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The Only Thing You Need to Get Good At

garden tools

A tiny article about Stoicism has had a significant influence on my life since I read it. Maybe for the first time in my adult life, I don’t feel like I’m wasting much of my time. I feel unusually prepared to do difficult things.

It was a short personal essay by Elif Batuman, about how reading Epictetus helped her through a strained relationship, political turmoil in her country of residence, and other messy or insoluble worldly concerns.

It also prompted me to start reading what are sometimes called the “big three” Stoic works, The Discourses and The Enchiridion by Epictetus, and The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, who in his spare time was the Emperor of Rome.

I knew the basic idea of Stoicism, and it made sense: don’t freak out about what you can’t control. It’s perfectly logical. But logical isn’t always practical, at least for a species whose members typically can’t even fulfill their own new year’s resolutions.

Humans have never been short on sensible-sounding advice: spend less than you earn, don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today, be patient, don’t drink coffee after 6pm. What we’re short of is whatever quality it takes to get ourselves to do those things.

But I wasn’t giving the Stoics enough credit. So far, their advice is very practical—more self-improvement suggestions than philosophical ideas. 

Basically, Epictetus tells you to continually divide your moment-to-moment concerns into two bins: the things you can control, and the things you can’t. Whenever you feel any sort of anger, desire or aversion, you look at the situation in terms of those two bins.

You quickly notice that the first bin is much, much smaller, and fortunately, it’s the one you’re responsible for. Essentially, it amounts to your actions and choices. The second bin is enormous, and it is the responsibility of the gods.

You can feel free to leave the gods’ enormous bin entirely up to them, as long as you do your best to tend to your small bin of personal choices and habits.

Of course, the larger bin still affects your life, even though you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) curate it. It contains matters such as when and how you die, how others act, the weather, and the stock market.

Obviously we have a stake in how those matters turn out, yet these outcomes aren’t really up to us, and we shouldn’t make ourselves miserable wishing they were. You will be treated unfairly, you will get sick, you will lose everything, and you will die, and the gods (or whatever forces there are) will deliver those fates to you as they please.



Stoicism gives you a very useful refrain towards these the matters that are out of your hands: That is none of my concern. Even in my initial experiments with it, it’s already become pretty easy to dismiss the largest categories of creeping worries, ones along the lines of:

What if ____ happens?

Why can’t ___ just ____?

I just wish _____.

Please let ____ be ____.

None of my concern! I can let the gods sort this stuff out, and attend to whatever actually ends up in my bin.

Our normal impulse is to see misfortune, loss, death, and the choices of others as primary concerns, since they can significantly affect our lives. But this is where the Stoics deviate from our natural inclinations. They offer a bold new take: a thing doesn’t automatically become your concern just because it might affect you.

The gods are doing things all day long that might affect you, but what they choose is their business. So any hoping or worrying you do about the to-do lists of the gods just makes you miserable and wastes your time. Epictetus would say it’s even kind of rude.

According to the Stoics, all day long you should be returning your attention to the relatively small realm you can control. Ultimately, your only concern is your own diligence in tending to your own bin, and that’s always up to you alone.

To the Stoic, life isn’t a juggling act between a thousand competing concerns. You have one concern, and that’s to tend your own garden, small or large as it is. It works the same for a slave (which is what Epictetus was when he was born) as it does for an Emperor (which is what Marcus Aurelius was when he died).

You might think we’re already pretty good at working on what we can control and leaving alone what we can’t. But this isn’t the way the untrained human mind works—we tend to ruminate over whatever we find emotionally compelling, from either sphere. If a politician does something we don’t like, we could burn unlimited energy getting enraged, even when we have no intention, or ability, to alter the proceedings. It’s possible to waste your whole life essentially shaking your fist at the clouds, completely preoccupied with where you are disempowered, overlooking every way in which you are empowered.

By reclaiming your energy, all day every day, from your sphere of concern (the range of things that appeal to your emotions) to your sphere of influence (the range of things you can affect) you are continually developing the essential Stoic skill of taking your lumps as they come, with minimal fuss and tantrum.

One way to think of it it is that the Stoic is making a practice out of shrinking the sphere of concern down to roughly the same size as the sphere of influence, where it finally becomes manageable.



As hard as life is, the only refuge you need, or ever have, is your own will to do what you can within your own sphere. That’s all you need to attend to, all you need to think about, all you need to get good at. You carry this refuge with you wherever you go, and nobody can take it away.

The practice of Stoicism is new to me, but its central insight isn’t. Buddhism has an almost identical interpretation of the human condition: our lives are vastly harder than they need to be, but only because we grasp at more control than is actually available to us.

I’ve been sold on this idea for years now—that happiness doesn’t come from finally learning how to control everything, but from finally learning how not to.

A passage from the Batuman article sums up this sense of carrying your empowerment with you, wherever you go:

When I read that nobody should ever feel ashamed to be alone or to be in a crowd, I realized that I often felt ashamed of both of those things. Epictetus’ advice: when alone, “call it peace and liberty, and consider yourself the gods’ equal”; in a crowd, think of yourself as a guest at an enormous party, and celebrate the best you can.


Photo by Erich Ferdinand. Drawings by David Cain.

michael March 20, 2017 at 10:36 pm

So good.

