Becoming a "High Agency" Filmmaker

Becoming a "High Agency" Filmmaker

Heads up, reader. This is a massive article that will probably take 40 minutes to read. But if you care about building a thriving career as an indie filmmaker, I promise it’s worth your time. Good luck, and godspeed.


There’s a psychological trait that will determine whether or not you “make it” as an entrepreneurial filmmaker.

In the coming years, those who have this trait will thrive, while those who don’t will find fewer and fewer opportunities. And the best part is, you get to choose whether you develop it.

I’m sure the suspense is killing you, so I’ll come right out and tell you that the distinction here is between “high agency” filmmakers and “low agency” ones.

We’ll get into exactly what that means soon, but first I want to tell you a story that beautifully encapsulates the concept.

Rob & Frank’s Great Adventure (or Lack Thereof)

Back in my film school days, I was friends with a dude we’ll call Frank.

In those early years, Frank and I got along famously. We were both indie film fanatics. We could talk about Bergman and Tarkovsky and Altman for hours, and when we worked together on set, we strove to create work that meant something.

Frank and I also shared a similar dream. We’d one day make uncompromising films, and find a way to earn a living with those films.

At the time, there were constant stories about how guys like Shane Carruth were cracking the code of DIY distribution, so we figured it was only a matter of time until those tools would be available to everybody.

I’m sure we were naive, but it felt like we were destined for great things in the film world. The desire was there. The work ethic was there. The drive was there. All we needed was time.

After film school, Frank and I lost touch for a number of years. (Probably my fault, as I have the tendency to fall off the map in friendships.)

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On my end, I gave up the dream of being an indie filmmaker rather quickly, instead opting for the life of a DP. Then I gave that up after a nasty spat with burnout and depression.

Eventually, I found myself working in the world of marketing, and only making films on occasion with a few of my closest friends.

It wasn’t until years later, when I realized that everything I’d learned about marketing and entrepreneurship could be applied to film, that I came back to that dream we shared so many years earlier.

Frank, on the other hand, now works as a freelance grip down in Georgia. Pretty sure he’s a union guy, and he makes a good living working in film and TV.

I’m not entirely sure when he gave up the dream of indie filmmaking, but it’s safe to say that dream is long gone.

I know this because Frank and I had the chance to catch up about a year ago.

When I told him about my grand plans for Filmmaker Freedom, about how I wanted to help spur a new age of filmmaking entrepreneurship, he laughed and told me it sounded cool, but super naive and doomed to fail. “The economics of filmmaking just don’t work that way,” he told me.

But I’m stubborn, so I kept pushing.

I was convinced that if I could just show him that these ideas were already working in the real world, he’d come around and get excited.

After all, this had been our dream. Making films we cared about and earning a living from it was the holy grail, and here I was with a legit treasure map that could lead us right to it.

So I trotted out a few contemporary examples, shared a handful of ways to shift the economics, explained the business principles and psychology that make it all possible, and confidently thought I had nailed it.

But nope.

He still thought this was nothing more than an impossible dream from a misguided friend. In his mind, he inhabited the real world, while I was stuck in fantasyland.

And that’s where we left things.

Where once we both shared a profound desire to make a living in indie film, that dream now only lives on in one of us.

What The Hell Is Agency, Anyway?

In the world of psychology, the term "agency" simply refers to a feeling that we have control over our lives.

A person with strong sense of agency knows that they can make certain choices, take certain actions, and sway the course of their lives for the better.

In their book, The Power of Agency, Anthony Rao and Paul Napper summarize the concept like this:

Agency is about being active rather than passive, of reacting effectively to immediate situations and planning effectively for your future. In simple words, agency is what humans have always used to feel in command of their lives. With it, people are able to live in ways that reflect their interest, values, and inner motivations.

So that’s agency within the context of psychology.

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But there’s another, more nuanced take that I came across in a podcast episode awhile back, and then again in this epic thread of tweets.

Basically, "high agency" is a turbocharged version of the concept.

Whereas a person with traditional agency feels a sense of control over their life, a person with high agency has a sense of control over cultural stories and beliefs.

They have some kind of ambitious hope for the future, and they make decisions and take action based on that hope.

Even when the culture around them tells them not to have hope—that their dreams are impossible, that they're wasting their time—the high agency person pushes forward and creates opportunity. They’re relentless and resourceful and resilient.

Here's one of my favorite historical examples.

In 1954, most everyone in the world, including leading scientists and doctors, believed that it was physically impossible to run a mile in less than 4 minutes.

And that cultural story might as well have been true for the vast majority of people.

But Roger Bannister, an amateur runner, refused to believe it. His sense of high agency pushed him to question that narrative, and keep attempting to break the 4-minute mark despite everyone telling him it was impossible.

And when he crossed the finish line at 3 minutes, 59 seconds, and 4/10 of a second, he busted that story wide open. It was only a couple of weeks before another runner beat that time. These days, thousands of people have done what was once thought impossible.

Anyhow, Roger Bannister is a paragon of high agency, and a glowing example of how many of our limitations are cultural and self-imposed.

But this concept isn't just for historical figures

It's present in anybody who starts a company and perseveres against the odds. It's present in artists who push boundaries. It's everywhere in the world of elite sports and high performance.

It's the defining characteristic of any ambitious person who commits to doing something extremely difficult and unlikely.

For that reason, I’d argue that high agency is a prerequisite for making it as an entrepreneurial filmmaker.

Indie filmmaking business culture is mired in the past, in a world of big festivals and lucrative distribution deals. But for the vast majority of us, that system is deeply ineffectual and frustrating.

If we want to succeed in this new world of media and entrepreneurship, we have to make our own way.

