Trichotomy of Control

Afterthoughts: Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella

Are we just status-seeking monkeys?

Dark Light

Control is an interesting concept; why do so many crave it? For the longest time, I believe there was a dichotomy of control: what we can control, ourselves, and what we cannot, others and the environment. But recently I stumbled across a trichotomy of control that adds depth to this paradigm from A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

The crucial update to this framework is in adding a third scenario, over circumstances where we have some but not complete control. The examples of getting your dream job or winning a game on COD: Warzone fall into this category. We control our ability during the interview and gaming process respectively. But there are plenty of external factors like the performance on other candidates for the former and lag for the latter. 

Why should this matter? Well, for this new category, it is best to set internal goals versus external goals. Taking the example for the dream job. If you set the external goal of getting the job, you are likely to be more upset if you don’t get it. Alternatively, you could set an internal goal of presenting yourself in a manner that would make your parents proud during the interview process. That way, if you don’t get the job, it will not be as upsetting, but you still put as much, if not more effort than if you set the goal to be getting the job. 

This is a subtle thing, but it can have major impacts. Imagine that in this category of scenarios, you default to setting external goals e.g. running a 4-minute mile, winning promotion, or getting the top grade for a class. It’s possible you’ll achieve your goals some of the time, but not all of the time. By doing so, you put yourself in a position to be upset more than you have to. Alternatively, you could set internal goals like running full-effort for 1-mile, working diligently to meet your targets at work, or studying consistently for at least 1 hour a day. These goals are far easier to meet, and will contribute just as much, if not more to the external reward.

This is a subtle thing, but it can have a disproportionate impact on your mood and outlook. It is something worth considering whenever you find yourself in a situation where you have some but not complete control of an outcome. 

Related Posts

Why should I learn in public?

The notion of learning in public is one of the most valuable discoveries I have made this year.…

Reading my way around the world

Like many people, Covid-19 struck at a time when I had intended to do long-term travelling. During my…

The Accidental Runner

I recently came across the story of Steve Way who was forced into running after developing lifestyle-related health…