Ravikumar March 21, 2017 at 2:14 am

Dear David,

One STOP solution for all my worries……. apt title…. you made my day…

all these days, I was worrying about the things that i cannot change at all, be it political, my family, body, hair, and endless list …..

let me try to implement this and come back with questions if anything arises….

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:14 am

I would recommend checking out The Enchiridion. Epictetus is the expert here, not me. It’s available free and isn’t very long:


matthew March 21, 2017 at 8:36 am

Thank you for that link to the text. I was just about to go buy it when I saw your link.

Barbara March 21, 2017 at 2:55 am

The lovliest epistle on K.I.S.S. Thank you, David.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:51 am

Keep It Stoic Stupid

Suzanne March 21, 2017 at 9:22 am

I am sooooo going to use this reminder! : )

Anne March 21, 2017 at 3:21 am

Thankyou David. Excellent post. I’ve been reading bits about Stoicism on FB for a while and finding them appealing. This is a really helpful summary, and I’m now going to do some more reading and reflecting. I hadn’t previously considered the similarities to Buddhist thought – interesting.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:16 am

The more I read of Epictetus the more it seems like a tragedy that he hadn’t discovered Buddhism. He would have agreed with the basic ideas, and Buddhism offers some tools (namely mindfulness meditation) that he probably didn’t know about.

Mhandy March 27, 2017 at 7:20 am

A bit of a late reply,Zeno, the founder of stoicism had knowledge of Buddhist teaching via Alexanders conquest and the subsequent Hindu-Greek kingdoms. In fact it might be said the Stoicism (and Epicurianism as well) was heavily influence by third hand Buddhist teachings

Jeff March 27, 2017 at 6:07 pm

Who knows, maybe they crossed paths somewhere in time/space and had an incredible chat!

Sue March 21, 2017 at 3:30 am

This has come at the right time. If I can master this the world will be my oyster. What other people think of me is not in my bin and that makes me so happy. Thank you for this freedom.

Zoe March 21, 2017 at 4:51 am

Very interesting (and not at all what I remembered from studying the Stoics in school… I wish they’d been presented like this).

The only argument I might have is that one should avoid falling into the trap of ignoring certain things because they fall outside the sphere of control. It can be very tempting never to push the boundaries of that circle…

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:22 am

As far as I understand, boundary-pushing is something you can control. So far boundary-pushing seems to be a huge part of the Stoic ethic.

I don’t know if it’s necessary to quite “ignore” something you can’t control in order to avoid fretting about it or wasting time on it. I think the temptation to invest your energy in avenues where you aren’t going accomplish anything is a much bigger and more dangerous trap, in any case.

JP March 21, 2017 at 5:55 am

But where does social activism fall into the theory of stoicism? On my own, I can change nothing about this political environment, and therefore it is out of my circle of concern. But is that an ethical stance to take? And what about power in numbers?

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:27 am

It is all a question about what you can and can’t control. You can control everything you do and say, and that’s quite a bit for a citizen in a democratic country. It isn’t true that on your own you can change nothing, because you could rally a hundred or a thousand people to do something, if that thing requires a hundred or a thousand people. If it’s truly out of your hands, then yes it’s a waste of time.

But the distinction between in your hands and out of your hands is important when it comes to activism. Many “activists” simply make a lot of noise, seemingly having given little thought to what actions are likely to change something.

Ceeb March 29, 2017 at 2:09 pm

This is the best response I’ve ever read to this argument.

Andrew March 21, 2017 at 6:06 am

I struggle to get this right. When I try to mentally filter down to the things I can control, that still seems to be a lot, more than I can carry. Do you know what I mean?

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:38 am

Yeah I know what you mean. I think of it like this: some situation is nagging at me or stressing me out, and I ask myself if I’m grasping at control over things that aren’t directly in my hands, like what others are thinking, what choices others will make, how the future will settle out…. those things are just outcomes, and even if I might be able to influence them, I don’t choose them. So I narrow the thinking down to my own ethics, my own choices. “What should I do right now” is the go-to response to every instance of stress, worry, etc. Most of the time this short-circuits the rumination about outcomes controlled by others, or my nobody.

Epictetus gives a lot more details in The Enchiridion on how to do this in more specific terms. You can read it here: http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

Ellen Symons March 21, 2017 at 6:39 am

Stoicism has been very helpful to me, and to my meditation practice, over the past couple of years. Its similarities to Buddhism were a reinforcement of its message when I started to notice them.

I’ve had help in understanding and applying Stoicism from two books:

A Guide to the Good Life, by William B. Irvine

The Daily Stoic, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Stoics believe in joy and in being involved in one’s community. There’s room for activism in Stoicism, if I read it right. I can certainly say that the more I live by this philosophy, the happier, more effective – and more grown-up – I feel.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:40 am

Thanks for these suggestions Ellen. I’ve heard a lot of recommendations for The Daily Stoic.

And it really is a philosophy of happiness. The word “stoic” has picked up undeserved connotations about apathy, misery, self-mortification, but it’s really a way of cultivating wellbeing.

