Stoic Tools for a Good Life: The Dichotomy of Control

Stoic Tools for a Good Life: The Dichotomy of Control

In this fifth installment of VRB's Stoic Tools for a Good Life series, we're outlining a few actionable tools for improving your life – significantly, quickly, and relatively easily. The goal is to provide clear tools you can use today in a straightforward manner that answers the questions of what, why, and how.

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Next up, the dichotomy of control. 

The What.

"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 and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own." - Epictetus

The dichotomy of control refers to recognizing what is and what is not in our control. Take a moment to think of the things you completely control.

What did you come up with?

If you said we are in complete control only of our thoughts and actions, you'd be in agreement with the Stoics. According to them, and logically speaking, everything else in life is outside of our control. Simple as that.

Of course, we can attempt to influence other aspects of life (e.g., health, reputation, etc.), but the outcomes remain out of our control. Consider the healthy woman who leads an active life with a balanced diet and regularly spends time with friends and family. She has exerted some influence on her health. However, cancer that may appear one day is outside of her control. So is the falling meteor. And the proverbial bus. The outcome ultimately lies outside of her control.

As Stoics, our role is to hone the ability to distinguish for ourselves what is and is not in our control. We should then focus our efforts and attention on what is in our control and accept what is not.

The Why.

"There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will." – Epictetus

Identifying and acting on what is in our control makes us happier, and less anxious. It also makes us better humans to be around.

Have you ever been cut off in traffic and let that ruin your day? Ever been at the airport with a less than even-keeled coworker whose baggage has been lost? It's somewhat natural to be affected by external events, but it is illogical and generally unhelpful.

Spending the precious time you have in life worrying about things outside your control will make you miserable and take resources away from the things you can control. On the other hand, if you spent your time solely on your thoughts and actions, your world would be a better place to live.

What about everything that I can influence, but isn't necessarily in my control? Glad you asked.

Most of us naturally tend to focus on outcomes. My team lost the game. My coworkers don't think well of me. My garage doesn't have a Tesla in it. These are outcomes.

The Stoic focuses only on what we can apply to those situations: our thoughts and actions. Using the lost game as an example the Stoic might initially be bummed out that he lost the game. Next, he might think, "I prepared as well as I could have and did my best. We lost, but I did everything I could do. I'm comfortable with how I prepared, how I played, and how I behaved. With that understanding, I accept the outcome."

"There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs." – Epictetus

The How.

First, consider the concept of Amor Fati – or 'love of fate.' In short, this concept refers to recognizing fate's hand in the things we do not control. When viewed through the stoic lens, fate provides us with a path forward. It's the idea of viewing setbacks as opportunities; adversity as a necessary step for you to overcome on your journey. 

There's no easy way to implement amor fati in three easy steps. Instead, we need to build this framework into our daily lives. Start by writing 'amor fati' on post-it notes and place them on your mirror, computer, and car dashboard. Then, do whatever it takes to regularly bring this concept to the top of your mind.

If you implement and act on this thinking, you will find yourself more optimistic and generally less anxiety-ridden. You'll also begin to understand that every adversity, by definition, is an opportunity to become who you aim to be. Good first step.

Second, consider the following Viktor Frankl quote:

"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Most of us recognize this statement to be a near-universal truth. So the more consistent we are with identifying that space and using it to isolate what is/isn't in our control, the better off we'll be.

Again, there's no easy way to build this habit into your rhythm; the trick is to remain mindful of that space and to use it to choose your response. The more you do it, the better you get.

Finally, premeditation of adversity, similar to negative visualization, is the idea of visualizing adverse events in advance to build your stoic muscles before GameDay. How?

  1. Choose your topic
  2. Visualize
  3. What are the consequences of this new reality?
  4. What do I have control of? What is outside of my control?
  5. How will I act? What will I do?
  6. Sit with this for a moment and wrestle with the discomfort, particularly those things that aren't in your control but that you have influence over. Those are the sneaky ones.

A few ideas for starting out:

-   Lost baggage

-   Scratched car door

-   Late flight

-   Lost phone


These are generally low-threat situations, but they're good testing grounds to hone your ability to identify that space between stimulus and response and to use that space to identify what is in your control. Simple, but not easy.

Master these skills and master your life.