In life there are things that we can’t and can control. The stoics argue that if we focus on what we control, we will live a good life.
What can we control in stoicism?
In stoicism, we can control what we say, think, and do. The stoics claimed that if we discipline our action, our perception, and our will, we can live a better and more virtuous life.
Controlling Your Action
You can control your actions, not other’s actions. You should make it a habit not to focus on what other people are doing, because you can’t control them. Instead, you should focus your efforts on doing what you think is right. When you control your own actions, you take control of the direction of your life. When you focus on other’s actions, you become miserable, because you can’t change them. Your priority should be yourself. Prioritizing your own actions is not selfish, it is actually selfless. If you’re always trying to get others to do what you think is right and you’re not doing what you think is right, you’re a mere preacher, and a hypocrite. Don’t be a coward and spend all your time trying to get others to do what is right, instead, do what is right.
Marcus Aurelius said in his journal Meditations,
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
Aurelius understood that philosophizing and arguing with others about what they should do is a waste of time. He also understood that if he simply becomes the man he sees as good, others who wish to be good will follow his example. This is called leading by example, and psychology has proved that it is the most effective leadership strategy. Thus, focusing on being the best version of yourself, not trying to preach to others, actually helps you lead others, and of course, this is not selfish whatsoever.
Why do I write, then? Why try to help you? Because I focus on being the man I should be, and I believe that part of being good is to spread positivity and truth. I do not go around to people and tell them that they’re wrong, or they should be like me, I simply put this information out there for people to find it. The people searching for this information are not being preached at, they are being guided. I am doing work to help those on a similar path to me, not to try and drag people onto my path without their personal interest.
So to control your actions, focus on how you can be good, and be good. Make a list of habits that you will commit to doing everyday, and do them, no questions asked. My list is:meditation, gratitude journaling, journaling, reading, and exercise. Feel free to copy it if you want. I suggest making a paper sheet with days on the left side and your habits on the top, forming a grid that you can cross off daily to see your progress and consistency with your habits.
Disciplining your actions also means living by some sort of code. For example, your code could be:
- Do not harm others, mentally or physically.
- Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.
- Do not cheat or steal.
- Do not indulge in excess pleasure without a purpose.
- Commit to self-betterment, even on your worst days.
A code like this could seriously change your life. Telling the truth, not lying, not harming others, not indulging in pleasures, will turn you into a more peaceful, grateful, and positive human being overall.
Controlling Your Perception
How you perceive the world will determine how you live your life. If you learn to effectively control your perception, you will see the world in a better light, and you will behave more positively.
There is a psychological concept called reciprocal determinism. It states that a person’s environment impacts their behaviors, and then their behaviors shape their environment. Your environment, i.e. what is around you, will make you adapt to it. You will develop thinking patterns and perceptions that make you better or worse suited to your environment. Likewise, your behaviors shape your environment. What you do determines where you go, who you surround yourself with, and what you will do in the future.
Taking in this concept, you can control your behavior through disciplining your perception, and likewise control your environment. If you see the world more positively, you tend to act more positively, then you tend to land yourself in a better environment.
If you purposefully try to see the world in a better light, you will become a better person.
Take for example a nihilistic, pessimistic person. They view reality as meaningless, they see people as objects, and they see themselves as an insignificant person. This person will, as a result of their perception of reality, have low self-esteem, hatred toward others, and resentment towards life. They will suffer, and blame outside forces for making their life so horrible and sad. They will land themselves with toxic friends like them, in a toxic workplace, and in a toxic mindset. Their new toxic environment will further spiral them into their toxicity, because as we learned above with reciprocal determinism, a person’s environment shapes their behavior.
Contrastingly, consider in your consciousness a positive, responsible, and sociable person. This person will be able to take action under stress, guide themselves toward a solution, and have positive outcomes. This person will guide themselves toward positive relationships, and will find themself spiraling upward in positivity. This person will have high self-esteem, but will be aware enough not to let it become narcissism. This person will trust in the value of close, loving, and kind relationships, and will serve themselves first and thus be able to effectively serve the community. A positive person creates a positive environment, and the positive environment reinforces their positive personality.
Of course, you can go too far in both directions, especially the negative one. Too nihilistic and pessimistic, you may become hopeless and possibly desire not to exist. Too positive, you may become an annoyance or a narcissist. Find the point on the spectrum from negativity to positivity that you can thrive in. Somewhere around 80% positive 20% negative seems to be the sweet spot, the negativity being used only to effectively cope with life, and likewise the positivity being used responsibly.
The dichotomy of a positive or negative life is determined by the antithesis of perception. If you view life in a positive way, you will become more positive. The cliché phrase: “what you focus on grows” couldn’t be more than true.
Controlling Your Will
Building on the “what you focus on grows” idea, your will, defined by Oxford languages as: “the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action,” is slightly different than just action. The stoics were not necessarily believers in free will, nor determinism, it seems as if they believed more that your intent was the decider of your fate. Your will is your ability to effectively manage and allocate your intent. What you intend is what to do, and what you do decides your future, as we learned above. Your intent also is rooted in who you are as a person. A positive person tends to have positive intent, and likewise, negative people tend to have slightly more negative or pessimistic intent.
To help you understand why you cannot control what you do, but only what you intend to do, let’s do an exercise.
Hold out your hand. Move it to the left. Move it to the right. Were you moving your hand?
The naive answer would be, “yes of course I was moving my hand!” but someone more aware of how the mind works would understand that it is not necessarily “you” who is moving your hand.
You intended to move your hand.
You intended for your hand to move, then your motor functions received the signal and moved your hand for you. You did not move your hand, you simply sent the message to your subconscious to do the work for you.
“You” aren’t in control of yourself as much as you think. “You” are merely in control of your intent, a.k.a. your will. Your thoughts, your habits, how you talk, how you act, every word you read in this article is all being done not by you, but by subconscious mechanisms. It is you, however, who is intending to read. It is you, however, who intends to speak, to think, to act.
I hope this thought exercise helped you understand what you are REALLY in control of. It’s not much. Your intent is a force which can change your life. Master your intent, master your thoughts. Master your intent, master your words, your actions, and you can shape your environment to your liking. Your intent is the precursor to all behavior, and as we learned before, your behavior determines your environment. To not get caught in a loop, you can willfully and strategically guide your intent to make you act how you want, think how you want, and thus, create the environment you want. You will get in the loop of reciprocal determinism, but that loop will be one of your choosing.
To effectively manage and guide your intent requires skill. And that is a good thing. It is a skill, like skills in video games, that you can level up. As you level up your ability to pilot your intent, you will level up your life. To become better at guiding your will, you must become aware of it. Start meditating and journaling to increase your self-awareness. Pay attention to your thoughts and where they come from. Understand what intentions lead you to desirable outcomes, and repeat those intentions. The more awareness you gain, the more intent you will be able to generate, and the better you will be able to determine the outcome of your life.
In stoicism, we can control our actions, our perceptions, and our will. Master these and you will become the captain of the ship in your life, and you will live a better life as a consequence.
Remember not to try to control others, because you can’t. Good luck on your journey!
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Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
(One of the greatest philosophical works of all time, a great primer to stoicism and way to get you thinking like a stoic)
Enchiridion by Epictetus
(life changing, short manual to practicing stoicism)
Discourses and Selected Writings by Seneca
(Various writings on stoicism, very valuable.)
All three of these were written thousands of years ago. There’s a reason they’re still around today.