Bryan March 21, 2017 at 6:51 am


You continue to be a great guide on my journey. Your writings often get forwarded to friends and family for the simplicity and clarity you present important lessons.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:40 am

Thanks for sharing Raptitude with people Bryan!

Mrs. Picky Pincher March 21, 2017 at 6:53 am

I’ve seen an influx of bloggers practicing stoicism; I think Mr. Money Mustache was the first that I recall. I don’t fall into many -isms, but I can see how being a stoic would be beneficial for determining what I can and can’t control–both financially and in life.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:43 am

I think I remember reading a MMM post about stoicism. It doesn’t surprise me, because MMM is all about making rational assessments of your choices, and practicing the virtues necessary to make the rational choice.

John Norris March 21, 2017 at 12:11 pm
Johan March 21, 2017 at 7:55 am

I remember being introduced to Stoicism on Mr. Money Mustache’s blog post four years ago. I’ve since read the classic texts as well as modern interpretations by William Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life) and Donald Robertson (Teach Yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness). This is a good reminder of their teachings and central message, so thank you!

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:44 am

This is the second recommendation for William Irvine today. Will have to check it out.

Randy Hendrix March 21, 2017 at 8:09 am

Great article David! Perfect booster shot in the middle of Camp Calm!

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:44 am

Meditation and stoicism seem to be highly compatible. Epictetus and the Buddha would have been pals

Tonya March 21, 2017 at 8:19 am

It’s funny because when I am able to practice this I’m so much calmer and happier, but it’s like I can’t or won’t (right now) let myself stay there too long and then a rude comment or someone in traffic “pisses me off,” and I feel crappy again. Yes it’s so worthwhile to constantly try and practice this mentality because I’m be so much happier! Is it just easier to feel…unhappy?

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:49 am

That is a great question, and I think the answer is… yes. We are very good at being unhappy and petty and dissatisfied, and that’s why people developed philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism.

Both of them involve two things: 1) confronting certain hard truths (including the fact that we will die, and that nothing can be held onto forever) and 2) some sort of practice for re-conditioning ourselves to let go, which we strengthen day by day. In stoicism the main practice seems to be this constant delineation of spheres and tending to your own will; in Buddhism it’s the practice of meditation and personal ethics. But in both cases, we are learning to notice our tendencies for creating needless suffering, and calmly doing the right thing instead. And in both cases they call that quality wisdom.

John Norris March 21, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Why be happy when you can be normal?

Sebastian B March 22, 2017 at 12:40 am

Can you elaborate?

John Norris March 22, 2017 at 12:18 pm

Yes, most people are unhappy or get upset easily, take things personally. Being happy, grateful, facing life’s challenges with poise and equanimity (stoically) is not normal IMHO.

Lorraine Allen March 21, 2017 at 8:21 am

Brilliantly expressed, David! This article very succinctly and clearly explains the absolute necessity and power of – stop obsessing over what you can’t control, and for the love of god, get cracking on what you can control. :D

I got a chuckle over this passage:
“Humans have never been short on sensible-sounding advice: spend less than you earn, don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today, be patient, don’t drink coffee after 6pm. What we’re short of is whatever quality it takes to get ourselves to do those things”. Ain’t that the truth?!

Again, thank you for your well-written and considered articles.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:50 am

Thanks Lorraine!

Linda Lesperance March 21, 2017 at 8:50 am

I can appreciate the theory of not getting overly wrought by all of the worries of the planet. As a follower of Buddhist ideals I also see the idea of the overwhelming plight of the human condition and my place in its’ cure. Yes, we do stress out too much, however, I see Stoics more as Isolationists and that only opens up the world to aggressive people who will seize the power because nobody is willing to fight back. Do we leave the fates up to “the gods”? Look at what is happening in my country right now. I will try not to over-stress about the things I absolutely can not change but I will never stop fighting against the things that I might be able to effect.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 8:52 am

I will try not to over-stress about the things I absolutely can not change but I will never stop fighting against the things that I might be able to effect.

Yes, that’s exactly the point!

Suzanne March 21, 2017 at 9:19 am

Bravo! This is the absolute best post (of your pretty regularly insightful stuff) in a long while. I adore your drawings and they really put the message into perspective for me. Plus, I smiled at them and, since smiling changes your physiology (James-Lange theory), I felt more optimistic while reflecting on your message. I feel energized to keep an awareness on my sphere of influence. Thank you!

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Thanks Suzanne. I like doing stick figure drawings, and I think you’re right that they make us more receptive to the message because they’re just so cute

Lukas March 21, 2017 at 9:36 am

I find that one’s circle isn’t really that small either. When I started throwing out the large circle (let’s call it the god’s circle for the sake of simplicity), I started seeing how many choices I have to make, and how difficult it is to make them, if you set the world aside.

There is also the problem, that I tend to lose the connection to my relatives and friends, who do tend to worry and speak about the troubles outside their own circle.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Yes, it is interesting how that works… we often distract ourselves from the responsibility of making hard choices in our own sphere by fixating on things beyond our control. You don’t have to feel compelled improve your own community if you can blame the government, for example.

I guess our fixation on the gods’ circle has a way of diluting our sense of agency, making it seem smaller. But it is still very small compared the the big circle.

