What is Mindful Agency?
By understanding Mindful Agency - what it is and how to achieve it, you have the keys the open up a more impactful relationship with learning
The unexamined life if not worth living - Socrates
Definition of Mindful Agency
Paying attention and developing awareness, of yourself and your environment, in order to optimally manage your life and learning
Mindful Agency is a term coined by a group of researchers in 2002, to describe a key learning disposition, foundational to how we use all of the others. Very simply, it relates to an individual or group’s awareness of their identity and purpose, and the processes of Managing how a purpose is achieved, and how identity develops. For the individual, this is by a kind of internal ‘director’ (imagine as an illustration; the captain of a ship).
Some people call this the ‘Self’, or our inner source of wisdom. The captain of the ship attends to the ship and its crew, as well as the destination towards which it is travelling. Your ‘captain’ has an overview of both the internal and external conditions and the landscape through which she is travelling. From these vantage points she can assess each situation and she can observe herself doing so. She can ‘think about her thinking’ through metacognition and be aware of and manage her emotions and values thorugh self reflection. This enables continual re-planning, prioritising, adapting, flexing, regulating and redirecting through ongoing choices about how to proceed in order to reach desired destinations. Developing individual mindful agency accumulates into Collective mindful agency.
Mindful agency is similar to ideas around Self leadership, which is described as The practice of intentionally influencing your thinking, feeling and behaviours to achieve your objective/s (Bryant & Kazan, 2012).
The elements of navigating a learning journey using mindful agency will not always follow a particular sequence, but will involve a combination of:
- Developing Awareness of your desires and what matters to you, in the context of who you are and where you are. Finding your personal sense of purpose. Opening up space for this through Mindfulness or other Reflective practices, helps.
It can also develop your ability to observe what conflicts may exist between your desires. For example: an internal urge for more control over how the laundry is done, versus the desire for you and your family to have a peaceful weekend. You are then able to decide which of these desires you want to prioritise.
- Owning your desires and your purpose in life and taking responsibility for directing yourself towards your goals.
- Planning how to reach your goal. Imagining what may be ahead and being mindful of what resources you have available to you, in the context of your story and past experience.
- Taking courageous actions in order to achieve your purpose
- Evaluating the outcome or what the process has meant to you, Making sense of what you have learned and refining or refocusing further desires, purposes and goals.
Achieving these steps meaningfully - whichever the order they take, requires an ongoing evaluation of your thoughts, feelings and habitual behaviour. This allows your internal captain to stay in control of the process and navigate towards your desired outcome.
She needs to be available to keep unhelpful ship ‘mates’ (like the parts of yourself which want to procrastinate or jump too quickly to solutions) – in their place. She also needs to be consciously available to keep an eye on the surroundings; occasionally going up the mast’s ‘birds nest’ to get a ‘birds eye view’ and anticipate what’s ahead.
All kinds of internal and external distractions can impede the ship from reaching its goal and potentially cause a purposeless drifting. However, pauses can result in adaptation: decisions to change course in order to get around a problem or to aim for a revised destination.
At times, the captain may need to sort out her crew or order some essential maintenance (like time for reorganising working practices, self care, or attending to key relationships). Whatever the response to the obstacles which hinder you in reaching your purpose, mindful agency is the captain which develops the inner resilience to help redirect you. This captain can be actively directing, even when your course to reaching your purpose looks like its on hold.
Do I have mindful agency?
Stop to reflect on some of these questions for just a minute.
Are you someone who tends to know where you’re going and why? Do you like to stay ahead of the game? Or do you get easily thrown off track or prone to daydreaming and putting things off? When you look back on your progress in reaching a goal, can you see yourself sticking with a purpose, or drifting from one thing to the next?
How do you feel about this? What does your learning power profile tell you about your mindful agency?
Mindful Agency drives learning
Mindful agency is the ‘glue’ which holds all the other dimensions of your learning power together. In order to achieve your purpose, your internal captain steps back, consults your sense-making, curiosity and creativity and others to decide what is needed and directs your strengths to help you achieve your goal.
