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  • Writer's pictureLaura Roeven

Personal Power: The 3 Ingredients to Agency

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

I attended a lecture by Dr. Martin Seligman from Penn State University’s Positive Psychology department. Seligman and his team discovered that there are three ingredients required for agency:

Agency = Efficacy + Future Minded Optimism + Imagination

Agency describes the feeling of progressing, prospering and being able to make creative choices in life. Words that are similar to this state of being are: innovation, progress, and a feeling that I can accomplish what I wish to achieve. Seligman describes it as, “A mental state, allowing for immediate course of action. I can make a difference in the world!”

Spring in Wisconsin has brought a lot of grey and cold days. I played with this formula as a way to increase motivation on a low energy day. If I needed to shake off the snowflakes and get fired up, I pondered which of the three I wanted to play with. When I chose efficacy, I got right down to it. Define what I need to do and do it! When I chose future minded optimism, I remembered that warm weather is around the corner. This enabled me to enjoy the last bit of quiet that winter offers. Imagination…that was my favorite to pull out. I imagined what I wanted to be doing, feeling and achieving 3 months from now. These little words accessed the language and the visual centers of my brain and created hope!

“You ultimately control only two things. You determine how you choose to perceive yourself, others, and your situation. You also control what you decide to do next.” ― Scott Perry, Endeavor: Thrive Through Work Aligned with Your Values, Talents, and Tribe

Agency is the feeling that I can create the future I want to see. Let’s dig into the three scientifically proven ingredients that produce results:

Ingredient #1: Efficacy

Efficacy is the ability or power to produce a desired or intended result (Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries combined into one by me). What do you do every day that supports your belief in yourself? You do have the power to get things done. You can produce the result you are working toward. This requires a belief that you can make decisions that will produce the outcomes you are seeking. To have efficacy, we must have great self-care. Our bodies need to be able to do. Our minds need to believe we can do. Finally, our actions need to hold the energy to perform the doing.

Ingredient #2: Future Minded Optimism

I believe that good things are in my future. Things might not go as planned, but with future minded optimism, I believe there is good coming my way. This is a mindset that dwells on multiple positive outcomes by looking to innovation and resilience. An area of the brain is responsible for future minded optimism. Dr. Seligman describes it as the Hope Circuit: Ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This is where we activate persistence, resilience, and the belief that I can do something to get closer to my goals. Coaching uses tools that route a person back to this area of the brain using creativity, imagery, and questions. Which leads us to the third ingredient.

Ingredient #3: Imagination

How do we activate the Hope Circuit? Through our imagination! This is what I love about being a coach. The questions and tools that I use are tailored to activating your Hope Circuit! Here are 5 of my favorite hacks to Imagination:

  1. Metaphor: Make a clear picture of how it is today. “I feel like I’m a ship docking at an unknown harbor.” How close are you to shore? What do you need to tie up to this new experience? How do you want to greet this new land? What cargo do you need to off-load? What do you hope to gain? The questions are endless, and the answers give multiple ideas using language and imagery together.

  2. Imagine being successful at what you are trying to do. What are you doing as that future person? What did you need to get there? What helps you to get there faster? Who is cheering you on?

  3. Imagine being an anthropologist. Humans are curious creatures. This is a marvelous study to discover how one would get from point A to point B.

  4. Name 50 ways to get what you want. Any idea is welcome. Nothing is too absurd.

  5. What about 3 months from now? What must get done today to meet that mark at 3 months? Imagine how far you can journey over the next 3 months! What do you need to reach that point? What support can you ask for to keep going?

The opposite of Agency

Sometimes it is helpful to recognize thoughts that are contrary to Agency. Helplessness, thinking there is only one way, or believing someone else has the power over your future are all agency crushers. It can sound like, “I can’t change this. I’m too tired to try. I can’t keep my commitment to myself, what’s going to change?” Seligman went on to discuss helplessness as a default in our brain state. When bad events occur, the brain flips to a passiveness/fear mode. This is coachable. We can apply the three ingredients to re-activate the hope circuit. This offers new thinking paths for the brain to imagine possibilities.

Creating an abundance of options fuels the belief that there are multiple ways to get to where you want to go!

History Lesson: When were humans bad at Agency?

War disrupts agency. Pandemics. Aggression. Turns out times of global fear or illness are low times of agency. Good news! Seligman has discovered that we’re getting better and better at Agency globally. Women can vote in more places than ever before in history! We are living longer and with greater options than ever! Remembering changes and advances helps to feel hopeful and part of the good in the world.

When were humans good at Agency?

The Agriculture Era, The Bronze Age, The Greco-Roman Era, The Golden Age, The Renaissance…Times of innovation, prosperity, peace, and creativity. We have experienced efficacy globally and personally many times. Knowing that humanity has had a range of wellbeing over time can help keep perspective. If the human race has its ups and downs, so can I! Agency will be the tool to keep going.

Want help activating your agency? Set up your coaching session today.



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