Modern Stoicism; The Trichotomy of Control

The ancient stoics had quite a few things going for them and despite many people thinking that they had a bit of a gloomy look on life, the opposite seems to be quite true. I’ve been trying to adopt stoic philosophy into my own lifestyle in order to lead a more fulfilling life, and although it definitely isn’t easy, it can help you to deal with hardships life throws at us.

Focus on the things you can control

One things stoicism teaches us is that we should only concern us with the things we have control over and we should not worry about the things we can’t control. So, to give a good example; it’s of no use for me to worry about the US elections, because I have zero influence about their outcome. Of course I can have a opinion about it, but I shouldn’t spend my time worrying about it.

Originally, the stoics had a dichotomy of control, which was quite black and white in the regard that we should only worry about that which is within our control and not concern us with that which isn’t.


Source: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Enter the Trichotomy of Control! This is an updated version of the ancient Dichotomy, created by William B. Irvine. I think it’s a better way to tell us what we should concern us with and what not. For instance, I should concern myself with everything that is part of my own life, but only those things I can influence. For instance; what my interests are, my opinions and the goals I set for myself (more on the latter later).

The most important update is, of course, the part over which we don’t have complete control. We can divide this into things we have zero control over. Like I said earlier, my influence on the US election is zero, so I shouldn’t concern myself with it.

Yet, there are a lot of things where we have partial control, because we might be an important factor in the outcome of some event. For instance, I don’t have complete control over whether or not I will get a raise at work, but if I do my best and manage to convince my boss that I am going the extra mile, and thus deserve a raise, I have quite some influence on the outcome. Of course, the amount of control should always be factored into whether or not you should concern yourself with something.

When it comes to setting goals for ourselves we should always focus on setting internal goals. So, my goal shouldn’t be to write a bestseller book, it should be to write the best possible book that I’m capable of. Because that’s an internalized goal that I can truly achieve. I have only partial control over whether or not my book will be a bestseller. There’s a ton of factors that decide if it will be, but what I can influence is how I put the story down on paper, by learning and perfecting writing techniques, but also creating a plot that is sound. So that’s what my goal should be; to write to the best of my ability.

What is most important, however, is making the distinction between that we have zero control over and that which we have enough control over to make it a concern. Managing to let go of those things we have no control over can be very liberating indeed! I think this division in three parts vastly improves how we should go about this piece of Stoic wisdom. It can really give you piece of mind if you stop worrying about the things you can’t control. We need to find some way to accept this and move on with our lives. This is the hardest part, but acceptance is a good first step towards achieving this!

What do you think about this Stoic psychological tool? I think it can be very helpful to determine what I should concern myself with and what not.

Happy reading!


5 replies »

  1. Jeffrey, That difference from dichotomy of control to trichotomy of control is the challenge in this model of stoicism. My favorite Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr puts me close; “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, & the wisdom to know the difference.” I can read into this Courage portion to expand it into the trichotomy of which you speak. –Once again, you connect with your topic of Modern Stoicism! –Excellent! Phil

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I experimented with this myself years ago, and when practicing a daily meditation breaking things into the trichotomy.

    What I discovered in my practice however is that any item that is partially in my control can always be broken down into constituent elements that fall cleanly into the dichotomy.

    I’m going through “A Handbook for New Stoics” now to re-invigorate my Stoic practice. I have found the specific wording used in this book extremely helpful and clarifying about the dichotomy of control:

    “Things in my COMPLETE control” vs “Things not in my COMPLETE control.”

    For me, that one word “complete” makes this practice razor-sharp and clear.

    So my recommendation is to take that category of partial control and break it down until you reach clarity. The third category allows for fuzziness and confusion, and makes it more difficult to think of actionable tactics and strategies you can implement to improve your life and those around you.

    Liked by 1 person

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