Last week I briefly mentioned stoicism and I alluded to the idea that there are only two things we can control - namely our own thoughts and our own actions. Everything else falls outside of our control, so we shouldn't concern ourselves with those things. I even decided to write a book summary of Derren Brown's book Happy, on my personal website, which dives even deeper into how we can apply stoicism into our lives if you are interested!
But yesterday, I was speaking to a teacher from London on Skype, who brought up an idea that he shares with his students when they’re struggling with school or life issues - the Trichotomy of Control.
The Trichotomy of Control adds some important nuance to this idea that we should only concern ourselves with things that are within our control.
It tells us that a large number of things in our daily lives lie in the realm of “things over which we have some but not complete control”. The examples of getting an A* in Maths or getting a first class degree fall nicely into this category. You can probably think of many other examples.
On the one hand, clearly we have some control over these outcomes, but on the other, they’re not entirely within our control because there are plenty of external factors that can influence them - eg: the performance of our peers, the difficulty of the exam paper, the examiner’s feelings on a given day etc.
William Irvine's book 'Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy' elaborates on this nicely:
I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control).
This sort of thinking clearly doesn’t only apply to tennis matches - it can apply to almost everything in our lives.
The Stoics realised that our internal goals will affect our external performance, but they also realized that the goals we consciously set for ourselves can have a dramatic impact on our subsequent emotional state. In particular, if we consciously set winning a tennis match as our goal, we arguably don’t increase our chances of winning that match. In fact, we might even hurt our chances: If it starts looking, early on, as though we are going to lose the match, we might become flustered, and this might negatively affect our playing in the remainder of the game, thereby hurting our chances of winning.
Furthermore, by having winning the match as our goal, we dramatically increase our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match. If, on the other hand, we set playing our best in a match as our goal, we arguably don’t lessen our chances of winning the match, but we do lessen our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match. Thus, internalising our goals with respect to tennis would appear to be a no-brainer: To set as our goal playing to the best of our ability has an upside— reduced emotional anguish in the future— with little or no downside.
So, this week I want you to have a think how you can apply it to your life. Is your goal, for instance, to get top grades (i.e. external)? Or is your goal to work as best you can everyday (i.e. internal)? If you can, aim to internalise your goals wherever possible.
Have a great week!