< return to blog

Agency is All You Need (and it’s All You Ever Get)

"on side projects, and side project projects"

13.12.23 11:57pm

UPDATE 01/21/24: This post is almost certainly crap. I have been doing a storm of side projects recently and I realised it's not at all correlated with agency or resources - it's just because I had the energy and free time. This is a much less interesting answer to the question, but it's one I feel much more confident about. I think you can tell I wasn't confident writing this post, and it's because I felt I missed something, and I think this is it. Most people don't do side projects because they don't have the energy and time, because they work jobs or school. Only in a position like mine, especially when school is out, can you do side projects efficiently and grow the skills necessary to get them done fast. Thank you to Will for this revelation, and continue reading the below if you enjoy me being confidently wrong.

I often have a kind of discussion with people I talk to:

“I love doing side projects! I should do more! Why does nobody else do side projects?
“Hey, we should start some [fund/club/initiative] to get people to do more side projects”

It seems like the obvious thing, right? If I have an idea for a side project and choose not to do it, I know it’s because I don’t have the resources. It would need money, or knowledge, or tools that I don’t have. If I made a system that gets me money, knowledge or tools, I would do it! So would everybody else!

It’s dawned on me recently that this is a fake argument. It’s fake because basically any resource is easily acquired, and you discover this pretty quickly after starting out. Taking elite colleges as an example, it is a true fact that every single student is practically assaulted with resources from when they arrive. There’s insane amounts of funding available, if not from the school then from the grantmakers that circle around. There’s incredible people, experts in every field just an email away. Anyway, in most cases, the “knowledge gap” for any project is crossed very quickly by just trying to start (more on this another time). This may feel like an exclusive deal, but I’m pretty sure it applies to basically every 15-25 year old in a first-world country - very few of these resources care about any university affiliation. If you ask enough professors/ceos/craftsmen for help, you’ll almost always get it. I know tons of high-schoolers who did this “just ask” strategy and ended up with everything they needed very quickly.

So then, why don’t I do more projects? Once I knew my argument to myself about resources is fake, and kept pushing anyway, I found out resources basically just appear. My arguments to myself now are basically about time management, which makes sense. I spend 40+ hours a week doing side projects, and spin up new ones every few days. Very few see the light of day, but it’s worth it. The rest is lost to school, which I think is really important.

Why doesn’t everyone do this? It’s not resources, and it’s probably not time. Plenty of people are willing to be hired to work on side projects (I’ve hired dozens myself), and they find the time for that. People find time for everything. Even I’m not time-maxed, but that’s a choice I make to make my life more enjoyable and allow myself to commit to random stuff.

The bitter pill is that agency is always the bottleneck. My friend Will wrote about agency in his first blog post. Agency is the ability to exercise one’s will independently. In the case of side projects, it’s what allows one to have the creativity to imagine something, and the self-discipline to start it immediately. I have more agency than most people, I think. (Evidence?: I often get into weird situations and make unusual choices; my life is not on the lowest-resistance path given my circumstance; I had legible success as a kid at things kids aren’t told to do. There should be some better metrics than these)

Right then. Agency is the bottleneck. How do we increase agency? Agency is the irreplaceable foundation of starting anything new, including companies, and so it’s very attractive to venture capitalists. I’d guess billions has been poured into trying to teach or increase agency. However, I don’t think it’s going that well - most venture-backed startups fail, sure, but the number of really great venture backed startups also hasn’t really increased. Out of Silicon Valley, there’s probably only about one or two actual success stories (e.g. Google, Facebook, Uber, Stripe, OpenAI) a year, and that’s been true through bubbles and bursts. Y Combinator batch sizes increase and increase, and yet the number of fantastic companies out of there is also flat-to-decreasing (I suspect the decrease is because YC is now easy, famous and legible enough that it’s actually become more attractive to those with less agency, and vice versa) There’s some limiting factor here, and it’s something that can’t be solved by pouring more resources in. Ten accelerators couldn’t solve it.

So that’s my current thoughts on the matter. Agency is a limiting factor for anything new, it can’t really be taught, and it doesn’t really care about how many resources you try to pre-emptively assign to it. It’s not worth trying to increase resources by starting a [club/fund/initiative].

There is, however, something actually important you can do. The crucial point is: People with agency mostly still play within the boundaries they know about. Speaking personally, I would never have had the ideas I have now without seeing my friends and upperclassmen in East Campus. Walking outside your room door to see people building air cannons to shoot potatoes across the courtyard, painting their doors, walking around naked, running research labs and secret all-night raves. What helped me then, and what I try to do now, is just to


people what’s possible. Realising that something is within the bounds of possibility is a bigger help than anything else.

What I try and do, and what I recommend other people do who are reading this, is just to go for whatever ideas you have yourself, and be loud and clear about telling people how you did it. Make it obvious that it’s not as difficult as it seems. Some people may never get the message, but hopefully someone somewhere with a little hidden agency will wake up and realise what they want to do too.

Footnote: this conclusion points to something larger: the theory that building systems is somehow better and more impactful than building individual things. People will say “rather than start a climate tech company, I’ll start a climate tech VC fund” or “rather than donate to effective charities, I’ll donate to a movement that spreads awareness about donating to effective charities”. It really feels good. “Building the thing that builds the thing” is how we scale manufacturing, and it’s how you can create a whole movement of people each focusing on your thing. I suspect this line of thought is secretly shaky, but arguing against it is a topic for another time

tl:dr: doing something yourself is undervalued.