The Trichotomy of Control

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In “A Guide to the Good Life {the ancient art of stoic joy}William Irvine expands EpictetusDichotomy of Control into a third area in a manner that every professional should harken to, as it is a superior model for how we interact with the world, and clients in particular.

The Dichotomy of Control is echoed in the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The Courage to change the things I can,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

What we can change we should strive vigorously to improve, what we cannot change we must placidly ignore, and the most difficult part: separating the chaos of the world into the two camps.  For anyone that is driven by a passion to impact the world, hit goals, or love for another, admitting we can not control some things is anathema to us and we will literally beat our head against a wall to try and do something, anything, to change these things whether it is a failed deal or a bad medical diagnosis or a failed relationship.  Being powerless is the greatest fear of the powerful.

The Dichotomy of Control states that there are things within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.  The things within our power are purely internal: our thoughts, our emotions, our decisions.  Anything beyond our minds is outside our power: we can not control getting sick, or the weather, taxes, nor the bad decisions of others.

This is where Irvine expands to a third area: things under our influence.  Using the example of a tennis match he says we can control how much we practice and our serve, but the moment that the opponent returns the serve we are in the third realm of influence.  We can somewhat but not entirely control our foot movement and our swing, but we are reacting to an external stimulus (the ball) and have incomplete control over what happens with our body placement, ball contact, and the flight of the ball.  Our influence is limited but not zero, and this applies to everything from volleying the tennis ball to our drive to work to discussions with clients.

So let’s apply the Trichotomy of Control to interacting with a client.  Things we can completely control are our preparation, our mindset when we begin, and the words we say.  We have no control over technical glitches in Zoom (but we can have a backup plan as modern stoic Jocko Willink would point out), over what the competition has presented, or if the client is having a bad day because of getting caught in traffic or their kid acting up in the middle of the night.  Everything else we can influence, by listening and observing (gathering as much info as we can), the rapidity of the speaking, and our physical reactions to the situation.  Once in the meeting, this is by far the largest segment of the interaction: influencable but uncontrollable.  We must strive to do our best in this space, as it is where our growth lies.

Internalizing our goals for the meeting to something we can control (such as “I will ask for Introductions”) is better than depending on an outcome we can not control (“I am walking out of here with the business, no matter what”), which is an external validation of our efforts and fleeting in terms of the rewards.  Focusing on our actions (both the quality of them and the quantity thereof) is measurable and semi-predictable and under our control, as opposed to hanging our happiness on the choice of another.  This is equally applicable in business or personal situations.  Knowing you did everything right is more rewarding than any individual lucky break, because the pattern of success comes from within as opposed to from without.  It can and will hurt in the moment of loss, but the internal acceptance of doing your best with the situation allows the pain to fade more quickly than if you are hung up on outcome oriented happiness driven by others.

Developing the wisdom to know what is under your influence versus out of your control takes experience, discovering that you didn’t get the result you wanted to not because of somebody two hundred miles away but because you didn’t listen enough or ask the right questions or couldn’t control your actions.  Failures should be learning opportunities.  Learning to do the best you can where you can, and not waste energy on external things beyond your reach, is maturity developing as a professional and a person.    You might not become a Marcus Aurelius, but you will be a better version of you, and that is something totally within your control.

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