Mastering the Art of Controlling the Controllables

Epictetus, an esteemed Stoic philosopher of ancient Rome (55–135 AD), is a testament to the idea that one’s life is not confined by societal status or other events. 

Why? He was born into slavery, a circumstance that likely shaped his overall perspective. His fundamental advice for a fulfilling life can be summarized into one simple mantra: Take charge of what you can control and release the rest.

Controlling What You Can Control

In the lead-up to my last Ironman race, a pivotal airline flight threatened to throw off my carefully crafted schedule, which would jeopardize precious training, rest, and race time. 

Just a few days away from the big event, I received the dreaded news—my flight was canceled, and the alternative offered a significant delay. Panic set in as I realized this would put me too far behind.

Amidst a sea of resigned voices claiming, “Oh well, there’s nothing we can do,” I refused to surrender to inaction. Instead, I dove into a determined search for an alternative flight. It required some serious sleuthing, but perseverance paid off when I found a flight to get me to Panama City Beach right on schedule.

While it might seem like a minor incident, it underscores a powerful lesson: We often have more control than we believe. Refusing to accept defeat and taking proactive steps—even in seemingly small situations—can make all the difference. 

Knowing the Difference

As mentioned above, our level of control is often greater than we realize. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that sometimes we genuinely lack control over a situation. 

Understanding the boundaries between what we can control and what we can’t is akin to wielding a powerful compass. Armed with this knowledge, we can steer our ship with purpose and resilience. 

How to Determine the Difference:

1. Define Your Sphere of Influence

  • Question: Can I directly impact this situation with my actions or choices?
  • Action: Focus your energy on aspects that you can influence. Channeling efforts into areas beyond your control leads to frustration and stress.

2. Time Travel Test

  • Question: Can my actions change the future in this scenario?
  • Action: If the answer is no, redirect your focus to the present. If the answer is yes, invest your energy where it can make a tangible difference. 

3. Mindfulness Check

  • Question: Is my concern rooted in the present reality or in speculative scenarios?
  • Action: Cultivate mindfulness to stay grounded. Addressing actual problems is more productive than battling imaginary dragons.

4. Weather the Unpredictable Storms

  • Question: Is the uncertainty of the outcome inherent in this situation?
  • Action: Embrace uncertainty as a constant. Instead of trying to control truly uncontrollable things, develop adaptability and resilience.

5. Priority Evaluation

  • Question: How critical is this issue to my overall goals and well-being?
  • Action: Prioritize your battles. Use your energy for challenges aligned with your long-term objectives.

6. Emotional Barometer

  • Question: Does my emotional state depend on external factors beyond my control?
  • Action: Cultivate emotional resilience. Invest in self-care practices that anchor your well-being internally, irrespective of external fluctuations.

7. Communication Power

  • Question: Can effective communication influence the outcome?
  • Action: If yes, hone your communication skills. Expressing your needs (and understanding others) is a potent tool in situations where direct control may be limited.

8. The Serenity Prayer Approach

  • Question: Can I change this, or is acceptance the key?
  • Action: If you can’t change a situation, adopt the “Serenity Prayer Mentality.” Accept what you can’t change, gather the courage to change what you can, and cultivate wisdom to distinguish between the two.

Mastering the art of control involves a delicate balance of self-awareness, strategic thinking, and emotional maturity. By asking these questions and taking actionable steps, you’ll find yourself navigating life’s waters with newfound clarity and purpose.

Embracing Control: Taking Action When It’s Within Our Reach

We have all encountered overwhelming, daunting, or outright challenging situations. It can be natural to categorize these scenarios as “out of our control.” While this may provide temporary relief, embracing control—when control is possible—can be a powerful catalyst for personal growth and resilience.

The first step in taking action is using the above questions to recognize what lies within our sphere of influence. It’s tempting to succumb to the belief that nearly everything is out of our control and we can do nothing. However, if I had kept this mindset when my flight was canceled, the entire trajectory of my Ironman race could have been negatively affected.

Let’s imagine the swimming portion of my Ironman race. The ebb and flow of the water can be unpredictable, much like the challenges life throws our way. Yet, as a competitive swimmer, I could never resign myself to the whims of the sea. Instead, I do everything I can to navigate the waves, adjusting my approach to maintain balance and control.

Similarly, in life, we must discern what is within our control and ride the waves accordingly. It’s about taking charge of the aspects we can influence, even if the overall situation appears challenging.

So, the next time you find yourself amidst the ebb and flow of life’s uncertainties, pause and assess what truly lies within your control. Embrace the challenges as opportunities for growth and take deliberate action to shape your journey. Remember, the power to navigate the waves is within you—meet them confidently and watch as you thrive in the face of adversity.

Final Thoughts 

In the dance between what you can and cannot control, the essence of true mastery is found in seizing the reins when you can. Take charge of your responses, decisions, and mindset, for it is in these realms that your strength resides.

My book, Thriving in the Storm: Nine Principles to Help You Overcome Any Adversity, offers a roadmap to navigating challenges with grace and grit. It’s a companion for those seeking not just survival but a flourishing existence amidst life’s uncertainties.

Explore my website for an array of FREE resources that complement the principles outlined in the book. Dive into workbooks, articles, and journals designed to fortify your journey toward a resilient and empowered life.

As you move forward, may the principles of control and surrender guide you toward a future where you not only endure but thrive.