Paul Napper, co-author, “The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, & Create a Life on Your Own Terms,” talks with Peggy and defines agency. He explains why it matters and how it is different. They also explore how having a higher agency will make you a better leader, how one increases their personal agency, and how agency is declining in the U.S.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To hear the entire interview on The Peggy Smedley Show, visit www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 4/29/2020 from the archives.

Peggy Smedley:

Paul, just before the show, you and I were talking about so many things. And I’m really delighted to have you on here. And one of the most important is getting us back into gear I think, emotionally, and prepared with just so much in life right now. I mean, not only do we have to think about what’s been going on around us with COVID-19 and everything else… but while we’ve got this time to be alone, we have time to read….And I guess my question to you is, when you were sitting and thinking about writing a book, did you sit down and think, maybe this is the time I can sit down and write a book, or is this time I want to read a book? What gets people right now? Should they be thinking about all these things that are overwhelming them? Or maybe just think about writing thoughts or reading a book. What do people want to think about right now? Their minds are filled with all kinds of things.

Paul Napper:

Yeah, it’s a great question. I think a lot of people right now are feeling overwhelmed at the scope of the current crisis. And this comes on the heels of a lot of folks feeling overwhelmed just by the increased pace of life, of American life. One of the things that got us to, my writing coauthor and I, to write this book was what we were observing in the people we work with. He works with children and families, as a psychologist. And I work with business leaders, as a psychologist. And we were both noticing that in our respective populations, people feeling a lot more overwhelmed by life. And that has a lot to do with the fact that things have sped up so much over the last 20 to 30 years. Now you add in the current crisis and it’s literally like out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The old cliché, but what does it entail, requires us to adapt. And so as human beings, we’re pretty adaptable beings, right? We have good brains and we’re always trying to find ways to adapt successfully to the environment that we’re in. Whatever environments we put ourselves in or find ourselves in. And what happened again over the last 20, 30 years, is because the environment has changed so quickly and so much that it’s produced a bit of a crisis in people’s ability, their capacity to adapt. Some people have been obviously adapting a bit better than others, but today, with the COVID crisis, we see more people, because of the acute nature of this crisis, struggling to adapt. How do I adapt? How do I learn what to do? How do I?

And so, this is an important area of interest for me and my coauthor. As psychologists, we think a lot about how humans adapt. And to your question on writing, what should people be doing? Ideally, right now people should be slowing down as much as they can, trying to keep their thoughts more in the present moment. Try not to project too far out into the future and worry about next month or the month after. Let’s think about this week, let’s think about today. It’s a good time to be reading and reflecting and just being quiet with yourself and whoever else in your life you’re hunkered down with. It’s a good time to kind of engage in more quiet animal analog type activities. Getting outdoors, moving around, walking, running, any of those kinds of things. Really restorative things that help us to adapt, to help kind of recharge our batteries so that we’re better able to learn and make adaptive changes to our behaviors.

And a lot of writers, back to your question again is, they keep journals. And I’m not a journal keeper personally, but many if not most people who want to write something, they keep journals. They don’t necessarily write in them every day, but they write some of their thoughts, some of their musings, some of their ideas. And that’s a nice thing for people to be doing right now, also. Just some way of capturing their thoughts because in the midst of a crisis, there’s always a bit of an opportunity. And that opportunity is to learn new skills, develop some new creative ways to live your life, creative ways to solve problems. There can be a silver lining in this, also. But I do think it requires people to try and not get so overwhelmed by it, by exposing themselves to just way too much stimulation. Get quiet with yourself, read, think, talk with people about it. And so that, that’s really what I would recommend people try to do right now.

Smedley:

You describe an agency, is that the personal side of things that people are? You’re describing what is an agency and why does it matter. Help us understand that because I think you want people to get better in what they do in both their own work, their work life, and in their home life?