For example, you’re on holiday with family and it’s your turn to cook, in a kitchen that is unfamiliar. You’ve gone for a favourite family recipe, but you don’t have all of the usual ingredients, have never used a gas oven before and you are feeling the pressure.
Your mindful agency is telling you to stop a moment: sit down and assess the situation. You can then consult your Sense making: you know that in situations like this, breathing deeply helps you to feel calmer and think more clearly. You are also aware that you tend toward being rigid and persistent in your Orientation to learning and that you could use your Creativity and Curiosity skills to help you adapt to the situation.
Your mindful agency is also helping you to get a birds eye view on the situation: you know that even if the meal is a disappointment, your strong sense of Belonging tells you that your family will still love you for it. You feel a little Hope and optimism creeping through. Courageously you decide to open up to new possibilities for this recipe. Maybe you could even name it after yourself if it’s a success and create a new tradition.…
Barriers to Mindful Agency
What is needed for mindful agency, and what gets in the way?
Mindful Agency strengthens inner resilience and the ability to interact adaptively with your environment, in order to achieve your purpose. For example, self-leadership – or the ‘captain of the ship’, will assess complex situations, prioritise, take risks and author-ise decisions which lead you towards your your purpose.
This role may not be clearly defined if you
- Do not feel you have enough control over your life and your future. This might be due to work, relationship or family circumstances which you feel leave you little autonomy. Or you may feel that you’ll always be stuck in a job you really don’t care about. These are all factors which harm your ability to maintain and advance your personal sense of purpose.
Or, if you
- Cannot adapt creatively to changing and unpredictable circumstances (like a captain might read the weather and adjust accordingly). In extreme cases this might mean having to redefine where you are headed altogether, but it will be a decision you have made rather than a course which leaves you drifting if your original destination becomes unreachable.
These factors can be interdependent. For example, coping with disappointment or a sense of failure in not reaching your desired purpose requires internal resilience. The strength of personal learning through this will determine how you are then able to attempt to navigate new waters and face additional challenges.
The triumph of ‘getting back out there’ and doing this well can reinforce self-belief and resilience, but another knock back could further damage it.
Developing your Mindful Agency
The good news is that there are ways to help iron out some of these blockages to mindful agency. There will be various strategies for this that you might find helpful as you progress through your learning journey. We call them ‘pathways’.
Your Learning Journal
Something highly recommended as you’re travelling this journey, is keeping a journal. Whether a paper journal, a scrapbook or a virtual space to record your thoughts and experiences chronologically; this provides a crucial reflective tool for you to clarify thoughts through creative expression, prompt and remind yourself of important learning, and track your progress as you look back on it.
This will be a space for recording your responses to questions or pathways you encounter here, but it may also include much of your own ad-libbing and anything else that is helpful to you. You’ll notice pointers along the way to encourage and remind on the use of your journal; but this can take whatever form you like.
What do I think that mindful agency is?
How do I feel about the ideas I’ve found out about here?
Do they fit with my previous ideas?
What do I want to know more about mindful agency?
What have I learned about mindful agency that I didn’t know before?
Do I feel any kind of identification with either of the case examples? How does that feel?
Try a mind-map to represent my knowledge about curiosity so far
Choose an image or an object from the space around me that reflects something about me and curiosity
Try some free-association writing to express some key words that have resonated with me about curiosity
Re-write one of the case examples with an ending I’d prefer
Your mindful agency in knowledge-building skills
The questions you ask are much more important than anything you could ever say. - Tom Freeze
Awareness for mindful agency
Coaching mindful agency improves learning
Online academic article
Mindful agency develops resilience in learning
Online academic article
Collective mindful agency and team performance
Online academic article
Reflective practices for professionals
For your reading list
Bryant & Kazan (2012) Self-Leadership: How to Become a More Successful, Efficient, and Effective Leader from the Inside Out. McGraw-Hill