The tension between Agency and Belonging

In the Four Needs framework, I identified a tension between two opposing forces: the need for Agency and the need for Belonging. Here, I want to focus on the nature of this tension.

Agency and Belonging are powerful words, so I’ll try to get at the concepts they describe within the context of the Four Needs framework.

Through the lens of the framework, the need for Agency is that desire to be a unique, differentiated entity, be that an individual or an organization. It’s the need to “be myself,” to “make our own path,” to have an identity that is distinct from others. For people, it might be that sense of wanting to retain our unique beauty, our Self-ness. For organizations, it might be the pull toward defining some way to differentiate itself from other similar organizations. The questions like “who am I?”, “what am I about?”, “what’s our unique value proposition?” tend to come up. When considering Agency, conversations about boundaries are usually focused on clarifying one’s own boundaries. Where do I end? Where do I begin? What is my role? What are team’s principles? What does it stand for? What makes me Me?

 When people talk about the need for Agency, I typically hear words “unique”, “different”, “runaway”, “unconventional”, “loner”, “own/self”, “independent”, “autonomous”, “pioneer”, “siloed”, and alike. When craving Agency, there’s a sense of wanting more freedom, liberty, self-determination, and more capacity to plot one’s own path. The aversion to Agency–especially toward the others’ need for Agency–might come across as a sense of them being uncooperative, difficult to work with, ornery, stubborn, or isolated.

This is where the tension begins to reveal itself, with the implicit questions of “Why can’t they just behave like everyone else?” and “How can I be myself in this team culture?” Sometimes, these questions come across as statements, such as “This org is just doing what they want, and not what’s actually asked of them” or “I feel like I can’t do or say anything without running into obstacles.”

Within the Four Needs framework, the need for Belonging is best described as the wish to be part of a larger whole, be with the others. For individuals, it’s the desire to be loved, be included as part of their group. A team or an organization will experience this need as the aspiration to do good for others, to be viewed by its customers or partners as delivering net-positive value, or to be an effective collaborator within the larger organization. The questions like “how do I fit in?”, “who are my people?” or “what is our team’s mandate?” tend to come up when considering Belonging. The conversations about boundaries typically center on understanding the boundaries of others. What do they want? What am I asked to do? What makes me part of Us?

When we speak of the need for Belonging, the resonant words are “community”, “together”, “compliance”, “teamwork”, “integrated”, “alignment”, “we/us/our”, “unity”, “respect”,  “tribe”, etc. When craving Belonging, there’s usually a sense of wanting to be accepted, be seen, understood, to not be left out or excluded. The aversion to Belonging feels like the disdain for neediness, accommodation, conformism, or tribalism.

Looking at cravings and aversions helps me to see the tension between Agency and Belonging. We all want to both be unique selves, and yet, we want to be with others. We want to stand out and yet, we want to be included. At each extreme, the outcome is a catastrophic failure to meet the other need:

  • Total Agency is the ultimate isolation — to be fully free to do whatever I please whenever I please, I must accept that I can’t ever connect with others. As soon as I act in any way that recognizes the need of others, there’s no longer total Agency. By recognizing their needs, I experience the need for Belonging.
  • Total Belonging is complete assimilation — to be fully with others, I must accept that I don’t have a free will and I will only do what’s asked of me. As soon as I do anything that is not the will of my tribe, there’s no longer total Belonging. That minute being different is an experience of the need for Agency.

Though there are many books written and movies made with heroes and villains at these extremes, in day-to-day life, we usually walk the line: we carefully balance these needs.

When my friend and I discuss which movie to see, my mind is performing an intuitive dance of balancing Agency and Belonging: is this about the movie I want or is this about doing something together? It happens when a team reconciles its long-term aspirations (Agency) with the short-term priorities of the larger organization (Belonging). It happens when folks with dramatically different opinions (Agency) continue to coexist in the same online communities (Belonging).

We can’t get both at 100%. So we tend to negotiate. To have Belonging, we usually trade a little Agency. To gain more Agency, we usually give up a touch of Belonging. This happens moment-to-moment, and is easy to miss in the whirlwind of the mundane.

When I decide to speak up about something controversial at a team meeting, I intuitively recognize that I will give up some Belonging to satisfy my need for Agency. In that moment, I am suffering. The two conflicting needs of Agency and Belonging are battling for the outcome. If Belonging wins and I stay quiet, the unsatisfied Agency spikes, shifting me to the left-most quadrants  in the coordinate space: I will either feel frustrated, likely at my colleagues–“This team culture is so stifling! I don’t feel like I can say my mind at a meeting!”–or feel that weird ennui of “Well, there’s nothing I can do.” If I say something and the need for Agency wins, the spike in unquenched Belonging launches me to the right-most quadrants, to the shame of “OMG! What have I done! Everyone will definitely hate me now!” and/or the anxious “How can I fix this?!” 

