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Why: Dichotomy of Control

Hi Sunday Stoic Listeners and welcome to my first co-host episode of The Sunday Stoic. I am Al and I would like to use this opportunity to look at the why of stoicism.


After we have been studying the philosophy for a while, we get used to the things we should remember and the things we ought to do. We may know about the dichotomy of control. We may know the four virtues. But can we remember why?


Why should we follow these ancient teachings? What's in it for us?


To answer this, I would like to recount a time before I was introduced to Stoicism.


I was fresh out of collage and had started work at a factory. Each year the factory would shut down for a maintenance period. I witnessed my first maintenance period just after I started, then a year later it was my turn. I was the lead operations engineer and it was my responsibility to review all the shutdown procedures and update or write new ones as required. I spent months before the event working through the different method statements and aiming for perfection in everything that I produced. I wanted this to be the perfect shutdown to show everyone that I was an amazing engineer.

During the shutdown period, my job was to respond to any issues and work out what to do. If everything goes perfectly, there is nothing for me to do.


For the first few weeks, there was a continuous stream of operators and supervisors coming up to me and telling me something was wrong with one of my procedures and I took every one of these things to heart.


There were genuine mistakes that I had made. Of course there were going to be, I was fresh out of collage, I wasn’t experienced with the plant. Of course I would make mistakes. But I hated it. I hated myself for making these mistakes and not knowing better. I hated myself for allowing these mistakes to happen.


Then there were historic issues with the method statements. Many of them remained mostly unchanged from the previous shutdown, I just updated the year and put my name on the front. But because I was new, and the operators knew this, they checked a bit closer than when it had the name of a plant veteran engineer on the front.


This really wound me up.


I thought that they must have hated me, they were just trying to find a reason to criticize me, to make me look bad.


Of course that wasn’t the case. They just wanted to make sure that the jobs were done correctly and safely. Yes they may have been looking harder than normal, but it wasn’t out of malice. They were trying to help me.


The third type of problem was the ones that no one could have expected. A piece of equipment breaking. A pipe getting blocked. The exact things that I was supposed to be dealing with. They were the reason no planned work was assigned to me. And yet, I still took these personally. Why was the universe conspiring against me to make MY shutdown last longer?


Looking back, it was a pretty pathetic time for me. As I said, this was before I had been introduced to Stoicism and in particular the dichotomy of control.



Consider the opening passage of Epictetus’ Enchiridion:


Some things are within our control and others are not. Things that are within our control include our opinions, aims, desires and aversions. These are our own actions. Things not in our control include our health, property and reputation. Things that are not our own actions.
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, submissive and belonging to others.
If you believe that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered.
You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men.

That last part, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men, definitely described how I felt during that shutdown period. I found my breaking point and kept going. On several occasions I walked out of the factory gates and was convinced I would never come back. “I won't come back. They can’t make me!” I muttered to myself as I walked through the turnstile. But of course I did. The next morning I had calmed down enough to see a bit clearer. I went back in and the whole cycle repeated again.


The problem was that I cared about my job too much. I wanted to be a great operations engineer. I wanted to return the factory to full production as quickly as possible. I wanted things that were not up to me.


Even if I was an impeccable operations engineer, the plant would still have been delayed. Even if I had done my job perfectly, there would still have been issues to deal with through the event. By focusing on all the external things, I was allowing myself to be yanked around by fate and spent more time worrying about what other people would think than about how to solve the problem at hand.


Years later I was still involved in shutdowns, but the experience was very different. I had learnt that the only thing I could control was my own actions. When something unexpected came up, it was my duty to find the best solution. When someone suggested a change to a method statement, it was my duty to use the information to make the method statement as high quality as I could.


Even if I had made a mistake weeks earlier, I was no longer something under my control. All I could do was focus on responding properly. Admit the mistake, correct it and move forward. I no longer cared about the exact date we returned the plant to service. I only cared about doing my best in each situation. As long as it wasn't my own actions that was holding things up unnecessarily I was happy.


So that is my hard learnt reason for following the dichotomy of control. When I focused on external things I was miserable. I hated my life and myself. Worse still, despite all the extra stress, it didn't make me perform my duties any better.


Once I focused on how I responded to external events, I felt more in control, I was much less stressed and was better at my job. I was living a much better life.


Carpe Diem.


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