On September 9, 1965 James Stockdale’s A-4E Skyhawk was flying at 500 knots above North Vietnam when it was stuck by anti-aircraft fire. After being hit, the plane’s engine caught fire and its manual control was lost, forcing Stockdale to eject. Descending into enemy territory and a terrifying future he made what he would later refer to as his last statement of freedom, pronouncing to himself “Five years down there, at least. I am leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
The estimate proved prescient with Stockdale’s captivity lasting a grueling seven and a half years during which he was subjected to multiple forms of psychological and physical abuse, including four years in dark and solitary confinement. Stockdale, a Medal of Honor recipient, credited his deployment of Epictetus’ teachings for his ability to not only survive but to become the de facto inspirational leader for his fellow prisoners. Stockdale’s Naval Academy biography credits him for organizing a system of communication and developing a cohesive set of rules governing prisoner behavior that gave prisoners a sense of hope and empowerment.
Epictetus is one of the four great Stoic philosopher’s and he is credited for teaching the concept of controlling the controllables based on is famous quote: “Some things are up to us and some are not”. This simple concept proved vital to Stockdale during his time at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” and can serve as a useful psychological strategy to manage our everyday lives.
Epictetus taught that people should focus their efforts on controlling and influencing things that are up to them. Our goals, thoughts, responses, values, and character all fall into this category. By contrast when people attempt to control the uncontrollable it leads to greater levels of fear and anxiety.
It is here where this Stoic principle meets Eastern philosophy. In his 1998 book, The Art of Happiness, the Dali Lama offered a cure for anxiety. He suggests actively combatting chronic rumination and worry by reminding oneself, “If there is a solution to the problem, there is no need to worry. If there is no solution, there is no sense in worrying either.”
Research published in the Journal of Counseling & Development also supports this strategy. Systematic Realization, the strategy’s clinical name, significantly reduces subjects’ perceptions of stress when compared to a control group. One crucial addition to Systematic Realization is the emphasis it places on prioritization. By listing not just what is in one’s control and what is not, but also thinking about what is most important and what is not, provides a usable mental model for everyday life. The study was conducted by a researcher at the University of Virginia, but one of the best examples of long term use of the strategy comes from the University of Michigan.
In 1997 a back-up quarterback at the University of Michigan entered the office of an assistant athletic director and mentioned that he may transfer. The young man had lost 25 pounds due to acute appendicitis and found himself littered among seven quarterbacks on the depth chart. Adding to the strain was the coaching staff’s infatuation with Drew Henson the highly recruited prep star.
A 2011 article from ThePostGame.com quotes the assistant athletic director, Greg Harden, of
describing the wayward quarterback’s mental status in the following manner, “He was feeling like a victim and he hated it. If he wasn’t depressed, he was close.” Harden echoed Epictetus in saying that everyone can rationalize being stuck, but that it’s your response that matters and that only you can choose your response.
Harden helped the young man recognize controllable factors that would lead to success. The player shifted his training to emphasize internally controllable goals like learning the playbook and improving his ability to throw. By setting internalized goals similar to SMART goals, a person is able to reduce fear and anxiety often associated with the pursuit of meaningful goals, while in the process improving their chances of obtaining the larger goal.
The young quarterback stayed at Michigan and finally earned the starting position after withstanding the challenge of Henson. After his collegiate career ended he was not considered a top prospect for the National Football League and was drafted in the sixth round, but armed with the skill of controlling the controllable he persevered and last month, Tom Brady won his fourth Super Bowl title.
The Enchiridion, the title of one of Epictetus’ best known works, translates to “ready at hand”. Having this common sense strategy ready at hand to employ will help reduce the friction associated with fear and anxiety and allow you to focus your energy on the controllable aspects of the circumstance.
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