Depending on where I end up is where the next round of the endless negotiation begins. How will I act or think to make another trade, to shift the balance in this conflict? And how do we get to the point where we see that framing this tension of needs as a “conflict” is at the core of our suffering? How do we get to center?

The Four Needs Framework

The stories we tell ourselves shape how we see the world around us. Sometimes, these stories are incomplete, lopsided in ways that aren’t obvious to us. A world viewed through the lens of such stories contains the suffering of inescapable traps, impossible choices, and paralyzing ambivalence. I want to share a framework with you that I found useful for adding a bit more depth to the stories, revealing more choices, and gaining a sense of direction. I developed it through my effort to discern the forces within myself, and have since applied it to help other people and organizations map their stories. I was inspired to see the framework resonate with others, and heartened to see them use it for wrangling with their challenges, helping refine the framework in the process.

This framework is more of a “feels like, seems like” tool rather than a rigorous scientific instrument. I think of it as a lightweight navigation aid for making sense of confounding situations. 

At the core of the framework, there is a four-quadrant coordinate space, formed by four needs in a pairwise tension with each other. The opposing needs that form the horizontal axis are Belonging (right) and Agency (left). The opposing needs that form the vertical axis are Safety (bottom) and Purpose (top).

These four quadrants are where the character’s story unfolds. At any given moment, the character is a point in this space. This character can be a person, a team, an organization, a family, or any social structure. Axes supply the coordinates within the space.

The coordinates reflect the tension between each of the paired needs. For a point that’s at the center–that is, equidistant between the extremes, the needs are perfectly balanced with each other. Points closer to either extreme reflect the imbalance: one need is dominating the other.

The farther to the extremes is the character, the more polarized the story becomes. At these extremes, needs are vastly outbalanced, becoming stark and existential. On the fringes of the coordinate space, there are drastic actions, emotional turmoil, sharp edges, spikes, and suffering. Everything is super high-contrast and feels like the matter of life and death. Needs turn into fears and impulsive drives. Safety becomes the literal matter of survival. Belonging — the terror of becoming invisible to others. Purpose transmutes into the horror of rotting alive. The need for Agency explodes into panic of dissolving into the mass of others.

The closer to the center, the more balanced and nuanced the story. The tugs of the needs become subtle, needing more care to discern. Things may seem “normal” or “business as usual”, yet there’s usually a nagging feeling of ambivalence, something being off. 

At the center, all needs are balanced in perfect harmony with each other. No need is heard stronger than others, and the character is at peace. Here, all needs are still present and are just as forceful, yet the character is able to see them and masterfully maintain the delicate balance.

The neat effect of this arrangement of the coordinate space is that the framework becomes directional: there is a clear destination, something to move toward. There’s a built-in compass of sorts. Getting to center is the nature of the character’s journey.

In practice, the journey rarely ends up looking like a direct line. Like in an endless tug of war, each of the four needs competes for the character’s attention and usurps it when the attention is granted. Instead of arriving at center, the shift in the balance tends to “overshoot” the character over to the adjacent quadrants.

And so the journey ends up looking like a chaotic meandering from one quadrant from another, an enduring quest for peace.

To reach the center, the character must transform. They must learn to have simultaneous attention on all four needs, to gently balance them in the moment. The character needs to become aware of the needs, learn to see them and the tension between them.

This is the basic setup of the framework. For me, its value has been in having a structured way of looking at a situation, finding the story that is being told and revealing new ways to see that story. Who is the character in the story? What words do I use to describe the character’s needs? What do these words tell me about the character’s position in the coordinate space? What led to them being there? What are the hopes and aspirations of the character for each quadrant? What are the fears? What does being at center feel like?

My experience is that with each answer, the story gains a bit more depth, more subtlety, and allows me to see more choices, more opportunities and clarity of direction. I hope you’ll find it useful in your character’s journey toward the center.

