A principle that is responsible for changing my life more than anything is the idea of “the dichotomy of control” from stoic philosophy. Before I get into the dichotomy of control (you may also know this as “locus of control”), I have to give you a very short background.
I occasionally get asked how I got introduced to Stoic Philosophy.
I never had a formal introduction to stoic ideas. My everyday life, growing up in the dangerous and destitute conditions of the projects taught me the stoic concept of focusing only on what I could control.
At school and in my neighborhood, I dealt with what is technically known as “bullying” and “teasing.” I say “technically” because although it would be classified as such, it went beyond what typically comes to mind when you imagine those things.
Whether it was on the school bus, the schoolyard, or around the neighborhood, there was always someone harassing you, and that harassment always led to a physical confrontation.
During my childhood, my psyche was fighting a battle on two fronts. Domestically, I dealt with the emotional instability and physical abuse of my mother. At school, there was no respite either.
My middle school was so violent that the administration enacted a uniform policy to cut down on the possibility of gang affiliation. The sound of gunshots was a regular occurrence during the night and during the day, the elementary school I went to had gangfire shooting drills in case the violence spilled over into the day.
My childhood was a warzone, and I was a civilian caught in the cross fire. If wanted to survive, I’d have to upgrade my toolkit. The only way I managed to keep myself sane was by retreating into my mind and focusing on the things that I had control over.
As a child, I couldn’t do anything about where I lived or who I went to school with. I couldn’t control the behavior of my mom or other kids. I was born into unfortunate circumstances that came with great risk, but there was nothing I could do about it. I could only control how I lived, thought, and behaved.
The serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous asks addicts for “the serenity to accept what they can’t change, the courage to change what they can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This idea was expressed by the stoic philosopher Epictetus when he said:
“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.”
The dichotomy is key to resilience in rough environments.
You have no power over external conditions, but charting your own course grants freedom and purpose. Stoicism’s ancient dichotomy of is potent for focusing power while letting go of unwinnable battles. Mastering this mindset helps us thrive amidst adversity’s inherent chaos.
The Stoic Practice Of Knowing What You Don’t Control
There is a line from the international best-selling memoir “Man’s Search For Meaning” that sums up the idea of focusing on what you control nicely. For context, the author (Viktor Frankl) is a holocaust survivor who witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps firsthand because he was a prisoner there. He says that one of the ways he survived was to remember this idea:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This dichotomy empowers us to liberate mental energy that would be wasted worrying over uncontrollable things. Instead, we can invest that energy into the spheres where our choices and skills really matter. In Frankl’s case, what mattered most was surviving the camps.
In my case, I couldn’t control poverty in my neighborhood, but I could control studying hard to maximize my chances of a scholarship. I couldn’t stop school bullying altogether, but I could control not letting it make me cruel or bitter. My day-to-day life may have been difficult, but I didn’t have to let make me difficult to deal with.
Of course, fully maintaining composure at all times is impossible.
The idea isn’t perfection. It’s simply to make progress towards a way of thinking that will lead to greater life satisfaction.
We cannot erase anger or sadness over mistreatment, but we can lessen the grip external negativity has over us. It need not derail our purpose or progress.
Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” This mindset builds resilience by framing events more thoughtfully to minimize suffering. We assign meaning to circumstances - why not shift perspective for tranquility?
This outlook reminds us we always have power over our reactions and ambition, even if our surroundings seem imposing. Environmental influences alone do not shape destiny. Many figures rose from dire conditions by mastering what they could change through willpower, determination, and grit.
So in rough spots, remember—you may not control all events, but you have autonomy over the only thing that truly matters: how you respond. Your judgments determine whether external factors defeat or empower you. With wisdom, you can thrive amidst almost any hardship.
Putting the control into practice: Dichotomy of control training
Choose a minor disturbing event and write down why it’s bothering you. Next, draw two columns labeled “Controllable” and “Uncontrollable” and list components of the issue, sorting each into the appropriate column based on your control over it.
Break down even further the events you have partial control over. You’ll see that the controllable column mostly contains your judgments and actions.
This part of the list is where you’ll start to focus. This will help you to accept the areas that you can’t let go of. Concentrating on the controllable empowers you to strategically move forward.
Additional ways the dichotomy of control can help
Journaling: Each day, write down things that caused you anger, anxiety, or sadness. Categorize each issue as controllable or uncontrollable. Reframe how you view the uncontrollable.
Mindful Breathing: When frustrated over something uncontrollable, take 10 deep breaths. Use the exhale to visualize letting go of attachment to things outside your power.
Analyze Role Models: Examine how figures you admire responded to adversity. Note what aspects were within their control that they focused on changing.
Gratitude: Make a daily list of things you are grateful you can control like your decisions, health, and skills. This reminds you of your agency.
Reframe Self-Talk: When fixating on the uncontrollable, pause and deliberately reframe your self-talk to focus on what you can control instead.
Define Your Circle of Influence: Map out areas of life and note where your influence is high, moderate, and low. Direct energy to the high-agency areas.
Stoic Mindset Training: Read works by Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius to deepen your understanding and adoption of the dichotomy mindset.
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I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.More Stoic Street Smarts Newsletters!