Stoicism: Control What You Can, & Don’t Sweat Everything Else

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Guide to the Good Life" by William B. Irvine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you worry more than you need to? Do you set yourself up for disappointment?

In his book A Guide to the Good Life, philosophy professor William B. Irvine discusses a major tenet of Stoicism: Control what you can, and don’t worry about anything else. By doing this, you also control your happiness. Don’t give up that joy by stressing about what’s beyond your control.

Learn how this Stoic practice works, and discover how you can put it to work for you.

Focus on What You Can Control

Irvine points out that one of the reasons to get rid of desire is that, often, we lack the power to actually get the things we want. That’s the backdrop of an important teaching of Stoicism: Control what you can, and don’t let what you can’t control sap any of your energy. If you base your happiness on factors or outcomes that you don’t fully control, you effectively give up control of your happiness. For example, if you think you’ll be happy only if you get a promotion at work—an outcome you can’t actually control—you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and unhappiness if you don’t get it.

(Shortform note: Similarly, in The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt argues that you can’t directly create happiness—instead, you can only create the conditions for it, wait patiently, and allow (not force) it to arise when the time is right. Likewise, in advising you to focus only on what you can control, the Stoics suggest that you can create the conditions for success, but not success itself.)

This recommendation might seem strange at first—if you should focus only on the things you can control, wouldn’t that mean disconnecting from life and giving up your attempts to accomplish anything since you’re never fully in control of your results? Not at all. In fact, far from withdrawing into themselves, the ancient Stoics were quite active in public life in teaching, advisory, and political leadership roles. Irvine explains that the key is to recognize that you have degrees of control over different aspects of your life:

  • There are things you have total control over, such as your goal to get promoted and the effort you put into your job.
  • There are things you have no control over, such as whether another company merges with yours and lays you off as a result.
  • There are things you have partial control over, such as whether you get the promotion you’re hoping for (which in turn depends on other partial-control factors such as your boss’s opinion of you).

(Shortform note: One of Stoicism’s key assumptions is that you have control over your thoughts. In fact, many of the practices we’re discussing are based on the premise that you can change how you think and thereby change how you feel. However, some experts argue that you can’t control your thoughts and that trying to do so can actually strengthen the thoughts you’re trying to get rid of. Instead, if you learn to mindfully observe your thoughts without engaging with them, you’ll realize that you’re free to choose how to respond to them. This observation doesn’t necessarily negate the practices we’re exploring, but it does suggest that you may not have much luck using brute force to regiment your thinking.)

Irvine says the important lesson is that it’s fine to care about and work toward things you have partial control over, but he suggests that as you do so, you should be careful to set goals based only on things that are fully under your control. For example, don’t set a goal of getting the promotion—set a goal, say, to work at the highest efficiency and quality you’re capable of. The latter goal is in your control whereas the former goal isn’t. The latter might lead to the former, but you shouldn’t focus on the former because a) you’ll be disappointed if you don’t get it and b) focusing on it could cause anxiety that affects your efforts to do your best work.

Emphasize Processes Over Results

In Atomic Habits, James Clear gives several more reasons to worry only about what you can control—in this case, by focusing on improving your behavioral systems rather than achieving specific goals. For example, rather than focusing on getting a promotion, you might concentrate on improving your workflow and honing the skills you use at your job. Emphasizing the process over the outcome in this way has three benefits:

• Big goals often take a long time (and, the Stoics would add, factors outside your control) to achieve, whereas improving your systems provides you with immediate gratification and feedback.

• Goals are temporary—if you do achieve yours, you might feel like there’s nothing left to do. Plus, as we’ve discussed, your initial happiness at your success will soon fade. Focusing on systems gives you ongoing challenges and reinforcement.

• Goals can limit your possible paths forward. Instead of following your strengths and successes wherever they take you (perhaps into a new career), you might remain fixated on the original goal (the promotion) and miss other opportunities.

Similarly, Irvine recommends keeping in mind that the past and the present are beyond your control: You can’t do anything to change what’s already happened, and because the present itself is determined by the past, you can’t change it either. He recommends that you accept the past and present as they are, and instead worry about the future, which you can still influence.

(Shortform note: Accepting the way things are doesn’t mean becoming a passive observer—it’s actually a strategy for acting more effectively. In The Art of Happiness, the 14th Dalai Lama argues that accepting suffering keeps you from causing yourself more suffering by wishing for things to be different. Moreover, he says, when you accept what is, you can find meaning even in suffering, and you’re free to adopt new perspectives and behaviors that can make things better.)

Stoicism: Control What You Can, & Don’t Sweat Everything Else

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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