The Dichotomy of Control

The Dichotomy of Control

 There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.


Attorneys are control freaks. We think that by controlling every infinitesimal detail, we can achieve the exact outcome desired by our clients. Stoics were smart enough to understand, however, that we actually control very little.

Epictetus reminds us that “within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and . . . whatever affairs are our own.” But we don’t control our body, property, reputation, office, and . . . whatever are not properly our own affairs.” In summary, we can exercise a modicum of control over a part of ourselves, but not really anything else. This is a powerful realization, and if you take nothing else from my work here, please understand how freeing this concept is for you.

If you cannot control something, why waste any of your precious resources on it? Our time is limited. Our attention span is limited. Our patience is limited. A firm grasp of the dichotomy of control will give you the tools necessary to optimize your efforts in a way that protects your time, attention span, and patience.

Associates, imagine the freedom that comes from realizing that you have no real control over your evaluations. The evaluations are based on someone else’s perception of you; that’s not in your control. Partners, imagine the freedom that comes from realizing that you have no real control over the financial health of your firm. The financial health is based on factors such as the health of the overall economy, the debt tolerance of the members of your managing partners, the financial cycle of the industry you serve, and a myriad other factors; none of these are in your control.

You control only your actions. You only have to expend your time, attention, and patience to do the best work you can do. Serve your clients to the best of your ability and be a good partner to the people you have promised to treat equitably, and you have done all you can do to fulfill your role in the cosmopolis. You control nothing else.

I’ll close by challenging you to begin to think in terms of the dichotomy of control. Pay attention to when you are worried about anything. Ask yourself if the thing you are worried about is truly within your control. If it is not, let it go.