If I don’t wake up, I stay asleep

I had a beautiful experience early this morning. I was in the middle of a nightmare about our family network being actively attacked and all of my devices becoming compromised as I  fruitlessly tried to fight back. The attacker was swiftly making a meal out of my corp laptop when suddenly, I had this weird sense that something was off about the whole situation. A thought crossed my mind: “This is all a dream. I don’t have to be doing any of this.” So I stood up from my chair, closed my eyes and looked inward. There was a brief sense of falling through emptiness… and I woke up, startled and exhilarated, broken free from the nightmare.

This sense of release, this moment of liberation is something I’ve experienced before. It’s that moment of clarity, realizing how the seemingly all-important mundane swallows us all and consumes our lives. All of the stress and worries and jittery meandering around center–seeing it, but never quite reaching it–all of the churn and the tug-of-war are just a bad dream. So many of us are gripped in the struggle of Fears. So few of us are able to pause and go: “Wait, I don’t have to be doing any of this” and wake up. Waking up is not easy. It takes suffering and struggle. But the point of life is not the struggle itself. The point of life is waking up.

Of Love and Fear

I am struck by the line I see between two kinds of stories. On one side of the line are the stories of love. On the other, the stories of fear. Interwoven, they are the fabric of our collective humanity, and they influence us in profound ways.

Everything is storytelling, and the way we shape our world is through telling each other stories. Each story leaves a mark on our souls, however tiny. Some stories resonate deeply and change our lives. Some stories we forget, and some we only forget for a while. And through us, each story changes the world.

All stories shape what lies ahead. Stories of the past imbue us with wisdom from which to draw when moving forward. Stories of the future allow us to contemplate the possibilities and form an intention. Every story adds a bit more to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. And through us, each story changes the world.

Some stories seem simple and clear, and some appear deeply confusing. Some are so contradictory to what we currently believe that we drop them like we touched something hot. Some are so close to our hearts that we don’t even need to hear them to the end. As we hear stories, we collect them, create our own, and share them with others. And through us, each story changes the world.

When told, stories open our horizons. Some stories give us a chance to imagine a future that is better than the story we currently see as reality. These are the stories of love. Stories of love create this beautiful tension between where we are and what could be. They help us see where to go, pointing toward a destination. And through us, each story changes the world.

Yet other stories give us a glimpse of the future that we can’t bear to see happen. These are the stories of fear. These stories focus us on what we want to prevent, a prospect so undesirable that it warrants doing something about it. They point away from a destination, rather than toward it. And through us, each story changes the world.

Directionless, the stories of fear are unfinished, not having a destination in themselves. They beg for a simple, clear story as a conclusion, a story that neatly replaces the path away with the path toward something. They beg for a story of love to complete them. So it often happens that beneath of a story of love lurks a story of fear. We need the simpler story of love because it helps us explain how the story of fear affects us. And through us, each story changes the world.

It’s possible that these fear-driven stories of love point at the destinations that are genuinely inspiring. But because we only need these stories of love to help us feel better about our fears, it is unlikely. More often than not, these stories of love are a means to an end, an illusion to explain away the uncomfortable story of the fear underneath. And through us, each story changes the world.

As I look at the stories that drive me, I wonder how many of them are the stories of fear and how many are the stories of love. I wonder how many of them are the stories of love that I created to complete my stories of fear. How many of them will take me toward something inspiring. And how I could reframe my stories of fear to be truly the stories of love. Because through us, each story changes the world.

The Upper Limit Of Understanding

Walking down the yellow-brick road of everything being storytelling, I stumbled into a handy metaphor of system models. If my Self is a complex adaptive system and the reality outside is also such a system, my lifelong process of meaning-making could be viewed as asymptotically constructing a more accurate model of reality. Let’s unpack that.

This is a story of interaction between two systems: the Self and the Context. The Self is well, me. The Context is the reality. The Self is receiving signals from the Context as the Input, and the Context is receiving Signals from the Self as the Output.

A diagram showing Context and Self, connected with arrows, labeled Input and Output.

For example, there could be some sensory Input (seeing an apple), and then some action as an Output (reaching for an apple). This interaction of two systems is continuous, with many inputs and outputs happening in parallel, like a river.

Some Inputs are nourishing to Self, and some are harmful or even fatal, a SIGKILL of sorts. Given no other recourse, the Self makes a significant assumption: that it can influence the Context by varying its Output. Having this influence motivates Self to learn to predict the Input based on the Output. Thus, from the perspective of Self, the name of the game is Understanding, or learning how the Context works.

To excel at this game, the Self constructs a meaning-making device: a Context Model. It’s an internal proxy for the Context and is used to evaluate the Input and discern an Output. It’s the vehicle for answering the question: “What is the meaning of this Input within this Context, and what is the appropriate Output that influences the Context most effectively?”