How Frank & I Ended Up Worlds Apart

Ok, so with an understanding of high agency, let's now dissect that story from earlier.

Despite coming from two similar backgrounds, and despite having the same idealistic dream, Frank and I now live in two separate universes in terms of what we view as possible.

I know with every bone in my body that it’s possible to make a living with micro-budget films. Frank knows with every bone that it’s not.

How on earth is this possible?

If you haven't guessed already, the subtext here is that Frank lost his sense of agency—at least as it relates to a career in indie film.

Please don't get me wrong. This isn’t an indictment of Frank. He’s a great guy, who works hard and treats people well, and who’s still idealistic and driven in a lot of ways.

But in this one area, his dream was replaced with a hardened sense of cynicism because he surrounded himself with people who said it was impossible. And soon thereafter, he started believing it.

Frank, by no fault of his own, bought into a cultural story. We're all wired to conform to our tribes and live by shared stories. And it just so happens that this is a story the film industry has been telling itself for years.

The only reason I have a different outlook, and higher agency in this one area, is because my journey led me away from filmmaking for awhile, and into the world of marketing and entrepreneurship.

In that world, there's a culture of high agency built right into it. High agency permeates every form of entrepreneurship media—from books to blogs to podcasts and beyond—and it's a foundational value that underlies many of the relationships entrepreneurial people build between themselves.

In other words, I've been in an environment that's conducive to cultivating high agency, while Frank has not. This resulted in the massive gap between what we believe is possible in the realm of indie film.

(Just goes to show how important it is to surround yourself with the right people and ideas. More on that soon.)

Why High Agency Is Essential for Filmmakers

You might be asking yourself why I'm spending so much time on this seemingly simple concept of agency.

The short answer is... the world is changing at a rapid pace, and the future belongs to high agency individuals and teams. No doubt about it.

The technological landscape is changing. The distribution landscape is changing. Audience tastes and behaviors are changing. Then you've got emergent technologies like blockchain, AI, VR, and others that will eventually shape how we create and consume content.

Hell, all of these things are already disrupting the media industry, and they're already creating new possibilities and opportunities. That trend will only accelerate in the years to come.

Now consider this.

If you've spent the past 10 years believing a cultural story about how it's impossible to make a living from indie films, are you going to be the one to take advantage of these new opportunities?

Of course not.

If you don't feel a sense of agency over your filmmaking journey, then you won't even look for new trends and opportunities. You'll be blind to them, and they'll pass you by.

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In your mind, the future is predetermined, so there's no point in keeping your ear to the ground. There's no point in continuing to try and fail.

And that's the sad part of this. I know so many filmmakers who are in that exact spot. They're cynical and jaded and pessimistic because of how things were 5-10 years ago.

Yes, there was a time in 90s and early 2000s where indie filmmakers were thriving and making a good living with uncompromising work. Then the markets changed, foreign pre-sales dried up, and distributors became pickier, stingier, and less transparent as the market was flooded with new content.

And for awhile, there wasn't much reason to hope for a better future. A small handful of folks made it, but most were languishing, going into debt, and never making a dime from their hard work.

From this environment, a whole generation of indie filmmakers lost their hope and their agency. They bought into a cultural story and succumbed to fatalism.

Sadly, most of these folks are going to get left behind as the world changes—and it inevitably will.

But a small handful of filmmakers—the high agency ones—are going to spot these opportunities and run with them. They're going to build thriving careers doing what they love.

The best part of this is that you get to decide which path you'll take.

So if you're interested in developing a sense of high agency, the rest of this (massive) article will be your guide.

Because trust me, it is something that you can develop.


The Nuances of High Agency

After that rousing introduction, I'm sure you're excited to get into the strategies and tactics required to develop high agency.

However, like most things in life, while the concept of high agency is pretty simple, there are some nuances worth understanding first.

So let's get a few points out of the way before we get tactical.

Not everyone needs to develop high agency. In fact, most don't.

One of the prerequisite steps for developing high agency is having a big, bold, contrarian vision for how your future (or even humanity's future) could be.

I'll talk more about how to develop a vision like that later on, but it's worth stopping for a moment and digging into the subtext of that last sentence.

The vast majority of filmmakers (and people in general) are comfortable with the status quo. And while that status quo might be fundamentally shitty—as is the case with the business side of indie film—many folks just don't have the desire or drive to break outside of it.

Their outlook is basically: "This is how the world is, and I’m going to do my best to live a good life within these confines."

And there's nothing wrong with that. All of us bear the responsibility of trying to live a satisfying, contented life, and that philosophy is just as valid a way to achieve that as any other.

Here's the point I'm driving at.

If you don't have an ambitious vision for the future—and you have no intention of developing one—you don't need to develop high agency.

After all, this is a mental tool for people who want to accomplish big, bold, out-of-the-ordinary things in their life.

If you're perfectly happy with the status quo (and again, there's no shame in that) then following the advice later in this article won't lead to a better life. In fact, it'll probably add unnecessary strife and dissonance.

So that's the first thing I'd challenge you with, before you even continue on with this article.

Stop reading, take a deep breath, and then ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Am satisfied with the way things are in the world of indie film (or whatever your culture is)?

  2. If not, am I willing to commit to the arduous, frustrating, often painful journey required to change the status quo?

If your gut tells you something along the lines of: "Fuck that! I'd rather get a day job than open that can of worms," then you've got your answer.

However, if you're like me and you see those questions and say: "Bring it on!" then keep reading, amigo.

High agency isn't a universal skill, at least not at first

The next thing you should know is that high agency is not a universal characteristic. In other words, you might have it in one area of your life, but not in others.