Napper:

Yeah, absolutely. Agency, I like to say to people is probably the most important thing you’ve never heard of, because most people don’t really know specifically what the word agency, meaning human agency, what it actually refers to. Most people when they hear the word agency think advertising agency or government agency. Agency has to do with our capacity as people to make choices, our capacity to use our faculties, our mental faculties, to make choices in our lives, and take our lives in a desired direction. It does have a lot to do with decision making, our capacity to make decisions and sure enough, one of the things we talk about in our book is for all of us, we really are, in many ways, the sum total of all the decisions we make over the course of our lifetimes.

Big decisions, small decisions. Obviously, bigger decisions are much more crucial. But one of the consequences of this sort of sped up lifestyle that I talked about a few minutes ago is that people are carrying around more anxiety and worry. And they’re experiencing more episodes of what they describe as is overwhelm. And this gets in the way of people being effective decision makers in their own lives. And so we wanted to write this book about what is it that’s within your own power to become better at handling your life, managing your life, making decisions for yourself, and trying to keep some of this overwhelm and anxiety at bay. A lot of people don’t realize that we actually have a silent epidemic of anxiety in the United States. 20% of Americans actually are diagnosed with a clinical anxiety disorder, at this point. It’s 20%.

Smedley:

I would bet you right now with COVID, it’s much higher right now. I’m just saying.

Napper:

And yeah, you would probably be right. And so we are a very anxious nation. In fact, the World Health Organization, a couple of years back, did a ranking and ranked the United States as the most anxious nation on earth. This is a surprise to a lot of people, but we do have some issues here in our country that require us to focus on them, to find solutions. And we wanted to write this book for people to give them the power to have more agency, more personal agency that is, to help them build the capacity to make good choices for themselves, to create the lives they want to create for themselves.

Smedley:

So increasing, not to interrupt, I apologize, but to increasing that personal agency that you described is really important. If we think about what’s happening in the world around us today, that’s important to be able to calm down, in some ways. And yet, to be able to do what you need to do. …We’d say a high agency, what does that look like? Or where are we kind of in that scheme of things that you need to be, to be able to overcome this anxiety that you’re describing?

Napper:

Yeah. Well, one way to think about it that can help is to think about anxiety and confidence as being in a seesaw relationship. If you have a higher level of agency in your life, meaning that you’re better, you feel a sense of confidence that you’re equipped to kind of handle what comes your way and to make good choices in your life. If you have that confidence, that in and of itself keeps the anxiety at bay. It’s impossible to be confident and anxious at the same time. There is a seesaw relationship between the two. When you start becoming much more anxious, your confidence level declines. We wrote this book and we decided to frame it, not as in clinical terms, as in we’ve got a big problem with worry and anxiety and it’s a clinical problem.

We decided to frame it in agency terms, which is that we have a crisis in agency, in human agency. People are feeling stuck, they’re feeling adrift, they’re feeling that something’s getting in their way from, from living the life they most want to live. And that’s agency. And when people do that, when they feel more confident in their ability to make these choices and take their lives in the desired direction, the anxiety is kept at bay. So, we thought rather than be another symptom management book about how do you manage anxiety symptoms, let’s get underneath this thing and talk about what’s really going on. And if people again, have more confidence to express themselves, to do what, in their lives, what matters most to them, and learn how to make better quality decisions, that’s what inoculates them from all this anxiety and overwhelm.

And so instead of, as you know, as you would expect, many people are simply go to the doctor, get medication. They manage the symptoms of anxiety and it works. Antianxiety medications actually lower anxiety. But in our view, for most people, it is not really addressing the core of the problems. That’s really kind of how we’re looking at it. And what we’re trying to give people is sort of teach them, how to develop more agency in their own lives. And your question about people with high levels of agency, what do they look like? Well, they have more confidence in general. They’re learners. They seek to learn. They work on their emotional and social awareness, and so they tend to work on having more emotional intelligence.

They also, interestingly enough, they control stimuli in their lives. They’re not followers of technology. They use technology, they don’t let technology use them. So that’s to say they don’t spend six hours a day on social media as a rule. They tend to be know more judicious consumers of digital information. And again, they use it rather than allowing it to use them. These high agency people, we studied them and we wrote the book, you know, but a lot of examples about how these people actually demonstrate and real life exhibit agency.