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Mental Model: Dichotomy of Control

Published or Updated On: 
January 9, 2023

💣 The Night I Found Out

It was 11pm at night and I was climbing into bed. I’d been reading a news article on my phone and made the (terrible) decision to quickly check my email. Sitting in my inbox was a message from an attorney that I didn’t recognize. I opened it and learned he was offering to represent me in a legal situation that the company I cofounded was now involved in. We had no legal troubles, or even any signs of legal troubles. I figured it was some kind of scam and closed out of it. But while I was standing there holding the phone, I got a second email from another attorney with the same offer. A feeling of alarm set in, and I started to look into it further. 

While I can’t say exactly what happened, let me put it this way: it became very clear, very quickly, that the legal situation was real and that the entire company was at risk. By the time I finally passed out at 5am that morning, an ice cold fear had gripped my soul. 

At the time, our company had been around for a while but we were only just starting to experience success. After working for years, we’d finally found our footing. The journey had been too hard fought to put into words. But that night, in just a few hours, I’d learned that everything we had built was at risk of being destroyed. The scope of the legal situation was that big. Even worse, it was based on a technicality, a loophole of sorts (that has since been closed). If I explained it to you, I’m confident you would say we weren’t doing anything shady and no one was wronged. That wasn’t the kind of business we were running. In fact, we’d made a point of prioritizing ethics. We emphasized work/life balance for our staff, took pains to audit our suppliers for good working conditions and had a strong emphasis on sustainability in our supply chain. All of that seemed to add insult to injury.

The following days were a chock full of anxiety as we came to grips with the situation. Every other project became sidelined. I was leading the charge from our side, and it was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. I stopped sleeping through the night. I had a hard time eating. It was difficult to think about anything else. The whole world seemed sapped of excitement and hope, as though I had put on happiness-dimming glasses that I couldn’t take off. Throughout that time, a thought was constantly floating through my head:

“Whether or not the company survives this is up to me.”

I decided I wanted to do something about how I felt. I was loosely familiar with the philosophy of Stoicism and thought there could be something there for me. I’d received a book as a gift from my brother & cofounder John a while ago, Moral Letters to Lucillius by Seneca, and I cracked it open. Over the coming weeks, I inhaled the Stoic philosophy in one giant, prolonged breath. I read multiple books, essays and articles. I created notes & sheets organizing concepts, and started to apply what I had learned to my situation. I expanded this research effort beyond Stoicism to include cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, meditation, and other practically useful areas of study.

It turned out that being in one of the most stressful experiences of my life provided the perfect proving ground on which to test various mental models for wellbeing to see how effective they were. Let me tell you - the relief was palpable. In that time, I learned tools I still use regularly to deal more effectively with tough situations. And in this post, I’d like to tell you about one of the most powerful ones.

🔍 Mental Model: Dichotomy of Control

The dichotomy of control is a mental model which states that everything can be classified into 1 of 2 categories: things that are under your control, and things that are not under your control. The idea is to identify what stuff is under your control & what isn’t, then to avoid hinging your happiness on stuff that isn’t under your control.

The basics of this mental model are captured by the metaphor of the Stoic Archer. The archer should do everything she can to aim well (practice, calibrate her bow, keep good arrows). However, after she releases the string, she should not concern herself with where the arrow hits, because a chance shift in the wind could blow the arrow off its mark. Therefore, she is wise to rest her happiness & self-esteem not on the outcome of where the arrow hits (which isn’t under her control), but instead on her assessment of if she did her best (under her control).

⚖️ Applying it to My Legal Situation

Here’s how I used this mental model in my legal situation. 

  • My default thought was: “Whether or not the company survives this is up to me.” 
  • My updated thought was: "Whether or not our company survives this is not under my control. But like the archer, I’ll do my best to ‘aim well’ by preparing an outstanding defense. I’ll try to be satisfied (or not) based on the quality of my efforts, rather than what happens after I ‘release the string’.” 

It can be helpful to take this a step further by intentionally trying to decrease how much you care about the outcome.

  • “Though it is hard, I am purposely trying to care less about whether or not the company survives, since this is not within my control.”

This may seem an alarming statement to write, but I’m going to take that “energy balance” of caring and apply it to what I can control, which is creating the best defense I can.

This approach is actually the best way to get the final outcome you want. I wouldn’t win the legal battle by burning calories on feeling concerned about the outcome, I would win it by burning calories on action. It’s a win/win - best for your mental health, and best for getting what you want. If you have questions or doubts, see the FAQ at the bottom of this page.

🧰 More Applications 

Here are some places this mental model works well:

Unfortunate events

Sometimes even just a partial application of decreasing the amount you care will help you feel better.