For instance, in that story with Frank earlier, I emphasized his lack of agency in the realm of indie filmmaking.

However, at least back in our film school days, Frank went to great lengths to take incredible care of his health. He didn't buy into the cultural myth that filmmakers are likely to be unhealthy because of their long hours, poor diets, and relative lack of exercise.

He bucked that trend, and constantly did the work, even sacrificing time on set so that he could work out. And he was freakin' ripped because of it. (All the while I put on a bit too much weight during film school.)

In that area of life, health and fitness, Frank had an incredible sense of high agency, while I was the one buying into cultural stories and acting accordingly.

However, years later, Frank doesn't have high agency in every area of his life, least of all indie filmmaking.

Point being, just because you've developed high agency in one area of your life, doesn't mean it automatically transfers to other areas.

Which brings me to the next point.

High agency in one area of your life can inspire others

In that last example, Frank's high agency in fitness didn't translate to the world of film. And until very recently, my high agency in film didn't translate to other parts of my life.

There's a simple reason for this. Lack of awareness.

Neither Frank or I knew about high agency, nor did we understand how valuable it is. And even if we had some sense of it intuitively, neither of us knew agency was a skill that could be developed and applied to multiple areas of life.

Once you learn to recognize and cultivate it, high agency can become your secret weapon for excelling in just about any area of your life.

However, since I've started learning about high agency, I've noticed that it's starting to spill over into other parts of my life, particularly fitness.

In the last few months, since I've started questioning long-held beliefs about my health and physical capabilities, I've dropped quite a few pounds and become healthier than I ever have.

Which brings me to the final super important point before we get into the tangible steps.

Once you learn to recognize and cultivate it, high agency can become your secret weapon for excelling in just about any area of your life.

It doesn't have to be contained to a single area like fitness or career. Once you have it in one area, and you're aware that you have it, you can consciously develop it for any part of your life where you want to challenge the status quo and be significantly better than average.

Luckily, just by reading this article, you're already learning to see and evaluate high agency. You already know what it looks like, and what its effects are.

So from here on out, as long as you stay self-aware, you should be able to take the framework I'm about to give you and apply it to just about anything you want.

But there are a few other things to keep in mind before you dive into that journey.

Developing high agency comes with social consequences

We humans are hardwired for connection. Not only is it a survival mechanism built deep into our primitive psychology, but it's also one of a handful of ways we feel deep satisfaction and fulfillment.

In other words, it's very damn important for us to build strong relationships and feel a sense of belonging within one or more communities. You could go so far as to call this a fundamental human need. (It actually is a need on Maslow's hierarchy, by the way.)

I bring this up because the process of developing high agency can complicate those matters in ways you might not like.

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My sense of high agency in indie film has put up a wall between me and a lot of my old friends from film school.

Chances are, Frank and I won't have a strong relationship going forward, or maybe we won't have a relationship at all. We just don't share the same set of values around filmmaking anymore, which destroyed one of the primary points of connection between us.

It's also hampered a lot of my networking efforts after moving to Tucson a year and a half ago.

I'm looking to surround myself with other ambitious, entrepreneurial, high agency filmmakers. And while Tucson is generally an arty town with quite a few filmmakers, I can count on one hand the number I've met who exhibit these traits.

Truth be told, this has left me feeling isolated and alone, and it's put a real damper on the pursuit of my filmmaking goals.

Point is, there's still an emotional sting when old friendships fall apart because of a mismatch in values. There can be an even stronger sting if we become distanced from a community that once gave us a sense of belonging. And it’s frustrating when you want to build new communities around your new set of values, but you seemingly can’t.

Developing high agency has the potential to alienate the people close to you and the communities/networks you've cultivated. And it will make it harder for you to connect in the future.

What I'm driving at here is that you have to pick your battles carefully. You have to be aware of the social consequences of developing high agency, because there are consequences. Shitty ones.

So just because you can develop high agency in an area of your life, doesn't mean you should.

You have to value your vision—that result you're pushing for—more than the relationships and social status you currently have in that area.

But if those relationships and status are more valuable to you—and bring you more fulfillment—than your big vision ever could, that's a sign that developing high agency just isn't worth it.

So just keep that in mind as you go through this process.

High agency, taken too far, can be destructive

There's just one last point about high agency that needs to be made before we get into the tactical stuff. And it's this...

High agency isn't always a good, beneficial thing.

The line between high agency and delusion seems to be thin one at times.

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For instance, Steve Jobs was often described as having a "reality distortion field." His high agency led him to multiple breakthroughs in computing and animation, and his huge visions are now lauded throughout the world, despite seeming delusional at first.

But on the opposite side of the pendulum lies Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Holmes was the epitome of high agency. She had a hugely ambitious vision for the future of blood testing, and would stop at nothing to achieve it.

Holmes believed in this vision so forcefully that she managed to build a $9 billion company before the world caught onto the fact that her technology was vaporware. It never worked at all.

She defrauded investors and used shitty technology on real patients who needed accurate blood readings—because of her inherent sense of high agency, and her willingness to stop at nothing to see her vision through.

This is a clear cut case, at least to me, of pushing high agency too far, to the point of sheer destructive delusion.

Another example of high agency potentially being detrimental to society is Peter Thiel in his conspiracy to bring down Gawker media.

Against all odds, Thiel used his vast financial resources to bring down a media organization that saw itself as indestructible. That was a high agency action on his part, but most view it as something deeply negative toward society. (Though I tend to think Gawker deserved its fate, for what it's worth.)

The point I'm driving at is this...

Sometimes, the things you're told you can't do by the culture actually are impossible, and sometimes they're possible, but morally questionable.

The responsibility for figuring that out lays on your shoulders.


