I have recently read Irvine's book about stoic philosophy and I am interested about his take on the trichotomy of control.

He states that you have 3 options for control:

  • Some things that you have full control over
  • Some things that you have no control over
  • Some things that you have some control over

So the stoics say that you should not worry or focus on the things you have no control over - as you have no control over them anyway.

With regards to things you have some control over, Irvine says that you should focus on inner goals or things that you have control over.

His example is with a tennis tournament, where instead of focusing to win the tournament, you focus on playing the best tennis you can.

This very much appeals to me and I do get a sense of tranquility from having to worry about how other people would think or react to what I do.

However, with regards to the business world, there are a lot of metrics about other people's requests/complaints and general performance indication of what you should do and where you should go.

This seems to not work in line with inner goals as it is very centred on the feedback from the outside world.

Can this sort of stoic goal setting and areas of focus be "successfully" applied to the business world?

  • These days I suspect you'll have difficulty pinning down what Stoic philosophy actually is since it is being remodeled to suit those who don't like the original form. Even Materialists can call themselves Stoics these days. But I see no reason why your tennis tournament strategy shouldn't work just as well in business. Everything hinges on how one chooses to measure success, Stoicism denies freewill in any common formulation, so the question may need to be adjusted to allow for this.
    – user20253
    Oct 5, 2017 at 14:48
  • In a business environment, "things you have no control over" are generally the things you insure against. You seem to be confusing 'things that are external to me' with 'things that I have NO control over.' e.g. Your premise that 'how other people react to you' is not something that you have control over is patently false, you have a number of tools at your disposal to control this.
    – JeffUK
    Oct 6, 2017 at 10:50

1 Answer 1


I think the answer to your question is yes. But your extended question means this was not the question you actually meant.

This viewpoint is somewhat more Epicurean than Stoic.Turning toward what is properly your own and not not wanting what you need not be concerned with are central principles for Epicurus. Not setting goals about things only partially under your control is a matter of restraining your desire. Epicureans suggest withdrawing from the things over which you lack control and focusing on desiring what is appropriate. If your understanding of your own nature is proper, the theory goes, you should naturally wish to control just and only those things that it is natural and possible for you to have an effect on -- we are not designed to be destroyed.

I think this can be applied to any situation. You cannot pursue success in business. That is a complex phenomenon over which you have little control. But you can choose important goals that you would like to introduce in the world, and know their value. If success does not follow, that does not matter, because other's opinions of your work is one of the things you should know better than to want to control. To the extent your sense of value is correct, and truly shared with other people however, you will be successful despite focusing away from success itself. (A good Epicurean has a lot in common with a good Taoist.)

Stoics would consider that not very reasonable, and far too trusting of reality. Even when you think you have even partial control, you do not. Every action has a component of fortune to it, and that fortune can turn the smallest crack into a complete lack of control. Trying to estimate what degree of control you have over one thing or another just leads you to become attached to those estimates, and to be left off-balance when they are incorrect.

The Stoics take more the approach of doing the proper thing even though you do not have control over any outcome, and being able to tolerate a wide range of outcomes through personal strength and faith in the propriety of your actions. Seneca, a very prominent late Stoic, was a Senator -- his goal was obviously not to avoid trying to control things. But he proposed one could persevere through the horror that was Roman politics by not allowing oneself to be hurt by failure or to become attached to one's successes. That seems quite as directly applicable to business as it was to politics, these two being very much the same games with different score-keeping. (A good Stoic has a lot in common with a good Confucian.)

  • Oh yes. Good point about Confucianism. Both this and Stoicism could be seen as an endorsement of Buddhist ethics but without the philosophical/ontological underpinning that justifies it.
    – user20253
    Oct 6, 2017 at 12:31

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