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Damien Cosset
Damien Cosset

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Introduction to Stoicism: Part Two


In my first article about Stoicism, I described the concept of negative visualization. In this one, I will expand on probably the central idea of Stoicism, the dichotomy of control. I absolutely love this one, because we can all improve on this, and I believe it is a key way to reduce our stress as we go about our daily lives.

The dichotomy of control

A dichotomy is a division between two things that are opposed or entirely different. Epictetus said that our most important choice in life is whether we concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal. In the Stoic philosophy, a person should concern himself with all harm and benefit that comes from himself.

Some things are up to us, some things aren't up to us. It is a lot easier to change yourself, than it is to change the world around us. Epictetus claims that the key to a better life is to not form desires which you won't be able to fulfill.

Of course, if you think a bit more about it, this dichotomy is not quite complete. Indeed, we should probably talk more about a trichotomy of control, divided like so:

  • things that are not up to us ( absolutely no control over them )
  • things that are not fully up to us ( some control but not complete )
  • things that are up to us ( complete control )

Now, let's start with things that are not up to us. The weather for example. Whatever you do, think, say, tomorrow's weather is absolutely not up to you. Therefore, it is useless and foolish to worry about it. As Marcus Aurelius pointed: "Nothing is worth doing pointlessly."

We should only concern ourselves with what we have control over ( complete or partial )

Complete control

What do you have complete control over? Well, I believe we have complete control over the goals we set for ourselves. If I say: my goal is to post 2 articles on per week, this goal is completely under my control. Nothing forbids me to increase that number to 5 per week, or decrease it to 1 per week.

With that being said, setting a goal is different from achieving it. You have control when you set as a goal to work for Google. But you achieving it falls under the category of things over which you have only partial control. It doesn't depend solely on you.

You also have complete control over your values. Whether you value fame, money, family is entirely in your control. Whether you are living up to those values or not, is another thing that you don't have complete control over.

Stoics believed that is was extremely important to set clear goals and values for yourself. Marcus Aurelius thought that the key to have a good life was to value things that are valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value. What you value, of course, is up to you. But because it is in our power to assign value to things, we have the power to live a good life.

Partial control

Which brings us to the things over which we have partial control. Let's take a simple example: a football game. Obviously, you want to win, but this is not completely under your control. So how do we proceed ? Remember that among the things which falls under our control are the goals we set for ourselves.

Make it internal

When you are faced with a situation that you don't fully control, Stoics believed that you should set your goals to something internal and not external.

In the case of a football game, the goal should not be to win ( external goal ) but to play at the best of your abilities ( internal goal ). The internal goal is causally connected to winning the football game. If I play my best, the chances of my team winning actually increases. If I set my goal to win the match, I arguably don't increase the chances my team will win. We could even argue that it hurts our chances. If my team is losing, I might become frustrated because my goal seems to be unattainable now. Even if my team loses, I am always in control of my internal goal. Furthermore, it could reduce the emotional impact the outcome will have.

Let's take a more "serious" example. You are a developer looking for a job. You apply for interviews, you send resumes, you are networking ... You get rejected. Ouch.

Nobody likes to be rejected. But according to Stoics, you can reduce the psychological effect of this rejection by internalizing your goals. If you change your goal from from 'I want to be hired' ( incomplete control ), to 'I will apply to 10 different companies by the end of the month' or 'I will prepare for interviews one hour each day' ( complete control ), you are internalizing you goal. Our fear of failure is a psychological trait, and by altering our attitude towards "failure", by modifying our goals, we can affect the degree of the pain.

Now, of course, the end goal is still to find a job. You may argue that this is only a mind trick. Stoics were very interested in psychology, and were not shy to advocate some mind tricks to overcome some psychological features.

One last example, when I set a goal for myself like: write 2 articles per week on, is this really my end goal? Is this really why we blog, just to hit a number each week? Of course not. I blog to be part of a community, I blog to get to know new people from different horizons, and I also blog so maybe I will get some opportunities from all this.

But all of that, being accepted, getting to know people, getting opportunities, are not completely up to me. I can't force people to accept me, nor can I force people to offer me jobs because I blog. I internalize my goals, so, I blog twice a week on, and on my blog.

If I comment, my goal is to be helpful and always positive, even if my opinion differs with the article's author. If I face rude people on the Internet, I can choose to not respond, or try my best to defuse the situation.

All of those things are internal, completely up to me. But by doing these, I increase my chances of achieving those "end goals".

And you know what, it's a lot less stressful to think about it this way. At least, I'm always winning. I can always achieve those things. If I don't, the only person to blame is myself.

What internal goals do you set for yourself in your programming career? In your daily job? In your relationships?

Can you think of one goal that you have that is not entirely up to you? Or worst, completely outside your control ?

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