Developing High Agency in Your Life

Alrighty, now it’s time to get into the strategy for developing high agency in your own life..

I wish I could tell you that this is going was easy, and that you could follow a simple six step formula or some shit like that.

But as is always the case, the world just doesn't work like that.

If you've spent your life in a state of low or no agency, it's going to take substantial mental effort and patience to get to a point where you can regularly shrug off the shackles of cultural and tribal narratives, and make progress on your ambitious goals.

Again though, if you want to thrive in the modern world, it’ll be worth it. So here we go.

Start with challenging your personal limitations

This first step to creating high agency is optional, but highly recommended.

Like I mentioned earlier, once you recognize high agency and know how to cultivate it one area of your life, you can begin to translate it to others.

That's why you may not want to start with some big, quixotic vision for the future, or by taking on some seemingly intractable problem no one believes you can solve.

Instead, I recommend starting this journey by testing the limits of your personal potential. More specifically, I want you to challenge yourself physically and mentally for an extended period of time, and purposely get way outside of your comfort zone.

The goal is to get you to push beyond your own self-perceived limitations, and think to yourself, "Woah, I've been capable of way more than I thought all along. I wonder what else I can achieve in my life."

This process is essentially developing high agency over yourself and your internal narratives.

Once you prove to yourself that you're capable of far more than you ever imagined, you'll be in a much better place to start questioning cultural narratives and proving them wrong as well.

So if you're up for that, here's what I'd like you to do.

First, pick an exercise regimen that's outside of your comfort zone. Choose a nutrition plan that you believe to be optimally healthy. And come up with a list of activities that, while uncomfortable or boring, produce positive results in your life (like reading, writing, budgeting, etc).

These things will be your daily habits. You will work out, eat perfectly, and do several productive, yet uncomfortable things every single day. Whether you feel like it or not, come rain or shine, you will push through the discomfort and get your habits done.

Your goal is to do this nonstop for a predetermined number of days. I recommend anywhere from 60-100.

If you mess up on any of your habits—if you miss a workout, eat something off your plan, skip reading for the day—you have to start over at day one. Only when you've gone your predetermined number of days can you take your foot off the gas.

It's a bit hardcore, I know. But that's the point. This is meant to make you uncomfortable. It's meant to push you to (and beyond) your limits both physically and mentally.

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Also, this might sound like it's primarily geared towards fitness. Granted, if you do this, you will surely see improvements in your health. But the real magic of this challenge comes from pushing through those days when you don't feel like it.

The lesson embedded in that discomfort is that you don't have to listen to your mental narratives. You don't have to give in to your emotional reasoning and bargaining. You're in control. You have total agency over yourself.

By following through on this challenge and embracing the discomfort, you will build the discipline, confidence, and drive required to excel in other areas of your life.

Ok, so that's all I'm going to say about this particular aspect of building "self agency," but if you want to go deeper into the topic, here's a list of resources that have helped me tremendously over the last year.

  • 75Hard Challenge by Andy Frisella. This is a hardcore habit challenge where you work out twice per day (one has to be outdoors), stick to a diet plan perfectly, and a couple other things for 75 days straight. If you mess up on any habit, you start over. I'm doing it right now, and it's the most difficult, rewarding thing I've ever done.

  • Can't Hurt Me by David Goggins. No joke, I've listened to the audio version of this book three times since it came out 8 months ago. It's that good, and it will likely help you change your life, just as it has with me.

  • David Goggins on Joe Rogan. This is an abridged version of the Goggins story if you just want to dip your toes in the water. Personally, the first time I watched this, it made me well up a little bit because it's just that powerful.

One last thing. Like I mentioned, you can skip this step if you want. But I believe you'd be doing yourself a massive disservice.

Being a high agency individual requires you to be strong of both body and mind, because the challenges the world will throw at you are going to be substantial.

Putting yourself through a physical and mental challenge like the one above is the best way I know to become the kind of person who can deal with those challenges.

Ok, with this first phase out of the way, now let's get into the details of how to build high agency in other areas of your life.

Create an ambitious vision for the future

Let's start with the single foundational building block of high agency: a compelling vision for the future that lies outside of what's ordinary for your culture.

Everything flows from that vision, so make sure you spend the time to develop it fully.

Now, there are a few criteria your vision should meet if you want to use it to develop high agency.

  1. It's ambitious to the point where most people think it's crazy. If you were to go around and share it with a random sampling of people in your culture, most of them should write you off without a second thought.

  2. It's not only intellectually stimulating, but emotionally compelling. Thinking about it should feel electrifying. You must want this on the deepest level of your being. You have to feel magnetically pulled towards it, as if you have no other choice but to keep moving.

  3. It's big enough that you feel deep uncertainty and anxiety about whether you can bring it to fruition. If you feel confident, the vision isn't big enough.

Now, it's entirely possible to develop fulfilling visions for various areas of life outside of these bounds. And you should, by all means. do that. But if high agency is the goal, the vision should meet these criteria.

So this all begs the question of how to develop a vision like this.

Not surprisingly, it can be a pretty involved process, and at some point I'll do a full article on it, but for now, here's a quick rundown.

The first step is asking yourself a series of questions designed to open your mind to exciting possibilities for the future.

I recommend a technique called "freewriting," which is essentially the process of writing nonstop without allowing yourself to edit. You can do it on a computer or by hand. Your only job is to consider the question/prompt and start writing furiously.

For some reason, this technique is amazing at mining the depths of our minds and helping us come up with ideas. At first it will be difficult, and sometimes you have to move through a lot of garbage thoughts, but eventually you'll find yourself in flow and producing great ideas.

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So here are some questions to get your brain juices flowing.