Aleisha March 22, 2017 at 7:35 pm

“…we often distract ourselves from the responsibility of making hard choices in our own sphere by fixating on things beyond our control.” This little snippet just made some stuff in my own life so clear. WOW. I’m having a moment right now, and I want to thank you.

David Cain March 23, 2017 at 8:13 am

I think this is a super common thing to do, and it probably deserves its own post. I’ve touched on it in other articles:



Kevin March 21, 2017 at 12:17 pm

I have heard a saying that has always stuck in my mind. Why worry about things that I have no control over. And then why worry about things that I can control and change.

Thank you for writing articles that inspire us to live a better life. Very best of luck to you.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 1:29 pm

Yeah, it definitely makes sense not to. But why do we do it anyway? I think we are just conditioned to, by evolutionary forces and cultural influences. But we can recondition ourselves through personal practices.

Seavu March 21, 2017 at 12:42 pm

In reading your essay, I’m recalling other helpful guides I’ve read in the past: Victor Frankl, who emphasized that you may not be able to control your situation, but you can control your reaction to it; Eckhart Tolle, who reminds us to ask ourselves, What problem do I have right now, in this moment. If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is usually, none. It also reminds me of Byron Katie’s idea of “loving what is,” and also her idea that, There is my business, your business, and God’s business, and all I need to worry about is my business.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Yes, Victor Frankl’s big insight was consistent with Stoicism. He found the one thing the Nazis couldn’t take away from him, which was his attitude towards what was happening to him. Epictetus makes a point of saying that even our bodies are beyond our control (i.e. others can harm them or take them away from us), but that is not true of the will.

Trisha March 21, 2017 at 2:15 pm

This reminded me of a concept my husband and I spout quite a bit. We often encounter NMP’s, not my problems. You know those things you see out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn your eyes to it, its gone, that’s the best description of an NMP. It helps us determine what we should really worry about.

Joel March 21, 2017 at 2:21 pm


Mind blown yet again.

Thank you.


zsouzsou March 21, 2017 at 3:03 pm

Hi David,
once again thank you for taking your time to share your insights and really caring in getting the idea passed on. And just as I have learned, that I need some sort of “Mantras” in order to form a habit from an idea, I’d like to pass on my 2 fav ones with regards to the stoicism:
• asking myself bluntly: “is this my f***ing business?” – quite often a “none of my….” comes as a retort :)
• quoting the last line of the serenity prayer: “…and wisdom to know the difference…”
I guess, this comment here was my business ;)
cheers, zsou

Miguel March 21, 2017 at 3:19 pm

I find the post really fitting, since I came upon MMM’s post just a couple of weeks ago and I just finished Irvine’s book. I can only recommend the book, stoicism us presented as a very practical philosophy with really concrete suggestions for life. The practice of negative visualisation is very different from mindfulness meditation and yet it still found a way into my routine. It helps you appreciate your life a lot more and it also helped me notice how desires often work against your happiness. Anyone familiar with the second noble truth will easily recognize the parallels between stoicism and (practical) Buddhism. Thanks a lot the post, David!

David Cain March 23, 2017 at 8:13 am

Getting many recommendations for this book. Looking forward to checking it out.

Ryan March 21, 2017 at 4:14 pm

Awesome article! Quick question if you get a chance.

What do you find is the best way to set where the line is regarding your sphere of control and non-control? I feel like you could go crazy thinking about what you could affect if you only tried / persevered.

David Cain March 21, 2017 at 4:56 pm

Epictetus can answer that question better than I can. The Enchiridion is here, free, and it’s pretty short: http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

Vishal March 22, 2017 at 5:31 am

Hey Ryan and David, if I may. I’ve been studying (and practicing) Stoicism for over 2 years now. According to Stoics, the best way to set the line of control is simple – control your mind. Everything else, including your body outside your sphere of control. You could fall sick, be injured or be thrown in jail tomorrow. Thus, you can’t control anything or any circumstance except your thoughts in a situation. Stoics believe in controlling:

1. Perceptions
2. Actions
3. Will power

That’s all. Everything around automatically takes care of itself once these fall in place.

David Cain March 22, 2017 at 8:59 am

This is helpful, thanks Vishal. What I found really interesting in Epictetus is that he’s clear that our bodies are not under our control. We don’t normally think of it that way, but it’s obvious when we think about it that outside forces can easily damage or destroy your body in spite of you.

Vishal March 22, 2017 at 9:52 am

True, David. That thought struck me the hardest too. We generally assume that our body is the 1st thing under our control, but Epictetus put things in perspective brilliantly.

Priyank March 21, 2017 at 8:37 pm

A great article David. it couldn’t have come at a better time. I am right now in the midst of a decision making process that would possibly change my life forever, but I don’t know whether it will be for better or for worse. Reading this article (and the one of Batuman) eased my mind a bit and gave me a new perspective of looking at it. Thanks

David Cain March 22, 2017 at 9:01 am

You would probably love the Enchiridion, it goes it to much more detail: http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

Seth March 21, 2017 at 10:23 pm

Couldn’t you argue that the pain of others is technically in the larger bin, but that I can actually make it something I can act on? Examples:

– donating
– volunteering
– helping neighbors/strangers

And so as an American, I might be wise to not get upset at every article I read about our president, but I technically have infinite options for helping others get through this time?

