Choosing to Control What We Can

Imagine that over 2,000 years ago, there were once three people: a powerful emperor, a renowned playwright and advisor, and a slave.

These three people had very little that connected them in terms of where they stood in society. But what’s crazy about this tale, is that all three were were some of the most well-known practitioners of stoicism.

The three I’m talking about are Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who was one of the most powerful people in the world, Seneca the playwright, who was one of the richest people in the Roman Empire, and Epictetus, who was the complete opposite, a man born as a slave.

This is what makes the concept of Stoicism so powerful, it can provide principles that can help us, irregardless of our fortune or position in life.

Epictetus was born nearly 2,000 years ago in Turkey as a slave in a wealthy household. Epaphroditus, his owner, allowed him to study the liberal arts, and through this, he discovered stoicism. After obtaining his freedom, he started teaching philosophy in Rome for nearly 25 years.

His work and teachings have inspired people such as Marcus Aurelius (who’s work, Meditations refers to notes from Epictetus’ lessons), James Stockdale, a POW in Vietnam for 7 years who attributed his survival to Epictetus’s teachings, and Albert Ellis, the psychologist behind Cognitive Behavioural Theory. It’s clear that Epictetus’ influence has been huge over the last 2000 years.

So what can we take from a man who survived as a slave and rose to become a philosophical leader?

3 Exercises & Lessons From Epictetus

Epictetus book, The Enchridion begins with one of the most important principles of Stoicism. The importance of distinguishing things that are under our control and things that are not. It is a reminder not to get angry and upset by things which we cannot control or change, such as other people and external events and to only focus on what we can change, ourselves and our behaviour. It’s a powerful statement, that all of our actions and behaviours are in our control.

As Epictetus said,

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This week, I was giving a talk in Montreal. Hours before the talk, I lost my wallet. After hours of searching, I had no luck.

I couldn’t stop thinking of all the cash, cards and ID that I lost. But then I remembered, ‘can I actually control this now?’ And the answer was simple: no.

What I could choose the control was whether I did really well on my talk, so I decided to put all my energy towards crushing it, and threw the wallet out of my head.

By doing this, I had a clear state of mind, and could focus on what I wanted to be intentional about during my presentation. 30 minutes after a successful presentation, a cleaning lady had found the wallet!

Had I chose to keep thinking about what I lost, I would’ve sacrificed what mattered the most; the presentation.

The best leaders rarely talk how things should to be done, as their actions speak for themselves. Think of someone you admired and how many of the lessons came indirectly from the choices that they’ve made and the example they have set. Similarly, we need to be focused on how we are actually living and what choices we are making. That’s where our time and energy will be best spent.

As Epictetus put it,

“Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought.”

Epictetus understood how much we act out of habit and how we tend to think that our ways of doing things are set in stone. He pushed his students to set some principles and standards they need to follow and not deviate as much as possible. This is certainly not easy by any stretch but with small steps, each day reminding us what direction we’d like to go to, we can get closer to the character we wish to have.

As he put it,

“Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.”

Stoicism instills in us that what you accomplish in your life is entirely determined by yourself. It’s so easy to find external factors to blame for your mistakes, like where you were born, or how you grew up. By allowing us to forget what’s truly in our control and make excuses, we only cheat ourselves. So if Epictetus could rise from a slave to a global thinker and philosopher, we can too.

Thanks for taking the time to read through my thoughts on Epictetus and stoicism! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to chat with me on Twitter. Or if you would like to learn about any new content I put out, subscribe to my monthly newsletter to see new projects, conferences I go to, and articles I put out!

Thanks again,

Seyone 😃

16-year old machine learning developer interested in hard-tech, biology, and philosophy.