  • How are people in your culture holding themselves back, and what would their lives be like if they broke through those mental barriers?

  • How do you envision the world could be?

  • Where do you see injustice, imbalance, inefficiency, or ineptitude in your culture?

  • What's the biggest wish you have for your life, and the lives of people like you?

  • If you could snap your finger and make any change in your culture, what would it be?

Again, these are just some questions to get you thinking. Your job now is to freewrite and think deeply about them, and come up with a solid list of ideas for your vision.

Once you've got a handful of ideas listed out, simply look them over and see if any stand out. Does one or more idea grab you emotionally? Is there one or more that make you feel a deep sense of excitement, while your brain is simultaneously telling you it's impossible?

If so, take that idea (or multiple ideas), and start expanding on it with more freewriting. You want to explore all the potential outcomes and ramifications of this idea if it were to come to fruition. How would your culture benefit if this was true? How would people's lives be better?

The reason I recommend this second round of freewriting is because it helps you develop a sense of altruistic purpose around the vision. By imagining how this outcome would improve your culture and the lives of the people in it, you'll start feeling pulled towards it even more.

After all, we're social, tribal animals. While we're often encouraged to act selfishly in the modern world, the greatest benefits (financially, socially, psychologically, spiritually) come from acting in ways that benefit both us and our broader tribe/culture. Plus, it genuinely feels good to do work that helps people, and that feeling will oftentimes be enough to pull you through the hard times.

Once you've gone through this process, the last step is to articulate and write down your vision. Condense these ideas down into a sentence or three, and write it somewhere you'll see it often.

The only additional point I'd make here is that a vision isn't about a singular destination—like everyone in your culture hitting a certain financial number. Instead, it's about a state of being. It's about how you and the people in your culture live on a day to day basis. Keep that in mind as you're articulating your ideas.

I know that was a lot of theory, so let me give you an example of my big vision for the micro-budget filmmaking community.

I'm creating a world where micro-budget filmmakers consistently create the films they care most about, and through entrepreneurial activity, generate true wealth that lasts a lifetime. For me, it's not just about making a living as a filmmaker, but developing assets that grow over time. All of this has the end goal of true artistic and financial freedom, and creating lives that are fulfilling and purposeful.

Trust me when I say this vision is a bit "out there" in the micro-budget filmmaking world. To my knowledge, no one believes that you can make a great living with these films, let alone become independently wealthy.

But I believe in this vision with every fiber of my being, and I will stop at nothing until it's realized, despite the fact that it scares me a bit, and I don’t exactly know yet how to bring it to fruition.

Learn to recognize cultural stories when you hear them

Alrighty, now that you've got a rad vision, it's time to start putting some distance between yourself and the cultural stories that might prevent you from reaching it.

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As they say in 12-step programs, the first step is realizing you have a problem. The same is the case here. Most of us are so mired in our cultures that we fail to separate cultural stories from our own identity.

That's an issue, because when we identify with a culture, the stories become almost invisible. They're deeply internalized, and if those stories are harmful or limiting, it's basically akin to having a virus of the mind without ever knowing it.

And obviously, it's impossible to change something if you can't see it or don't acknowledge it.

So the first step is cultivating a little bit of self-awareness and cultural awareness.

And the way I recommend doing this is by creating an "alter ego" for yourself. This is a nifty mental trick that I learned from Todd Herman in his (amazing) book, The Alter Ego Effect.

Basically, you create a persona that exists separately from you, who possesses all the strengths and traits you need for a particular area of your life. And when you show up in that area, you summon that persona, and all of the corresponding traits.

It's a very useful trick of mind, and it's worked wonders for me in a couple of different areas of my life. Most notably health and fitness, but also in my coaching business.

Anyhow, for our purposes, the alter ego you'll find most beneficial is that of an anthropologist. In this role, you separate yourself from the broader culture, learn to look at it objectively, and document what you find.

As an anthropologist, your superpower is being a dispassionate observer at the same time as you're an active participant.

And when you get into this mental space, you'll have an easier time noticing cultural stories.

So here are a few of the things you should start looking for while participating in the culture.

  • What are people saying to one another on a regular basis? What are the recurring themes?

  • What is this culture’s relationship with ambition and drive? How are individuals like this treated?

  • What are the shared dreams and desires that are common within the culture?

  • What are the core motivations of people in this culture?

  • Do the actions of the people in this culture align with their dreams and desires and ambitions?

  • What are deepest fears, anxieties, insecurities of people in this culture?

  • What are the underlying assumptions in certain cultural activities?

When you step into the shoes of an anthropologist and start looking for answers to questions like these, loads of cultural stories will start to emerge.

More than just looking at your culture, though, you can perform the same kind of analysis on yourself. It's a bit more difficult, of course, but the resulting self-awareness is invaluable.

So here's the action step for this stage.

Start keeping a list of cultural stories that you find. These things may or may not be true and valid, but it doesn't matter. Your job is simply to document, not make any judgements.

More specifically, though, you're looking for stories that contradict your vision, the kind of stories that imply (or say outright) that your vision is impossible. These are the ones you'll work to disprove throughout your journey of developing high agency.

So let's get back into the micro-budget filmmaking example from earlier.

Here are just a handful of the cultural stories people tell themselves in this community.

  • It's impossible to make a living as a micro-budget filmmaker.

  • The only way to get noticed is going to a lot of film festivals.

  • Everything will be ok when I get a distribution deal.

  • The chances of getting into a big festival and getting a big distribution deal are like winning the lottery.

  • DIY distribution is cool, but it only works for documentaries.

  • The economics of film are too different from other creative mediums to use tactics from those domains.

  • Nobody pays for films directly anymore unless it's a blockbuster.

