The dichotomy of control is a term used by the Greco-Roman Stoic philosophers, and it means ‘to understand the difference between what you can, and what you can’t control.’ Which at first might seem obvious, but there are actually a lot more things that are outside of your control than you might first thing, and in understanding that, you can develop a certain confidence and charisma that comes from being able to 100% back your decisions and your choices and knowing that external factors will more often than not play a very large factor, and this is the reason that being a ‘control-freak’ very seldom pays off.
The only real thing you have control over is your internal self, you can control your behaviour, you can control how you react to certain stimuli, you can’t control how other people will interpret that reaction, and as much as you can try to sway a decision in your favour, ultimately there are far more deciding factors to most problems. I think the best way to express this is to give 2 examples, and explain the specific circumstances, but then call back to those analogies to explain the broader definition.
Say you’re up for a promotion at work, you’ve been there for 8 years, you’ve put your heart and soul into the company, and you’ll find out tomorrow if you’ve gotten it or not. Are you feeling anxious for “the big day”? Are you struggling to sleep because of that little sickness feeling you’ve noticed in your stomach? Why is that? What reason do you have to feel sick for tomorrow? You’ve already put in the work, you already showed up for the last 8 years and did the groundwork that lead up to this moment. Tomorrow is just the day you find out. Plus, and most importantly, tomorrow is outside of your control, no matter how much work you put in, maybe somebody in your department would be a better fit because of how they naturally are, maybe your boss just likes somebody more than the other candidates because their kids play football together. The intra-office politics, the laws of attraction, the way other people act and behave at work, are all things that are outside of your control, and they’re all major contributing factors to whether or not you get the promotion.
And the hardest part for most people is accepting how little control they have over the outside world, the problem is, people are unpredictable, but your choice isn’t actually whether you get the promotion, your choice is how you react upon hearing the news, regardless of the outcome. And your sense of pride should come from the fact that you know you spent the last 8 years working as hard as you could, and no amount of politics can take that away from you.
Another situation this applies to is having kids, if you’ve got a son or a daughter, when they get somewhere between the ages of 13 – 16, they might start acting up, rebelling against you, maybe even coming across like they hate you or resent you, and that can lead a lot of parents to question themselves, even knowing full well that they provided everything could and were the best parent they could be. However if you apply the principles of the dichotomy of control to this situation, then split everything into factors you can control and factors you can’t, you can’t control the way your offspring is behaving, you can’t control the things they do or say (you can argue with them about it, and you might be able to influence them, but you can’t control them), whereas you can control how you let it affect you. Therefore, the right perspective to take is that you should take comfort in the fact that you did your best, and that you are continuing to do your best in supporting them.
Those, however, are both very microcosmic examples of the principle. So, to put it into a broader scope, Epictetus tells us that regret is a waste of our emotional energy, as we cannot control the past. We can, and indeed should learn from it, but the only situations we have control over are the ones happening in the present, and so those are the ones we should focus our attentions on.
To understand the foundations of this philosophy, you first need to understand that the times of its origin were very different to our modern world. Which isn’t an issue, but it does mean that the theories must be adapted to a modern standpoint and a lot of what the philosophers said can’t be taken at face value. These axioms of the time were written when exile and capital punishment were common forms of punishment in empires ruled by often questionable morals and orders given by people with an even more questionable soundness of mind.
But when Epictetus said we should practice non-attachment to things and people, he phrased it “… when you are attached to a thing, not a thing which cannot be taken away, but anything like a water jug, or a crystal cup, you should bear in mind what it is, that you may not be disturbed when it is broke. So should it be with persons; if you kiss your child, or brother, or friend… you must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not forever, nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool.”
The first part is easy to understand, in modern times that just translates to “Don’t get too attached to your new phone, it’ll break and be replaced at some point anyway.” But you might question “Well is my own son or my own brother really comparable to a phone, or ‘crystal cup’?” Well yes, and no, the attachments we form with humans are more meaningful, Epictetus himself even took in a friend’s son and raised him, and if bonds didn’t matter than he wouldn’t have performed such an act of compassion and humanity. But like I said, back then, people could be exiled from their homeland just because the emperor had nothing better to do that day, and they didn’t have facetime back then, so you had to be ready to accept that even the people close to you could be taken away from you with a moment’s notice.
In modern life that still applies, somebody close to you might move to the other side of the world for economic reasons, like cheaper living or better access to work. Or even just because of a wanderlust, and there’s no reason that decision should affect you, but the lesson to be learned is not to not care when people are gone, it’s to care when they are there, and to not take the time you spend together for granted whilst you’re living through it. In the same way that you might enjoy eating fresh strawberries or fresh grapes in the summer when they’re in season, but when it gets to winter, don’t waste your energy wallowing in self-pity over the fact that you can’t eat that same fresh fruit. Human’s are also objects from a purely logical standpoint, and they are mortal objects, by definition they don’t last forever, and by nature they can move, so you shouldn’t get attached to the point where their absence causes so much trauma to you that you can never get past it.
So as a final note, the DOC is an important principle that has stood the test of time through stoicism, and Buddhism and a multitude of other philosophical and religious traditions, and it is something that, through adaptation and tailoring, you can definitely apply to your life to make a positive difference.
(Massimo Pigliucci was a huge inspiration behind writing this article, the book “HOW TO BE A STOIC” is an absolute masterpiece and this was an attempt to really get the key points that I could find from chapter 3 of that book.)