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The Trichotomy of Control

Hey friends, Let's talk about control. In a recent video (Life Advice - 50k subscribers Q&A), I a
The Trichotomy of Control
By Ali Abdaal • Issue #17 • View online
Hey friends,
Let’s talk about control. In a recent video (Life Advice - 50k subscribers Q&A), I alluded to the Stoic idea of how there are only two things we can control - namely our own thoughts and our own actions. I said that everything else falls in the realm of ‘things we can’t control’. Therefore, I argued, we should not concern ourselves with those things.

But today, a friend came over to my place for dinner. He’s a teacher in a secondary school in a socioeconomically deprived borough of South London. He brought up an idea that he shares with his students when they’re struggling with school or life issues - the Trichotomy of Control.
From 'A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy' by William Irvine
From 'A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy' by William Irvine
The Trichotomy of Control adds some important nuance to this idea that we should only concern ourselves with things that are within our control.
It tells us that a large number of things in our daily lives lie in the realm of “things over which we have some but not complete control”. The examples of getting an A* in Maths or getting a first class degree fall nicely into this category. You can probably think of many other examples.
On the one hand, clearly we have some control over these outcomes, but on the other, they’re not entirely within our control because there are plenty of external factors that can influence them - eg: the performance of our peers, the difficulty of the exam paper, the examiner’s feelings on a given day etc.
Now, partly because (a) it’s past 11pm and I need to get up early tomorrow for a week of ‘long days’ (8:30am-9:15pm) on the ward, and (b) because Irvine’s writing is so good that I probably can’t rephrase it in a clearer way, I’m pasting in some of my Kindle highlights from his book that elaborate on this.
I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control).
The Stoics realized that our internal goals will affect our external performance, but they also realized that the goals we consciously set for ourselves can have a dramatic impact on our subsequent emotional state. In particular, if we consciously set winning a tennis match as our goal, we arguably don’t increase our chances of winning that match. In fact, we might even hurt our chances: If it starts looking, early on, as though we are going to lose the match, we might become flustered, and this might negatively affect our playing in the remainder of the game, thereby hurting our chances of winning.
Furthermore, by having winning the match as our goal, we dramatically increase our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match. If, on the other hand, we set playing our best in a match as our goal, we arguably don’t lessen our chances of winning the match, but we do lessen our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match. Thus, internalizing our goals with respect to tennis would appear to be a no-brainer: To set as our goal playing to the best of our ability has an upside— reduced emotional anguish in the future— with little or no downside.
This sort of thinking clearly doesn’t only apply to tennis matches - it can apply to almost everything in our lives.
I’d completely forgotten about the Trichotomy of Control despite having read it in Irvine’s book many years ago. I was only reminded of it when my friend randomly brought it up this evening. This probably means that I should spend more time reviewing my Kindle highlights. While I pride myself on reading a tonne of books, and I’ve taken away many valuable lessons from them, I imagine I’m missing out on a lot of value by just reading a book once and proverbially putting it away.
I’ll make more of an effort to actively review the stuff I’ve highlighted in these books, and will try to share the wisdom I come across in this weekly email and maybe a new YouTube series.
Have a great week!
Further Reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (0884563738408): William B. Irvine: Books
The Trichotomy of Control – Apparent Stoic
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Ali Abdaal

Hey friends, I'm Ali, a Cambridge medicine graduate now working as an FY1 junior doctor. I spend most of my spare time making YouTube videos, but every Sunday I send out an email 'newsletter' with some thoughts, life lessons and interesting articles I discover on the internet.

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Ali Abdaal, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, CB2 8RP