  • The only way I can make my projects is if I get investor money.

  • The best way to succeed is to move to Hollywood and work your way up on other people's productions.

  • The only way to build wealth as a filmmaker is to work your way to the top of the Hollywood machine. It's not possible as an indie.

There are a ton more cultural stories in this world, but these ones in particular are the ones that go directly against the big vision I shared earlier.

In my life, I've also believed many of these. But by approaching this culture with an anthropological mindset (and doing many of the steps we're about to cover), I was able to change those stories in my head.

Let's keep moving.

Relentlessly seek evidence (two types)

This next step is the most straightforward of the bunch.

Once you find cultural stories worth questioning and disproving, there are two kinds of evidence you need to look for.

First, you must seek evidence that these negative cultural stories aren't true.

You do this by searching high and low on the internet and elsewhere. Read articles, books, academic papers. Listen to podcasts. Check out fringe blogs and communities. Talk to people in person. Etc.

Basically, this is the time to be a carnivorous consumer of information related to your culture. Because your sole goal here is to find as many ways as possible to poke holes in the traditional narrative.

Think of it like this. Your job is to be a prosecutor, relentlessly trying to sow doubt into the mind of the jury about the story of the defendant. In order to do that, you find believable answers to questions like these.

  • What doesn't make sense about the narrative?

  • What logical leaps does this story make?

  • What ideas/facts are not taken into consideration by the cultural story?

  • What people/stories have accomplished something contrary to the narrative?

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Most people never go through this kind of rigorous analysis with cultural stories because, like I mentioned in the last section, they're too invested in those stories to do so. The story is part of their identity, so questioning the story is deeply uncomfortable.

But once you go through this process, you'll start to see that many of the things we believe aren't propped up by facts. They feel true, and make sense on an emotional level, but when scrutinized with a critical eye, they fall apart.

We just believed them because everyone else around us did, and we heard these stories repeated again and again. (Which is a shitty reason to believe anything, if you ask me.)

So needless to say, this is a powerful process to put yourself through, because it will reshape how you see your own culture, and cultures in general. You'll learn just how much the world runs on a shared set of ideas that may or may not be true.

Anyhow, there's one other type of evidence that's worth looking for in your search.

You must also seek evidence that your vision is possible.

Now, obviously there's going to be some overlap in these two types of evidence. By disproving cultural stories, you are by definition creating a sense of possibility for your vision.

By knocking down old stories, it's like laying the foundation for better ones.

But this second type of evidence (we'll call it positive evidence) is like starting to build the frame and scaffolding of this new future. You're finally starting to build upwards towards something.

There's just one problem here. If your vision is big and bold enough, you probably won't find much in the way of evidence directly proving that it's possible.

But here's the thing. Evidence like this doesn't have to come from the same domain. It doesn't have to come from directly within your culture.

Which brings me to the next point.

Become cross-disciplinary

As I've mentioned a few times, one of the biggest reasons that we become susceptible to false cultural stories is that we live in bubbles.

We've covered pretty thoroughly how to break free from those bubbles, but there's another facet of this that we need to explore.

Over the past 50 years, particularly in the professional world, there has been a major trend towards our work and skills becoming increasingly specialized.

This is true across almost all modern "knowledge work" industries, from tech to media to education to science.

And in the film industry, you see it everywhere.

Watch the credits from a movie made in the 50s, and you'll likely see 100 or so names with their corresponding job titles.

Watch the credits of a major film now, and you'll see thousands of names, and hundreds of job titles that simply didn't exist back then.

Granted, films aren't made exactly like they used to be, so it's not a perfect example, but the broader point is dead on. As workers in the modern economy, the vast majority of us are becoming increasingly specialized and pigeonholed into specific roles.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Specializing can be a solid (and lucrative) strategy if your goal is to work within an existing industry and not ruffle any feathers. No doubt about it.

But when it comes to being a high agency individual and solving big, complex problems, specializing is a huge liability.

One of the primary ways that humans solve problems is through creative thinking—which is simply the act of combining various types of information in your head in new and novel ways.

When we specialize, we dramatically limit the number and type of inputs that we allow into our brain, thus limiting the number of outputs (creatively solved problems).

For high agency individuals, this is like shooting yourself in the foot, because a big part of high agency is relentlessly and resourcefully solving problems.

The best way to do that is to become cross disciplinary, see how problems are solved in other industries, and combine that information with your existing knowledge to create new solutions.

Like I mentioned earlier in this article, I think the primary reason I was able to develop high agency as an indie filmmaker is that I worked for years as a marketer and an online entrepreneur.

Not only was I surrounded by other high agency people (more about that in a bit), but the information and stories I consumed dramatically expanded what I view as possible within the realm of filmmaking.

In fact, much of what I do these days is taking marketing strategies that have helped other types of media and product businesses, and translate them into the world of micro-budget filmmaking.

Without that "cross discipline" background, not only would I not be high agency, but I wouldn't have the necessary tools required to solve problems and reach toward my vision.

So that's why I can't recommend highly enough that you start exploring and learning about disciplines outside of your core one.

As for which disciplines to explore, simply ask yourself...

  1. Based on my vision, what other skills or domains would be most important for me to understand?

  2. Are there domains/cultures related to mine that appear to produce superior results?

  3. What am I curious enough about that I want to learn about it for its own sake?

Unfortunately, I can't give you more guidance on which domains to start studying, because it would have to be specific to your unique situation.

But I do have one last tip that should be helpful to any high agency individual who's interested in solving tough problems.

Start learning about mental models.

In essence, a mental model is a simple mental representation that explains how complex systems work. When you start stacking these models on top of one another, it gives you a much wider perspective on how the world works, and how different types of problems can be solved.