Or would the Stoics suggest I ignore those people if their pain doesn’t affect me?

David Cain March 22, 2017 at 9:04 am

Obviously the pain of others (or at least the thought of it) does affect us, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it. And like you say, there are lots of things you can do to affect it.

The Stoics were making that delineation a little differently than this though… not so much on the basis of subject matter, but right at the will itself.

Michael March 21, 2017 at 11:29 pm

Such a simple idea I can’t believe I missed it. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront.

Thanks again David!

AP March 22, 2017 at 12:22 am

Love your posts, as always. Once one gets to investigate this question precisely: “am I ensuring that I’m only concerned with my own sphere?”, perhaps they are drawn to the natural next step: “who is ‘I’ and what is its actual sphere of influence?” :)

David Cain March 22, 2017 at 9:06 am

Philosophical rabbit holes abound whenever we talk about agency or identity. But we don’t need to get caught up in it in order to make use of this on the practical level.

Sebastian B March 22, 2017 at 12:50 am

Unfortunately – I don’t know why – but this keeps me thinking that often times other people (both our relatives and complete strangers) will try to influence or even BE in our small circle.

For example:
1) I want to make brave decision in my life but my father/mother want me to delay it/reconsider it.
2) I’m about to do something important but there’s this guy at work making fun of me publicly
3) I’m building muscles but most of people close to me don’t treat this very seriously and this makes my trainings weaker etc.

In other words – sometimes I think my own small circle is smaller than others.

David, what are your thoughts on that?

David Cain March 23, 2017 at 8:19 am

I don’t think Epictetus was picturing those spheres as places where certain people could be or not be. The smaller sphere is really just your end of every interaction — your choices and your will. So nobody else can really be inside that. Whatever the interaction, you have choices on your end and it’s up to you to make them. I strongly recommend reading The Enchiridion (link in comments above) because he writes specifically about being insulted and receiving social pressure from others.

The Tepid Tamale March 22, 2017 at 5:03 am


First, thank you. I have been reading for a while, I think the Post on Experimentation was the first one I stumbled on. It’s refreshing to see a ‘real’ blog, instead of the picture perfect that the ‘internet’ is so fond of today.

The picture above of the guy shouldering the large red circle is me every day when I start out trying to plan and accomplish everything. I need to keep shrinking my sphere of concern down to what I can affect, and focus on actually getting stuff done in there, instead of just busying myself in everything that can affect me. Thanks so much for the reminder!

– The Tepid Tamale

David Cain March 23, 2017 at 8:20 am

It’s a really simple image, and obviously doesn’t capture every nuance, but it’s a good enough reminder that there is a difference between what appeals to the emotions and what we ought to be acting on, and also that there is a realm of control that nobody can take away from us.

Jonathan Soifer March 22, 2017 at 8:44 am

Agreed 100%. Although an interesting part that could have received some attention is: Where do we draw the line?

Part of our awareness and analysis is knowing how to differentiate what is under our control and what is not. But that is a moving target.

I cannot affect my country’s economy right now, but would it make sense to prepare (getting a Degree + relevant experience) in order to do that?


In practical, daily affairs, the answer is simple. But when you consider that we also have within us the latent power to become much more than what we are today (if we choose to do so), then the “Moving Target” issue becomes a matter of Wisdom and Discernement.

David Cain March 23, 2017 at 8:24 am

Epictetus articulates the line in the works I mentioned a lot better than I have, but basically we are in control of our own judgments and our own will to act, in every situation, and that’s quite a bit. You can make use of this in the macro (getting a degree to prepare for economic conditions outside your control) or micro (not taking exception at criticisms made by others) level.

The Olive Presser March 22, 2017 at 9:16 am


Like the Buddhists, the Stoics weren’t simply peddlers of self-help aphorisms. Similar to Plato’s philosophical foundations, there is a systematic, formal foundation to the popular Stoic writings, but much of it has been lost in the dust of history. The book, The Stoic Life by Tad Brennan, is a great attempt to reconstruct the philosophical foundations from which the populist Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.


David Cain March 23, 2017 at 8:25 am

I will check out the book, thank you. Obviously both philosophies go much deeper than self-improvement, into the nature of experience and so on. However the Enchiridion and the Dhammapada both seem to be made specifically as accessible advice for laypeople. As far as I know they are right from the source, or at least from contemporary disciples of Epictetus and the Buddha. Whatever has been lost, it’s great that we have those.

Allen Simons March 22, 2017 at 10:47 am

The general thrust of bin sorting is and excellent idea. It works better than I can often put into practice. There is, however, a caveat of which I am reminded. This is the area of shared influence. Our own personal influence is increased by linking with others of mutual concern, hence the workings of democracy. If I see my influence both individual and social then act individually with others, I am affirming the full power of my personal potential to act in concert.

This done I must assume that I have done what I can and release abiding concerns trusting in the power of social influence. Continually stirring the pot in my social relations can usually only bring me grief and unhappiness.

