You might have heard of this thing called, “The Bucket List.” What the bucket list is, essentially is a list of things that you want to do before you die. The concept was adapted into a Hollywood movie; it was also the central theme behind a hit TV series called, The Buried Life. Lots of people have since, created their own bucket lists, of things to do, places to visit, and goals to achieve before kicking the bucket. But there’s another list out there which I’m betting you haven’t heard of. This list is called, “The Love List.” The love list isn’t simply a list of things you want to love before you die; the idea behind this particular list is a little different. For those of you who follow my work and writing, you know I’m a big fan of the New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks, and tend to quote him liberally on my blog. The love list, is my own creation, adapted from an idea that David inspired.
In his superb Commencement address to Dartmouth University, one of the things David talks about is something called, an “agency moment”. It wasn’t an entirely new concept for Brooks, who previously wrote a column of that title for the New York Times; but, it must have been significant enough to David, for him to include it in his speech. So, what exactly is an agency moment? As far as I understand it, when Brooks uses the word, “agency” he’s referring to the organizational effect: the organization of your life. Apparently this happens in a moment, and everything after that moment obeys its organizational hierarchy. But, when and how it happens, appears to differ for everybody; and for some, it never happens at all. One thing is clear though about the agency moment, as Brooks describes it, is that once you’ve had your agency moment, your adult life begins.
Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never. I guess that’s when adulthood starts.
So if adulthood starts after you have an agency moment, what’s the true and best way to know you’ve had one? How can you be sure? In the Dartmouth speech, David shares how he recognized and achieved his own agency moment:
When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I knew I wanted to do some teaching. I thought I wanted to be a playwright or a novelist, go into politics, have a spouse, children. But I didn’t know exactly what order my loves came in. So like everyone in their 20s, I got to test my loves and I got to sample some new loves. It was like trying on clothes at the mall. After ten years, some of my loves, like playwriting, just didn’t fit or faded away. Some new ones came into view. But most important, over the next ten really formless years, my heart developed some contours and I learned what I loved most — writing was more important to me than politics. I could write out a priority list on a piece of paper of the things I loved, and I could rank them and I could devote my best energies to my highest loves.
When you have the ability to write that list in order, you’ve achieved your agency moment.
Enter the love list: a priority list on a piece of paper of all the things you love. When you know what you love, and the order in which those loves come, you can give your time, effort, and attention, to the highest priority things; thus, you will have achieved a kind of organization for your energy, your life, and arrived at your agency moment.
So what do you put on that list? Ultimately, the things you decide to write down on your own love list will be unique and sacred to you. One thing I'm certain of though, is that whatever you write down, your list will change over time. It’s not that one morning you’ll suddenly wake up with a completely different list of loves, but as David writes, over time some things will just fade away to make room for the new loves.
That’s the agency moment. When you hit this moment, you’re not molding yourself to some prefab definition of success. You have your own criteria. You’re not relying on the opinions of others, but your own standard and your own ability to judge your own life. For most people this agency moment comes just before 30. But then you can have a few other agency moments later in life, at age 53 or 75, when your loves change order, and you have to realize that and you have to adjust.
The idea to create a love list is my own attempt to invoke agency into my life. It’s my attempt to drive away the constant fear of uncertainty, doubt and commitment. The love list is my own way of judging my life not by the things I want to do or achieve, but by what I’m willing to sacrifice. There are no doubt countless ways to organize a life; for some it's money and power, or sex and status, but to me, organizing life around the people and things I love, seems to make more sense than all the rest. Here’s why:
Love has its own logic that defies normal utilitarian logic. For example, most resources are scarce; you can use them up. But love is the opposite; the more you love, the more you can love. A person who has one child does not love that child less when he or she has another. A person in love is capable of more love. A person who loves his college does not love his country less. Love expands with use.
Someone who doesn’t know what she wants from life, or even what life wants of her, isn’t necessarily lost. But it’s very likely that she has yet to achieve her agency moment. In my own search for clarity around this question, I wanted to see if I could create my own love list, so that I too would know and recognize the priorities in my life. I’d simply put the things I loved the most at the top, and then devote all my time and energy into those sacred chosen few. It’s true about prioritizing: that it isn’t easy; because it means making choices, and saying no to certain things and certain people. But as David so beautifully writes, “It’s the things you chain yourself to that set you free.” And since I’ve made my list, I’ve never felt more alive.