We won't get into the weeds with mental models and how to apply them to your problem. But the absolute best place to start is with this article on Farnam Street. Enjoy :)

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Find other high agency people and build a community

This next step is perhaps one of the most crucial in this entire endeavor.

As the old saying goes... If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

In other words, one of the best things you can do for both yourself and your vision is building up a community and support system of other high agency people.

Like I mentioned earlier in this article, one of the side effects of developing high agency is that it inherently starts to separate you from your core community and many of your existing relationships.

The problem is, we 100% need supportive communities and healthy relationships to thrive as humans. These are core psychological needs, right above food, water, and shelter on Maslow's hierarchy.

If you're not careful, developing high agency can leave you in a socially deprived state, which can lead to all sorts of negative shit, ranging from loneliness to anxiety to full-blown depression.

So on a very primal level, we need to build community and relationships so that we can feel content and fulfilled in our lives. It's a necessity for our happiness.

But there's another facet of this.

Communities, especially those full of high agency people, are much better at solving big problems than individuals. The potential problem solving power of a group multiplies with each new person working to solve the problem, which dramatically increases the likelihood of finding creative, unorthodox solutions.

So for high agency people working toward bold, ambitious visions, building a community of equally ambitious, yet diverse folks can be one of your secret weapons for making real progress.

Now, we won't get into the weeds of how to network with other high agency individuals and build communities here. That would make this already long article a book all its own.

But for now, just keep this in mind as you go forth and meet new people.

High agency people do not give up when life throws obstacles at them. They don’t bail on their plans when inevitable setbacks arise. They don’t change course to make things easier when their vision turns out to be even harder than they initially thought. Nope, high agency individuals weather the storm, make necessary adjustments to their actions and mindset, and keep sailing toward their vision, no matter how dangerous the waters.

Your primary job is to build relationships and communities around 1) your core values, and 2) your vision for the future.

So when you're out and about, meeting new people, you need to ask questions and have conversations that are designed to elicit values and vision.

The best way I know of doing this is to simply ask people what excites them most in life, where they'd like to be in 5-10 years, and to dig into why they made certain decisions when they're telling you stories around these things.

Have conversations like this, and you will very quickly get to the heart of people’s vision and values, without lots of bullshit small talk. It’s great.

As for who you should attempt to build your relationships and communities with, that's up to you.

Ideally you build a community of people who are within the domain you're attempting to change, but that's not always possible. So if you have to branch out into those other domains and disciplines to find high agency people, by all means do it.

Learn to push beyond fear

Anytime you do something new, different, and outside of your comfort zone, your brain will start inventing reasons to call it off.

It will start coming up with "worst case scenarios" about your course of action, and then it will set off emotional alarms in your body and mind to get you to stop.

This, my friend, is fear in a nutshell. And if you're not careful, it'll prevent you from taking the kind of action required to become a high agency individual and accomplish your big vision.

Now, I've already written and podcasted extensively on the process of pushing through your fears and anxieties, so again, we're not going to get too in-depth here.

But there are a few things you need to keep in mind about fear in the context of developing high agency.

First off, if you put the rest of the advice in this article in practice, you're going to feel a shitload of fear. There's no getting around it.

The more you work towards something huge and uncertain, and the more you take actions with social consequences, the louder that little voice in the back of your head will be. It's a survival instinct built right into each of us.

But, two of the defining traits of high agency individuals are courage and consistent action toward big goals. By treating your fears with the same skepticism you bring to cultural narratives, and then acting in spite of those fears, you can and will develop those traits.

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The other thing to keep in mind about fear is that it can be used to gauge whether your'e on the right track or not.

In other words, for high agency people, their fear is a compass. It's an indicator they're doing something truly difficult and worthwhile, and that they need to double down and push through.

When you re-contextualize fear like this, and see it as a useful signal instead of distracting noise, it robs your fear of much of its power. And that power goes right into your own hands, so that you can use it courageously to push through to the other side.

Understand that failure is part of the process

If the vision you're working towards is ambitious enough, failure is built right into the process of pursuing it. There's just no way around it.

After all, if the road to your vision were easy and obstacle free, everybody in your culture would be taking it. There would be no risk involved, and no fear or social consequences, so there'd be need to develop high agency.

But alas, your vision should seem impossible to most people in the culture. And it should be big enough to scare you and create a sense of uncertainty about your ability to bring it to fruition.

And with a vision like that comes not only the possibility of setbacks and failure, but the near-certainty of it.

For that reason, one of the primary mental skills you need to develop here is grit and resilience. Because if you allow these inevitable failures and setbacks to derail your vision, you are no longer (or never were) a high agency individual.

I repeat. High agency people do not give up when life throws obstacles at them. They don't bail on their plans when inevitable setbacks arise. They don't change course to make things easier when their vision turns out to be even harder than they initially thought.

Nope, high agency individuals weather the storm, make necessary adjustments to their actions and mindset, and keep sailing toward their vision, no matter how dangerous the waters.

They are deeply, fully resilient.

So this begs the question, how on earth does one develop grit and resilience.

Luckily, like a few of these other sections, I did a full podcast on tools for developing resilience. There are a lot of good ones there, my favorite being the pre-mortem and Stoic pre-meditation exercises.

Something fragile breaks easily when confronted with stressors, chaos, and disorder. Something that is robust or resilient does not break easily, but put under enough stress, it eventually will. But an antifragile system is one that gets stronger when stressed. An antifragile system gains power from chaos and disorder.

However, there's one thing I didn't talk about in that podcast episode, and it's something that's worth sharing here.

I'd argue that high agency people aren't just resilient, but instead antifragile.