Jeremy March 22, 2017 at 11:31 am

“But logical isn’t always practical.” This is so true. Having a fiance with OCD was what brought this to light. For example, she knows that she turned off the stove, but she’ll need to go back and check countless times and sometimes even leave work to go home and check. She knows that this makes no sense, but simply not checking again is not practical in light of her condition.
We’ve moved to taking pictures of the stove, so she can see that all nobs are off and that there is no flame. Creative solutions like this to help deal with OCD have helped immensely in dealing with the all-to-often illogical tendencies of human beings. Just need to try different tactics and find out what works in each situation.

Joel Watson March 22, 2017 at 12:28 pm

David, I’m a Buddhist but I’ve never studied Stoicism, so thank you for the primer.

The basic idea seems very similar to something I learned in recovery many years ago: “My side of the street” is all I need to be concerned with. And it seems Stoicism might narrow that to “my little segment of the sidewalk”.

I had a huge resentment against a coworker until I read this post, then it started to shift. I was giving my power to them by hyper-focusing on how I felt disempowered by them telling me what to do, even though they aren’t my boss. I have a strong aversion to being told what to do, especially by someone who isn’t my boss. So I ruminated for days about how I was going to get some type of revenge. Despite having meditated for years, I could only get glimpses that my brain was even doing this, and then I would slip back into ill will.

Then, this article. I can’t control them! But I do have the power to let them know how their behavior made me feel and to ask them to please not do it again (if I choose to exert that power). But that doesn’t mean I should expect them to never do it again because, once again, their behavior is under their control and not mine. So my power is limited in this situation, even though I want to believe it’s not. It often seems to be the case that I have a little control over many things, but I am not satisfied with that (am I ever satisfied?) and so I want total control.

I printed out the graphic you provided and have posted a copy to my bathroom mirror and office wall, just to help me remember. I also like the KISS, although I would replace “stupid” with “silly”. Once again, aversion. (-;

I often share your blog with others because your posts are usually so powerful for me. You are “one of my kind”. It would be nice to fly to wherever you are and have a three-hour discussion over coffee!

Take care and thanks again..

David Cain March 24, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Thanks Joel. I think more and more the main lesson I take from Buddhism and my meditation practice is that we have very little control over our experience. In fact we have almost no direct control. There’s only one experience available in any given moment, and it’s what’s already here. Ironically, learning to allow that experience to unfold gives us much more capability to create the future we want.

Marie March 22, 2017 at 5:56 pm

Wow. Thank you for this! I need to be reminded of this every day! The world is weighing on my shoulders and it’s so overwhelming. And it’s not like it helps or makes a difference – if anything, it makes the world that much worse because I’m not happy or functioning in a productive and healthy way.

John Norris March 23, 2017 at 6:23 pm

Re being alone or in a crowd, and if you like Sufi poets:

“Whenever you are alone, remind yourself that God has sent everybody
away so that it’s only you and Him.”

~ Rumi

John Norris March 23, 2017 at 6:33 pm

More Sufi poetry:

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”

~ Hafiz

Abhijeet Kumar March 24, 2017 at 1:57 am

Thank you for this post. This is actually a logical way of living, especially at times like these (or may be every single time in history).

For me the bin I control is minimal, but if I ignore things in that bin, effects can be nasty, and that is on top of the thunderstorms that god is raining every now and then.

Sleep is one. Bad sleep, terrible next day. If I slept well, next morning, in my bathroom routine, if my mind goes to the day ahead, again terrible sensations in the body even before the day has seriously begun, although this is quite recoverable through meditation. How I spend my day? Again, if I read my social media feeds, real life seems depressing. Instead, if I pay attention to the people I am talking to, or the work I am doing, real life goes slower and feels vivid and beautiful. And if I bike, it feels great.

If I have done my due diligence on the bin I control, I get capacity for way more compassion, and I get this ability to lift up people’s moods, without even trying to. Good social interactions are a hallmark to a great day.

Sudhir March 24, 2017 at 6:50 am

Thank you David for yet another wonderful thought provoking article.
I have a question relating to your first stick diagram. There are “all things that can affect you” and, in my opinion, there needs to an another circle of “all things that do affect you”. Whether I like it or not, some things that are not in my control, will affect me significantly. When that happens, I need to respond -take some action(s)- to take care of my concerns. I cannot say that it this is ‘god’s concern’ and ignore it.
Or, am I missing something?

arwindpaul15 March 24, 2017 at 11:35 am

you should have know about gita’s teaching.

David Cain March 24, 2017 at 3:16 pm

It is just a stick figure diagram so I wouldn’t take it too seriously. But I don’t think that distinction needs to be made, because everything being represented there is what’s happening in your mind (i.e. what thoughts to concern yourself with). When it comes to whether you are occupied with a particular concern, there isn’t a meaningful difference between what can affect you and what eventually does effect you. Just by thinking about it it is affecting you.

arwindpaul15 March 24, 2017 at 11:33 am

Dear David
Good concept of stoicism you elaborated so much, you giving credit to some roman emperor (maybe who got its knowledge from greeks). But actually this is all re branding of Hindu Religious book Bhagwat Gita. Iam thinking a social scientist like you cant miss such wonderful book. Dont know howd you miss it but i find it discouraging you mentioned Buddhism but not Gita. For your knowledge you can summarize its knowledge in one line. Do your work to best of your capability and leave the result to God. Hope you will search for it and give credit to its original source.