A diagram showing Context and Self, where Self contains a Context model, which takes Input and produces Output.

For example, I hear a driver behind me honking. The Context Model helps me make meaning of what might be happening (“they want me to hurry up and move”), and select an appropriate action (“curse them under my breath”).

With such a setup, the accuracy of the Context Model becomes paramount, and the Self is highly motivated to continuously improve upon it. Thus, the Context Model is constantly developing. The inputs that are congruent with the model’s current structure are used to reinforce it. The inputs that aren’t congruent challenge it and eventually spur a structural change within the Context Model: a transformation.  I say “eventually” because I notice that the model is naturally resistant to change. I see that often, the incongruent inputs are being re-fed back into the model from memories, appearing in consciousness as fretful relitigations of past conversations or actions, beating myself up, etc. These are useful signals indicating that the model as it exists today is due for re-structuring.

Each transformation brings more complexity to the model. The model becomes more subtle, more attuned to, more representative of Context. What used to be a matter of primitive impulses becomes connected through causal chains. What used to be concrete becomes abstract. What used to be a strict taxonomy becomes a cross-categorical cloud. The Model’s complexity grows over time.

Because the Self contains the Context Model, the complexity of the Self increases as the model transforms. From this perspective, in its process of continuous development of the Context Model, the Self strives to at least match the complexity of Context. Within the Game of Understanding is the drive to grow and develop, based on this fundamental assumption: if the Self becomes as complex as the Context, it will be capable of containing an accurate Context Model, which produces perfectly effective Outputs and predicts every Input.

To put it in more dramatic terms, understanding the meaning of life becomes possible when I completely understand the world around me.

An important insight hides in those last three words: “world around me”. The two systems in this story, the Context and the Self, are not peers. The Context includes and transcends the Self.

A diagram, showing that Context includes Self.

In this arrangement, the Context Model also necessarily includes the Model of Self. I can observe this clearly by looking at my archaeology of self effort. And look! It’s a recursion: within that Model of Self is a Context Model, and so on.

A diagram of Context including Self, showing the recursion: within Self, there is a Model, which then includes an smaller Context and Self, and so on.

This shift in perspective reveals the Upper Limit of Understanding. At least in this story, the inner system can never match the complexity of the system that includes and transcends it. The Context Model can never be an accurate model of the Context. The Game of Understanding is an infinite game, and the meaning of life is forever a mystery.

When I first arrived to this point, I felt this weird combination of joy, relief and a twinge of disappointment. Seeing the upper limit for the first time was a profound experience, a sense of connecting to something impossibly large, yet somehow familiar. I’d read how “life is a journey, not a destination” in multitudes of different ways, and in that moment, I truly felt it. And in disappointment, I saw a small part of me that still wished for the possibility of “winning” the game of life.

Everything is storytelling

Everything is storytelling. It’s all a little bit of a lie, a little bit of truth, all in the quest for meaning. It’s all storytelling. This post is storytelling. History is storytelling. Governments and money are storytelling. Leadership is storytelling. Relationships are storytelling. It’s all about creating meaning through the approximation of reality.

When I see a lemon and say “This lemon is yellow”, it’s a bit of a lie. I may see something as yellow, but “I see this lemon as yellow” is also too simple. What happens in my optical pathways that then becomes a concept of “yellow” in my mind is so much more. And even that’s just a story. It’s all an approximation of reality and there’s never a way to fully understand it, just like in quantum physics. The instruments I have are not capable of fully comprehending reality. This is really what the study of complex systems is about. It’s about admitting to ourselves that in order to influence a system, we need to let go of the myth that we can fully understand it. Because if we don’t, we will be doomed to suffer, trying to asymptotically create a more accurate model. But it will remain just a model, producing results that are subtly different from reality, when we least expect it.

And that’s the root of the Fear of Destruction. It is the fear of complexity, the Fear of the Abyss, my fear of realizing that I will never fully comprehend or understand how the world works and I will never be truly safe from the outside world. Reality’s expanse of the challenge in front of me is infinite. 

So I create stories. I create them to simplify, to make a good-enough model of the world in which I can be safe. I reduce the size of my challenge to be not so overwhelming. I look for signs of support. If I am lucky, my story will frame a combination of Challenge and Support in a way that is compelling and engaging, and I get to live my life joyously. If I am less lucky, I may create a story where that combination is way off, and I suffer interminably. But all of these are just stories. They are just my storytelling.