  • Your flight is cancelled and you’re stranded at an airport

“These flights are not under my control, so I am making a point to reduce the amount I care about how things play out here.”

  • Bad weather ruining your vacation

“The weather is not under my control, so I am not going to let it dictate how much I enjoy this vacation. What is under my control is how I choose to spend this time off.”

  • Economic recession resulting in losses or layoffs

“I can’t control the economy, so I am going to detach a bit from what ultimately happens. At the same time, I am going to focus on doing what’s right for me in these new circumstances.”

  • Serious health problems

“My son needs to have a CAT scan because he’s sick and may have a brain tumor. Whether or not he has a tumor is out of my control, and while I could never be indifferent about it, I benefit from recognizing that what happens next isn’t up to me & all this worry doesn’t help anyone.”

That last one is a true story from my mom. When I mentioned to her I was writing this article, she told me all about it. Apparently I was the kid, but too young to remember!

Other people’s behavior

  • Your spouse, child, colleagues, (I’ve used it at work for suppliers, influencers etc)

“I keep telling my husband to do his chores, but he isn’t really making an effort. His behavior is not under my control, so I’m going to care a bit less about if he actually does then, and instead focus that energy new ways to reach him.” 

*See #3 in the FAQ if you feel like you have beef with this.

When pursuing lofty goals

  • Trying to create a popular blog 🥸

“I can’t control whether or not big influencers tweet about my writing, but I can control how well I write, so I’ll concern myself mostly with that.”

🧑‍🔬 Your turn

The best way to find out if it this mental model works for you is to try it. I suggest testing it during a difficult time, particularly one where you are stressed, worried or frustrated. If things are pretty breezy right now, bookmark this page and make a note to come back to it when shit hits the fan.

➡️ Download the worksheet here.

Then select File —> Make a copy & use it whenever you need it.

I use this worksheet often! The more you do this, the easier it is to recognize when something isn’t under your control & let go. After doing it for years, I can tell you that things “get to me” less, and at the same time, I am more action oriented. I plan to keep using it!


  1. Isn’t it to my advantage to care as much as humanly possible?

I get why you’d ask this, I asked it too. I suggest you keep an open mind as you consider this response. I think the answer to this question is no, not if your goal is to be happy. Creating some detachment is a form of moderation. It is moderation from having your happiness totally wrapped up in something which is, at the end of the day, subject to the whims of chance. Furthermore, you can feel confident that this perspective will not sabotage you with a simple logic test. What is the most direct way to get what you want: expending energy worrying about the outcome, or expending energy actually doing something about it?

  1. But isn’t the outcome kind of under your control? Maybe not totally under your control, but you have some say.

You can influence what happens with your actions, but it is not under your control. A trap that people fall into is conflating influence with control. This is the source of a great deal of suffering. In this mental model, you draw a hard line in the sand (a dichotomy: under, or not under your control).

  1. I don’t need to change my perspective, other people just need to do what they’re supposed to do

I showed this article to my wife to get some feedback and her response was “I don’t want to care less, I just want my husband to do his damn chores.” (🫣)

I’m glad she mentioned this because it points to an important tension. When other people behave wrongly and it upsets us, we think the most direct route to happiness is for them to change their behavior. But again, we don’t control other people’s behavior, so this is a risky proposition. Do you want to bet your happiness on other people’s choices?

Keep in mind that the whole purpose of this mental model is to make you happier (without making you less effective at getting what you want). If you have the same beef as my wife, a useful question to ask yourself is “Do I want to be happy, or do I want to be right?” It is true that the other person should change their behavior, that’s right. But you don’t control that. So why not choose to be happy, by caring a bit less about if they do their chores, and instead focusing on new ways to talk to them about it?

  1. Why do I feel so conflicted about saying I don’t have control?

I was surprised at how hard it was for me to acknowledge that I don’t really control how things play out. Here is my theory on why. There’s a concept in psychology called the locus of control. It refers to the degree to which you believe that you are in control of your future & the outcome of events. A person with an internal locus of control strongly believes that they are responsible (e.g. “I got an A because I studied hard.”). A person with an external locus of control thinks that their circumstances, luck, or other external factors are more responsible (e.g. “I got a C because I was unlucky”). The problem is that luck, chance, and circumstance play a huge role in your success or failure (just ask Nassim Taleb) and people with a strong internal locus of control tend to forget this.

The stronger your internal locus of control, the harder it is to acknowledge the role of chance. Having a strong internal locus of control is great for getting stuff done, but also predisposes you to unhelpful worry & frustration. The dichotomy of control helps you overcome the drawbacks of this neural predisposition to see reality as it really is. 


More articles coming on mental models for wellbeing!

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