David Cain March 24, 2017 at 3:22 pm

I have heard this claim before and while I’m not a religious expert it is hard to believe that the hindus of the Buddha’s time had already come up with the four noble truths, and everything the stoics would eventually write. Frankly it just sounds like you have a favorite religious tradition and want to dismiss all the others as plagiarists.

> For your knowledge you can summarize its knowledge in one line.

Can you tell us that line? Because if that’s true it would be very helpful.

arwindpaul15 March 25, 2017 at 1:17 pm

oh sorry i forget to quote it my mistake.

“Do your work to best of your capability and leave the result to God”
Thats the main reason why this whole book is all about.
The story behind you can get on internet very easily.
Many man say many thing based after somebody already said it, that dont mean they invented it, hinduism is more ancient than bud ism. the great buddha is a born hindu. you think any other religion gives this freedom to anybody to think on their own or discover and state their version of truth certainly not. you are fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson ever tried to discover from where his philosophy inspired.
I think you read some article you do your experiment and publish your theroy and experience from it. But in absence of the history related to the theory you give credit to others while they are not true candidate to get it.
as you talked about the roman emperor. you have the knowledge that in its time the religion is the main bond that help bonded the roman empire so it goes down to religion. Iam a hindu and i know which my religious text say, if i see the repetition of that work here without giving it credit its my duty to represent my religious text, nothing wrong in it.
And you have to acknowledge that it dont make something wrong if it comes to from someones religion and its not yours.
just google it. “search the message of Bhagwat Gita”. And you will know what iam talking And if you find truth in my claim just do slight edit in you article and give Bhagwat Gita its credit.

Amit Sonawane March 26, 2017 at 5:42 am

Hey David,

Been following you since the old days (I was writing at Fishing Buddha) and nice to stumble upon you on reddit. Hope you’re well. Very well synthesized essay!

One of my favorite quotes of Epictetus, when in a stressful situation, is, “For such small price, I buy tranquility”.

David Cain March 26, 2017 at 7:27 pm

Yes! That line was one in particular that really drove home the idea of living this way. You do have to pay for it, in the sense of exercising your will. But it is there to be bought.

Dan G. March 26, 2017 at 7:40 am

When I first read your article – I got kind of excited and wanted to share the article with my friends.

The article did get me going out and reading more about Stoicism.

The more I read and thought – the more I realized – I have run across these ideas before.

I do think the Stoicism ideas are useful, but so far I still run a bit “off into the weeds”.

I find a problem at the boundary between what I can and cannot control.

There seems to be a bit of ‘art’ around making that decision. It is not always clear.

I think that the whole control question is on a continuum. I can not control carbon emissions from all of the world. That is on one end of the continuum. Bad stuff may happen because of that – and I can’t really control it.

Here is an example from the ‘gray area’ — the boundary: I am the father of two 20 year old children. I care about them a lot.

They are getting to the point where I can let them make their own decisions – and live with the consequences. But (I feel like) they are not totally there.

I try to give them good advice. I try to be a good role model. And then I send them out into the world.

But – I have a hard time not feeling anxious when my – somewhat wild – 23 year old son – goes out for the evening with his buddies.

Like I said – I think there is a real ‘art’ to teasing apart what I can and cannot control. Have I given him enough good advice? Have I been a good enough role model? Should I have restricted him more since he does not show very good judgement?

There are many other examples of this boundary/gray area.

There are a lot of areas where it is crystal clear – I have no control. But what about those areas where the boundary is fuzzy/complicated ?

David Cain March 26, 2017 at 7:33 pm

The boundary Epictetus describes seems to be driven right between your own volition and everything else. He articulated it in the Discourses better than I did in this post.

So finding the boundary isn’t the hard part so much as living with the satisfaction that you’ve done all you could, and letting go of what’s out of your hands. Just like meditation, I think it’s a matter of daily practice that takes a lifetime, and you’re probably never going to be quite perfect at it. The hardest parts are going to be the areas where we have the strongest attachments, the hardest time letting go, which will always be around our health and our family’s well-being. But Epictetus does talk specifically about letting go of your body’s fate and your family’s fate in the Enchiridion.

Mike March 26, 2017 at 5:03 pm

I enjoyed this article. It aligns with how I’ve tried to live my life since having a stroke a little over a year ago. I’ve pretty much recovered, but my eyes have been opened to how much energy I used to put into getting upset over things I couldn’t control at all. Worrying about such things is a huge waste of energy and time.

arwindpaul15 March 26, 2017 at 11:03 pm

Whoa what happened david never heard from you. First i thought it was ignorance at your part now iam thinking its partiality.

max March 27, 2017 at 2:32 pm

Nice! It reminds me a lot of Steven Covey ideas. (I’m sure he got them from stoics)

Paprad March 28, 2017 at 11:40 pm

Very interesting article, and I loved all the replies you gave, they were very insightful. Re the comment upthread about Hinduism. The Bhagawad Gita is not really a religious text, it’s more of a philosophical treatise – it got inserted into a long mythical epic about an ancient battle, which can be read as a metaphor or an allegory. Re dates, the Gita is believed to be around 5th century BCE, probably a while before the Budhdha was born. He was, indeed, born a Hindu (or what passed off as Hinduism then, the term came later) – so the themes in the Gita, about life/death/duty would have influenced him. His own introspection and meditation led to his drawing up a way to deal with life that was secular. The Gita itself is secular too, it’s been coopted by Hinduism, but that should not detract from its wisdom. I think what the gentleman upthread was referring to was the famous like in the Gita, that tells us that we only have right to action, not to the fruits thereof – and that outcomes are not within our control is a key element to the Gita. The idea that we should act in accordance to our Dharma is something that the Stoics talk about too.

