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Wisdom Wednesday #3 - A Stoic Perspective on Control and Acceptance

Welcome once again to "Wisdom Wednesdays," where I explore timeless wisdom from around the world and challenge you to apply it to your daily work and life.

Last week, we ventured East to explore what Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, had to say about the importance of focusing on the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. I asked you to reflect on what percentage of the time you actually spend in the here and now and challenged you to incorporate a brief mindfulness practice into your daily routine. How successful were you in being present and doing nothing? Were you able to bring yourself back when you became lost in thought?

I first started meditating about 5 years ago during a particularly stressful time in my life. At first, I didn't get it. What was I supposed to be doing just sitting watching my breath or feeling into my body? I was unaware of just how unaware I was...

With continued practice, however, I slowly realized that the voice in my head was not me! "I" was more than my thoughts and feelings. In fact, I could observe them choose whether to take them seriously or not. That realization was quite freeing!

Today, I spend at least 10 minutes every day just watching my breath. It helps me to slow down when my mind is spinning and remember that I am a human being, not a human doing. In what ways might you become more self-aware this year?

This week, we travel back West to visit the ancient Stoics of Greece and Rome. Stoicism, with its practical teachings on virtue, resilience, and the power of rational thought, provides invaluable guidance for navigating life's difficulties and accepting the challenges that come our way.

This Week's Bit of Wisdom:

"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." - Epictetus, Discourses, 2.4.5

The Author and Context

This quote comes from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who lived from AD 50 to 135. Born into slavery, Epictetus later gained his freedom and devoted his life to teaching philosophy.


His works, primarily recorded in The Discourses and The Enchiridion by his student Arrian, offer readers a variety of Stoic principles and practices for becoming more emotionally resilient—none more important than the dichotomy of control.

The Dichotomy of Control

The basic idea, as described in the above quote, is that everything in life falls into one of two buckets: things we can control and things we cannot.

What's in our control? The Stoics believed that we had actual control over very little. In fact, anything external to us—events, other people, outcomes—according to them were outside of our control. The only thing we really have control over, according to Epictetus, is our own minds—our thoughts, perceptions, judgments—and, in turn, our actions.

By focusing on changing ourselves rather than the world around us, the Stoics argue, we can be more effective and experience greater joy and equanimity.

Historical Relevance

The Stoic doctrine of the dichotomy of control has been a cornerstone of resilience and mental fortitude throughout history. Leaders, thinkers, and individuals facing adversity, such as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Navy Vice Admiral and prisoner of war James Stockdale, and many others, have turned to this principle to maintain their composure and determination in the face of life's unpredictability and challenges.

Personal Reflection

In my own life and career, embracing the dichotomy of control has been liberating. It has allowed me to focus my energy and attention on my actions and attitudes, rather than expending unnecessary effort on uncontrollable circumstances or difficult people. This shift in perspective has led to greater productivity, peace of mind, and personal growth. Most importantly, it's helped me avoid needless suffering trying to influence a world over which I exert almost zero influence.

Relevance to You

As we navigate a world that often feels chaotic and unpredictable, the Stoic dichotomy of control can be a guiding principle. It invites you to reassess where you place your attention and energy. By focusing on your inner world - your choices, responses, and values - you gain a sense of empowerment and composure, irrespective of external circumstances. In what areas of life would you like to feel more empowered? Could the Stoic dichotomy of control help?

Your Challenge

This week, I challenge you to consciously apply the dichotomy of control in your daily life. When confronted with a challenge or decision, draw a line down a sheet of paper. Mark one side "C" for Control and one side "NC" for no control. Something like this.



No Control

Then ask yourself:

  • What aspects of this are in my control? (E.g., My attitudes, decisions, efforts, actions)

  • What aspects are not in my control? (E.g., Others words and deeds, the world, the ultimate results of my actions).

  • For the aspects that are in my control, what will I do to exert that control?

  • For the aspects that are NOT in my control, what could I do within in power to increase the odds I get a better result? How can I view things differently? What can I do accept whatever happens and maintain my composure?

By engaging in this exercise on a regular basis, you train yourself to identify more quickly what's within your power and exercise that power to your advantage.

Further Reading

To delve deeper into Stoic philosophy and the concept of the dichotomy of control, I recommend these readings:

I would also recommend some more modern books on Stoicism:

Stay tuned for next week's Wisdom Wednesday, where we'll explore another timeless piece of wisdom and its application in our modern lives.

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