If I have to mention a single lesson that you must learn from Stoicism, it would be this: Identify what is up to you. Control what you can control. Devise a strategy to deal with the rest.
This, according to me, should be the most important guiding philosophy of your life. It’s simple, straightforward, and easy to internalise. And it’ll save you from a lot of unnecessary pain and misery.
You have to start by understanding that some things are up to us, while some things aren’t. Pain usually comes when you confuse between the two, and try to control or wish for things to happen that aren’t completely in your control. Because if you want things that are not up to you, you will often fail to get it, and when this happens, you will feel miserable and upset.
For example, if you have an important chess match coming, then its preparation is completely in your control. But winning the match is however not in your control. Because you have no control whatsoever upon your opponent’s training and tactic. If you aren’t lucky enough to win the game, it’s very likely to upset you. And you cannot be lucky all the time, so at some point in life you are very likely to face misfortune and misery if you try to control what isn’t up to you. For the record, winning is never up to you.
But it’s life. You gotta kill to survive, and you have to win to live. Therefore a good strategy to get the best out of yourself in the game of chess, and in the game of life, is to internalise your goals. An internal goal is completely in your control, devoid of any externality. Therefore, instead of saying something like, “I will win the match,” or, “I will destroy my enemy,” your goals should start sounding like, “I would give my best,” and, “I will fight with all my might.”
But you are human, and you naturally have a desire to be a successful businessman, a class topper, or a respectable employee. All these are your external goals. While you have complete control in setting them, you seldom have any control over the outcome. You might start by setting external goals, your next step should be to start internalising them so that you have complete control over them. If you don’t have control over your goals, it would be nearly impossible to devise a winning strategy.
But people have a tendency to take the advice, “give your best and forget the rest” at face value, and misinterpret it. Giving your best in an upcoming test is translated as locking yourself up in a room and studying day in day out, which is fine. But most challenges in life aren’t as straightforward as school exams. In most challenges, you have to study your opponent closely. It’s very hard to win a game—be it cricket, chess, or business—without paying heed to your opponent. You have to engage in psychological warfare every now and then. You have to know how to both avoid and exploit cognitive biases. You have to master logical fallacies to throw your opponent off.
Bobby Fischer, although a disturbed personality, is considered to be one of the greatest chess players of all time. During his world famous showdown with Boris Spassky in 1972, as much as Fischer wanted to humiliate the Soviets by beating them, he was more concerned that the tournament organisers met his peculiar demands. The prize pot had to be raised to $250,000—which was the biggest prize ever offered to that point. On top of that, Fischer demanded the first rows of chairs at the competition be removed, that he receive a new chessboard, and that the organisers change the venue’s lighting.
Despite this, Fischer lost the first game. Now he blamed the cameras and wished them to be removed. He didn’t appear for the second game because his wishes weren’t fulfilled. Now the Soviets were leading by 2-0. But Fischer refused to go on unless the cameras were removed. He also wanted the game to be moved from the tournament hall to a small room at the back. Finally, the tournament organisers gave in to Fischer’s demands, and the show went on.
Spassky, a legendary player himself, lost his rhythm in the midst of all this chaos and drama. By the end when Fisher won the tournament, the Soviets began to wonder if the CIA had poisoned Spassky. Samples of his orange juice were analysed, the chairs and lights were checked, and they even measured all kinds of beams and rays that could get into the room. They found nothing because Fischer’s attack was more psychological. He used his erratic behaviour and his tantrums—which were completely in his control—to throw off Spassky from his game. Fischer took maximum control of the game thereby tremendously increasing his odds of winning.
Arnold Schwarzenegger mentions something similar in an interview:
“By the time I came to America and started competing over here I would say to my competitors something like, ‘Let me ask you something, do you have any knee injuries or something like that?’ Then they would look at me and say, ‘No, why? I have no knee injury at all…my knees feel great. Why are you asking?’ I said, ‘Well because your thighs look a little slimmer to me. I thought maybe you can’t squat, or maybe there’s some problem with leg extension.’ And then I’d see him for all 2 hours in the gym, always going in front of the mirror and checking out his thighs... People are vulnerable about those things. Naturally, when you have a competition, you use all this. You ask people if they were sick for a while. They look a little leaner. Or ‘Did you take any salty foods lately? Because it looks like you have water retention, and it looks like you’re not as ripped as you looked a week or so ago.’ It throws people off in an unbelievable way.”
If you are an aspiring writer, simply getting up and writing a novel won’t do. You gotta meet publishers and persuade them to publish your work. Exploiting cognitive biases to coerce them to give in should be part of your strategy. Like Fischer and Schwarzenegger, these tactics are in your control, but not the outcome. Even after doing all you can, you may not get published. But not having your goal as something external over which you have very little control, such as getting your novel published, but something internal over which you have complete control, such as how hard you work on the manuscript, how hard you fight to get it published, would definitely help you devise a winning strategy.
While internalising your goal doesn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t hurt once you receive the rejection letter, it can significantly reduce the sting. And instead of moping for a year before restarting your struggle, you might bring your moping period down to a week, or even a day. This change would dramatically increase your chances of getting published.
To put it together, nothing is completely in you control. Ever! Even your qualms, your whims, and your sudden outbursts in pain or in glory aren’t in your control. They are Automatic (under System 1).
You might argue that your real goal is to win—to win the match, win a championship, get the job, or get a novel published. While it sounds nice in theory, it’s not practical. Truth is, you may always give your best and do everything right, but you cannot win all the games. Nobody bats a thousand. Even Sachin Tendulkar had to return with a lot of ducks in his career. In life, all you can do is increase your odds, and to be honest, that’s enough. That’s as much of a chance as anybody gets—be it Fischer, Tendulkar, or Schwarzenegger. Therefore, engage the Reflective System of your brain (System 2), internalise your goals, and build a strategy that would dramatically increase your chances of success.
Do your best, and forget the rest! As long as you believe that you did everything possible in your capability, you are good to go.