David Cain March 29, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Thanks for the clarification Paprad. The only thing I know about the Bhagavad Gita is that people stop me on the street and try to get me to buy a copy. I’m a little confused by your last line here: are you saying the Stoics actually refer to the dharma? Or that the vedics, stoics and buddhists all recognize some relationship between suffering and the nature of existence and consciousness?

Paprad March 28, 2017 at 11:44 pm

This is a long read – and I haven’t gone through it myself in detail, but there could be something interesting if you want to look at Hinduism and Stoics :

Christoph March 29, 2017 at 3:51 am

Hi David, I like a lot of what I read in Epictetus’s essay, but with some of it I struggle. Take this for example:
“When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person., because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either. ”

To me that seems to reflect quite an uncaring detached response that i do not like. I believe grief and sadness are very natural reactions to loosing someone you love. I go as far as saying they are the flipside of ‘risking’ to love: If you allow yourself to love a person you will be hurt if they are being harmed. That’s life. i have no problem with that.

To me it seems to reflect an aspect of stoicism or buddhism that doesn’t quite sit right with me. There is maybe too much tendency to distance oneself so not too feel bad, and that might also affect a tendency to not get too involved. Not to get too involved with your own children even, – and also not to get too involved politically.

Wanda April 16, 2017 at 6:51 pm

I think the perspective is not meant to say “do not be kind to this person”, but rather not to immerse yourself in their pain. Feeling their pain will not make them feel less pain. It will only make you feel pain. And it will not resolve the issue which they are feeling bad/sad/pain about.

Marcy March 29, 2017 at 7:17 am

Christoph, this makes perfect sense for someone who has looked into cognitive therapy.

“It’s not the accident that distresses this person, because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either. ”

When my grandmother died over a decade ago, I bawled like a baby for a couple hours and then I was done.

But there are people who can’t get past the death of a loved one. It’s not the fact that the person died that distresses them. It’s what they tell themselves.

“I can’t bear to live without him.”

“He shouldn’t have died.”

“It’s not fair.”

“What did I do to deserve this?”

“How am I going to manage without her?”

“My life will never be the same.”

I know it isn’t Stoicism, but check out the works of Albert Ellis, the psychologist. He’s the father of rational emotive therapy, which is like cognitive therapy. Basically, he says if you’re thinking rational thoughts, you will have normal emotions, like sadness and frustration. If you’re thinking irrational thoughts, you will have depression and anger/rage. And the irrational thoughts usually involve the word “should.”

So, a rational thought is, “I’ll never see my grandma again b/c she’s dead” So, it makes me sad and I cry. But an irrational thought would be, “She shouldn’t have died.” “I can’t be happy if my grandma is gone.” Things like that. And then I have a prolonged mourning.

So, I think when Epictetus says not to moan with him, he means not to validate the person’s irrational thoughts and encourage an inappropriate emotion.

Christoph March 29, 2017 at 3:53 pm

Hi Mary, I am actually fully familiar with cognitive therapies, – I just didn’t read Epictetus the same way. To me he wasn’t saying don’t get stuck in grie for too long, he is saying don’t grief / moan at all. It’s good to be able to detach from thoughts and emotions at times, but there is also a place for having deep emotions and expressing them. And for empathising with your fellow human beings. I can’t find that in his writings.

Paprad March 31, 2017 at 11:09 am

David, that link I gave talks of the parallels between the Bhagavad Gita and Stoicism, there’s a lot of detail there. I am not well-read on Stoicism but I was under the impression that one of the key tenets is that to lead a good life, man must seek fulfillment of his responsibilities – whether to self, society, God, etc. The Gita says that each man must follow/fulfil his own Dharma – loosely, right action. Looks like a similar prescription for how to lead a good life

Dave April 3, 2017 at 11:26 am

Nice article – you diagrams are helpful. I love the idea of only worrying about what you can control but then I hit a traffic jam on the way home and I stress out about that, then my ex-wife say something hurtful and I stress out about that. I worry about such silly, unimportant, uncontrollable things. Stoicism seems like such a difficult thing to put into practice even though it makes perfect sense. Sometimes I wish my brain just had an off button.

Wes Eads April 6, 2017 at 5:52 am

I have been told most of my life I am Stoic. I always took it wrong, as that I was tall and strong, like a tree or something. But reading the article, and comments after, I get a better understanding of what was meant by those comments. I look at life differently than most people I know. I do feel that many things are not under my control, so I should not dwell on them. The ones that are, have all my attention, and great care. One of my favorite sayings, “Not my monkeys, not my circus”.Death is another example, they were here, but now are gone. I remember their lives, and stories, but do not mourn their loss, although I do miss them, time to time…

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