Recently, I had two challenges. Professionally, I didn't get a job that I wanted. Personally, I found myself in an Kobayashi Maru scenario. Both wounded me internally. In these two challenges’ wake, I’ve found myself catching up to reason, grasping at its salve.
In particular, the salve I seek lies in this essential and timeless guidance from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus in his Discourses:
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals and not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.
I take this sorting between what's within my control and what is not seriously. It's a mental model that I return to often and a wellspring for tranquility.
Unsurprisingly, I find myself drifting from this helpful perspective more often than not. Recent events are a good example.
With the professional set-back, I incorrectly labeled it as a failure. Stepping back, I was proud of my approach to pursuing the job. My application was crisp, powerful, and representative of my intentions to fiercely engage with the world. Still, even though the results of the process moved out of my hands the moment I submitted, the rejection stung.
With the personal situation, I unwisely extended my well-being to externals. How others perceived me. How others would act. Rather than keeping the locus of control firmly internal and focusing only on how I conduct myself, I tied my tranquility to variables out of my control.
The scariest part about the drifting away from Epictetus’s framework is that you don’t even realize it’s happening. Ego subtly pushes you away from safety and then, all of a sudden, you find yourself adrift in a stormy sea. Angry. Resentful. Injured.
As a result, I’m working to reassert reason and reestablish an internal locus of control. It feels as if I'm swimming to an island that I can see far off in the distance. The waves are against me. But I've made this swim before. Many times, in fact. Because of this, I know the safety that awaits me there. I know the promise of relief as I reach the beach, collapse, and recover.
Swimming back to reason is hard. But knowing that I’m swimming in the first place is probably more than half the battle. And the more times I swim back, the less likely I will drift in the future. All I can control is that I promise myself to just keep swimming.