January 22, 2021

On Control

I think a lot about inputs, outputs, and outcomes. For the purposes of this writing let’s define inputs as the actions we take, outputs as the end product created, and outcomes as the effect those outputs have in the world. Specifically I spend time thinking about what level of control we can hope to gain over each of those things and ways that we can be fooled into believing we have more control than we really do.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus sums up what is and isn’t up to us nicely:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.


From our initial list only our inputs are up to us. But society primarily measures us by our outputs or our outcomes, which aren’t up to us. Our inputs clearly influence the outputs and outcomes, but that layer of indirection takes away our control. This unclose-able gap is where, despite our best effort and intention, failure can still occur. In “A Guide to the Good Life” author William B. Irvine uses the analogy of a tennis match to describe the phenomenon. You’re in control of if you practice and how often. You’re also in control of wanting to play the match as well as you can. Playing as well as you can gives you your best chance at winning, but you aren’t in control of winning.

Remembering that gap in the moment where we’re deciding what inputs are appropriate is a key to helping maximize our chances of success. Just being aware of the infinite number of things that could happen between inputs, outputs, and outcomes can remind us to choose more resilient and robust solutions, increasing our chances of success. When we don’t find success, retrospectives can help us look back and identify things that we missed, hopefully improving our pattern recognition when we find ourselves in similar situations.

© Eric Biven 2021