Note: My deepest gratitude goes out to Tal Ben-Shahar, former professor of positive psychology at Harvard for teaching this concept. I highly recommend his website and books:
Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life
Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment
Even Happier: A Gratitude Journal for Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment
The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life
Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness
We all play many roles in our lives; we wear many masks. Sometimes we are playing the role of friend; other times we’re playing the role of employee. Sometimes we’re playing the role of student; other times we’re playing the role of teacher. Sometimes we’re a soccer player; other times we’re a piano player. Sometimes we’re a host; other times we’re a guest. The many roles we play throughout our lives are dynamic, ever-shifting, and situationally dependent. Such is the nature of being human in the modern world.
But there is one role that we should always be playing: the role of active agent.
An “active agent” is someone who believes she can improve her life by taking action.1 She knows she cannot control all of the variables in her life, but she knows that there is one variable that is always under her control: her own behavior. In other words, an active agent has an internal locus of control.
“I don’t control life, but I can control how I react to it.” –Macklemore2
At the other end of the spectrum is a passive victim. A passive victim believes that her life’s course is the result of outside forces.1 In other words, a passive victim has an external locus of control. She believes that her own actions are too insignificant to overcome the disadvantages of her situation. A passive victim will even come to believe that her own free will has been usurped, such that her behaviors result directly from outside influences rather than from her own choices.
The Importance of Agency
This distinction is profoundly important for health, happiness, and success. Which role you identify more strongly with has a pervasive influence on all areas of your life.
Interpersonally, active agents engage in back-and-forth dialogue as equals, while passive victims merely receive edicts from superiors:
Successful students universally have an active-agent mindset. They place themselves in the driver’s seat of their own education. Although our work with students often revolves around surface-level concerns such as solving math problems and conjugating verbs, we are also steadily trying to instill a sense of agency in our students.
Helping a student who is in a passive-victim mindset to shift toward an active-agent mindset is just as fundamental as helping a student with a fixed mindset shift toward a growth mindset. In fact, the two sets of attitudes are interconnected: If you have a growth mindset, you’re much more likely to be an active agent. And the fixed mindset could even be understood as a specific version of the passive-victim mentality since many fixed-minded students believe they are victims of bad genes.3
Responding to Adversity
No student should see herself as a victim of bad genes, a bad textbook, or a bad teacher, even though these things do exist and do matter. You can be an actual victim of wrongdoing without passively accepting your fate. Being an active agent means taking whatever action you can to improve your situation, regardless of whose fault it is and regardless of how much difficulty you’re facing. When things don’t go well, you ask yourself proactive questions and then get to work.
“Things don’t always happen for the best, but we can always make the best of the things that happen.” –Tal Ben-Shahar1
Many people find it helpful to learn from examples of people like Nelson Mandela and Viktor Frankl because they remained active agents in the face of enormous difficulties. Mandela spent decades in prison while struggling against Apartheid in South Africa, and Frankl became a spiritual leader and a model of resilience for his fellow concentration camp inmates during the Holocaust.1 These men did not pretend that their awful situation was really pleasant, nor did they wallow in despair; they chose to make the best of their reality.
Shaping Your Future
Active agents see reality for what it is and then do something about it, which isn’t the same as the conventional distinction between optimists and pessimists. Optimists see the glass as half full and pessimists see the glass as half empty, but active agents see the nearby faucet they can use to refill the glass.4
However, there is a sense in which active agents are realistic optimists. Because they believe that they can succeed, active agents take enough action to prove themselves right. The result is that the optimism of an active agent is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.1
Students who are active agents approach challenging academic content with the assumption that they can figure it out, and then they work hard enough to succeed at figuring it out. They also assume that there are resources available that could help them figure it out, and, because they seek out these resources, they wind up proving themselves right.
Active-agent students also recognize that challenges and difficulties are inevitable. They plan to encounter obstacles along the mastery path, and so they take steps to prepare for them. Part of being an active agent in the present is planning to be one in the future.
“You’re in charge of your own learning.” –Greg Smith
That is one of the most important messages a student can hear. When students have a sense of ownership, they take more action. As a result, their grades are higher, they learn more, and they develop more powerful skills for life.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
2 Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, paraphrased lyric from “Vipasanna.” The VS. Redux. 2010.
3 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
4 Achor, Shawn. Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change. Crown Business, 2013.