.

So these are probably four most common things that get in the way of people taking action. They all produce different outcomes. And people have different styles, right? People all have different styles. There’s some people who are more obsessive in their thinking. They’re constantly thinking about, “Well, but on the other hand.” Or, “Well what if this, or what if that?” Then you got people who are so impulsive, that they literally make a decision and they can move into action too quickly and then regret it.

And then you have your procrastinators who basically just try to avoid or defer even thinking about something to the last minute. So there’s these are just some of the things that get in our way of putting good decisions into play. And the book talks about these things and how to get around them. The bottom line is there’s a lot of low hanging fruit for most people in terms of how they can be better. Both at making decisions, and then taking action on those decisions.

Getting better at this stuff simply requires a bit of focus on it. And with some focused attention to it, anyone can become a much better decision maker. And that leads to greater confidence and greater happiness. It’s really flexing your agency muscle. Because confidence is directly related to agency, and it is the antidote to the anxiety and overwhelm that everyone’s experiencing these days. And that’s really what we designed the book for is for people to not be stuck. For people to again more actively grab the bull by the horns and think about their lives, think about what matters to them. And get busy creating that life for themselves.

So anyway, it’s a lot to think about. But really bottom line here is we focus more on principles with this book as opposed to specific to do items. So basically I think our assumption there is when people understand why they’re doing something, which is the principle. When they understand why this matters, they then can put that into use in their lives. It will influence how they go about everything. As opposed to us telling them, “Do this, don’t do that.” Which oftentimes can just add to people’s overwhelm.

So again, the book was written to help people simply become much better at making life choices and creating a life on their terms. And moving away. A lot of times that means moving away from the herd, not doing what everybody else is doing, and finding out what matters to you? What floats your boat? Because among the people we interviewed for this book, we found all kinds of people doing really interesting things. Things you’d never would think of. That came from them developing a greater sense of agency in their lives.

So we thought we share this with other people, this is going to really help. This is going to help people a lot. So ultimately that’s our goal is to help people to defeat overwhelm and anxiety, to feel less stuck, and to create a life that is really uniquely theirs.

Brett McKay: Well Paul, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Paul Napper: Yeah, well the book is available. We launched last week. It’s called The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms. We also have a website which is We have developed a short instrument, a test that you can take to measure your level of ability on these seven principles. So that if you buy the book, you can take the test for free in the book. If you go to our website, you can actually take the first of the sub tests, which measures your ability to control stimuli in your life. You’ll get a brief report with that describes your results.

So we also have, we were guests on the podcast Better at Everything. They released that today actually, the move principle was released today by the Better at Everything folks. That’s part of Macmillan, our publisher.

So there’s lots of ways to learn about the book. It’s available at every store on Amazon. And again, I think this is in some ways, has particular meaning to men. Because I didn’t mention this at the beginning, but men are struggling right now. There’s a lot of data on the fact that men are falling behind women in a lot of key measures, both education and at work. And there’s some clear reasons for that. And we wrote this book as a way to help all people, but particularly to help men to get a leg up and to better adapt to the world we live in today.

It’s why our publisher has described the book as really it’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a generation later. 30 years after that book was published, our book is designed to help people navigate in a 24/7 plugged in world, which didn’t exist 30 years ago. And it’s a different world. And some people are doing better than others, and we wanted to write a book that talks about what those people are doing differently, and why it is that they seem to be adapting better. And what we can all learn from them. So this is our effort to do that and put it out there.

So yeah, you can buy the book anywhere books are sold. I hope people really continue listening to your podcast Brett, because you got invaluable information here for people to listen to. They’re incredibly fun and enlightening. All the topics you cover. So that’s another way to position yourself as a learner is get out there and expose yourself to new ideas. And that will increase your level of agency.

Brett McKay: Well Paul Napper, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Paul Napper: Thank you, Brett. Really enjoyed it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Paul Napper, he’s the coauthor of the book, The Power of Agency. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives. there’s over 500 there, as well as thousands of articles written over the years on things like that relate to agency. How to make better decisions, how to be assertive, things like that. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


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