There is a page on this blog called “What Is Stoicism”, and in it I highlight the 3 pillars of Stoic philosophy: Controlling our perspective, Directing our actions towards good, & Accepting what is under our control. I will focus today on the last pillar as it is the most important one. In the Discourses, Epictetus sums up control in a nice way: “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for Good or Evil? Not to the uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own”.
I find this to be a great teaching in Stoicism. We all need to have the ability to differentiate between things that are under our control and things that are not. In life, what we really do manage are simply our opinions, choices, thoughts, desires, aversions, judgements, and emotions. And all these things are effectively guided with our minds (if we are disciplined enough). Therefore, the majority of things in this world are actually outside our control, such as health, wealth, body, reputation, nature, time of death, and other people’s emotions, opinions, criticisms and attitudes toward us.
We all need to have the ability to differentiate between things that are under our control and things that are not.
We may be able to influence some of these factors, but we will never be able to fully control them. For example, I have the choice to eat healthy, work out, meditate, and practice Yoga. These things will give me a higher chance at prolonging my health, but it won’t guarantee that I will not get sick tomorrow. Therefore, the best I can do is to control my attitude and actions towards my health while accepting any outcome with calmness and composure. Same thing applies when a friend is late or when the morning train is delayed. No amount of anger, frustration, or impatience will improve the situation. On the contrary, getting bothered will only make things worse. But I have the choice to be understanding and calm. Accepting that such scenarios are outside my control will allow me to calm down my impulses and focus on other things that matter more during the rest of my day.
Differentiating between things we control and things we don’t is only the first step. What’s more important is having the ability to ONLY focus on the things we control and effectively ignoring the impact of the rest. If you think of people who have achieved great things in history, a lot of them did so not only because they were disciplined in their work, but also because they learned to ignore the critics. They knew that criticism is something that is outside of their control, and so they focused instead on what matters: finding a way through all the noise. They limited their reactions, managed their time and emotions appropriately, and were disciplined enough to keep pushing forward one step at a time regardless of what anyone else said to them. They also acknowledged that they could not control the outcome of their work, but that they could control their expectations of it (or lack thereof in certain cases). Even if the result is not what they wanted, they understood to accept it the way it is as some things are better left for the universe to settle, and to just move on.
By focusing on what you control, you will worry less about what you don’t control.
Antipater, a stoic philosopher, once explained this concept through analogy with archery. The archer’s objective is to hit the target, and so he will focus on shooting well, training well, choosing the right type of bow and arrow, and all other things that are under his control. But the instant the arrow leaves his bow, he will let the universe decide the rest. He cannot control a last minute change of wind, or the sudden movement the target. Therefore, the archer doesn’t let his happiness depend on whether he hits the target or not. What happens to the arrow is more a matter of indifference. What matters is how the archer acted, not the outcome of these acts; thus he accepts all possible outcomes with equanimity.
One key takeaway from this post is that fighting against the things that are outside of our control is like fighting battles we cannot win. The minute you can break this vicious cycle and start differentiating between what is under your control and what is not, you will have a great advantage against everyone else who is not doing so. If not, you will feel drained at the end of the day and you will feel that you can’t achieve much. By focusing on what you control, you will worry less about what you don’t control. This is not something that you can achieve in a day, but it is something that is very achievable if you have the discipline and the focus (Through Discipline Comes Freedom – Aristotle). Do remember that some things in life are up to us and others are not. Make the best out of what is under your control, and let the universe dictate the rest.