If you're unfamiliar with this concept, it comes from modern day philosopher/financial wizard Nassim Taleb.

Basically, something that is fragile breaks easily when confronted with stressors, chaos, and disorder. Something that is robust or resilient does not break easily, but put under enough stress, it eventually will.

But an antifragile system is one that gets stronger when stressed. An antifragile system gains power from chaos and disorder.

To bring this back into our context, a high agency person is antifragile when they aren't weakened by inevitable setbacks and failures, but strengthened by them.

Now, this whole concept is a little bit abstract, but I'd argue there are two main ways that you can develop yourself into an antifragile person.

The first is something we've already talked about. You need to challenge yourself physically and stick to some kind of routine, day in and day out, especially on days when you don't feel like it.

Sure, something like this has health benefits, but the main benefit is psychological.

By following through on hard, uncomfortable routines, especially on days when you don't feel like it, and on days when unexpected shit happens and life gets in the way, you're training antifragility.

Basically, you're learning how to perform your best even when you feel your worst. You're learning how to be unfazed by what life throws at you, and continue to excel at the hard stuff.

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This type of antifragility, at least in my experience, carries over into other areas of your life. So even though you're developing the skill in the world of fitness, it will fundamentally change your character and transfer over to the world of your vision.

The other strategy for developing antifragility is one I talked about in that podcast episode on resiliency. But it's important enough for a quick recap here.

Basically, your goal is to mentally reframe all of your obstacles and setbacks as opportunities.

One of the greatest powers we have as humans is the ability to interpret the events of our lives as we wish. We have the power to take what happens to us, and craft meaning and narrative out those events.

Now, these narratives are often disempowering. When something bad happens, we interpret it as, "I'm not worthy or capable enough," or "this dream is impossible," or even "I didn't want this vision in the first place."

We tell ourselves stories to soften the blow and lessen our responsibility in pursuing those goals.

But again, you have a choice to interpret obstacles and failure not in a way that's disempowering, but in a way that will catapult you forward. You do this by telling yourself a story that each obstacle you encounter is an opportunity for growth.

Here are a few film examples of how this might work.

  • Script didn't get accepted by a contest, or you couldn't get an agent? It's an opportunity to hone your craft and become the best you can be.

  • Ran out of money on your film? It's an opportunity to test DIY solutions and have fun with guerrilla filmmaking.

  • Actor bailed at the last minute? It's an opportunity for you to step in front of the camera and develop a new skill.

  • Don't have a crucial shot you need to edit your film? It's an opportunity to get creative and reimagine your story.

  • Your film didn't get a distribution deal? It's an opportunity to learn marketing, distribute it yourself, and keep all of the profits for you and your team.

In order to pull this off, you have to get in the habit of asking yourself a simple question when things don't go as planned.

How can I make the most of this situation?

Questions like this are rarely obvious in the moment, because you're all wrapped up in the negative emotions that tend to stem from obstacles.

But the right question at the right time will shift your focus away from what's wrong, and towards new possibilities.

And when you make this a habit, obstacles and setbacks and failure can no longer weaken you. You will be the very definition of antifragile.

The high agency mantra: “Everthing Is Figureoutable

There's one last idea I want to leave you with before we wrap this article up. It's something that I've found extremely useful when working towards my own big, messy vision for the future of indie filmmaking.

Whenever I get stuck. Whenever I can't find a path forward. Whenever I start feeling like maybe my vision is impossible, and I'm a fool for pursuing it, I repeat this little mantra to myself.

It comes from Marie Forleo, entrepreneur extraordinaire, and it goes like this.

Everything Is Figureoutable.

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It's short, pithy, easy to remember, and when repeated, it shifts your mind back into creative problem solving mode.

This works for small day-to-day problems, and it's just as effective for the big, seemingly unresolvable problems that come with the high agency life.

I mean, think about that statement and its implications.

Everything. Is. Figureoutable.

Not "some things" are figureoutable. Every single thing.

Every business or marketing problem. Every obstacle in the filmmaking process. Every time I stall out in weight loss, or feel like I'm not making progress at the gym. Every cultural or global problem, including the ones that are seemingly intractable.

Everything.

I don't know about you, but I find tremendous strength in that idea. Because if everything is figureoutable, there's no reason I can't be the person to figure it out. It's empowering in the best way possible.

So in times when I'm not feeling particularly high agency (or maybe I'm not feeling any agency at all), I remind myself of this one simple truth. Everything is figureoutable.

And like any good mantra, when I repeat it, my focus returns back to where it should be, the problem at hand.


The last idea I want to leave you with

I realize this was a monster article, but that's because developing high agency is a monster task.

In many ways, being a high agency individual requires you to go against your biological and psychological programing.

You have to distance yourself from the tribe. You have to believe in something larger than yourself. You have to act constantly on faith, knowing that your vision lies outside the realm of reason in your culture.

You have to constantly push through discomfort, fear, and crippling uncertainty.

You have to be incredibly resilient, antifragile even, to withstand and grow from the torrent of obstacles that will be thrown your way.

As humans, we're just not wired to do these things.

We're wired to be tribal and conform to the group. We're wired to seek out comfort and pleasure. We're wired to make our world smaller and smaller, so that we can have some semblance of control and certainty. We're wired to move swiftly in the opposite direction from the things we fear. And we're wired to change course when we fail.

Being high agency goes against every single one of those biological and psychological programmings.

Point is, developing high agency is an uphill battle. A damn difficult one that will challenge every fiber of your being.

But, if you want to build a life that's well beyond the ordinary and average, you now have the roadmap ahead of you.

Good luck, my friend, and godspeed.

-Rob


If you enjoyed this article, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

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