Discipline of Desire (Will)

What can you control?

People frequently worry about things that they cannot control. This is often the biggest sources of anxiety and unhappiness for most people.

In order to lessen this anxiety, you need to start dividing things into 3 categories: things you can control, things you can partially control, and things you cannot control.

Whenever you are faced with a problem, ask yourself this question: What can I control?

Based on the answer to this question, you can apply a simple formula.

1) For things you can control: change them up.

2) For things you can partially control: define which parts you can control, work on them, and forget about the rest.

3) For things you cannot control: forget about them.

You are stuck in traffic, there is an accident, and it is raining. You are late for work.

Which things can you control here?

You did everything as you usually do. You got up, did your morning routine and then took the car at the same time as you always do. You are usually at work on time.

This means that the fact that you are late is beyond your control. You cannot control the fact that there was an accident or it is raining. So don’t worry about it.

The only thing that you can change up for the future is maybe to consider taking public transportation.

Another exercise that you can do is to come up with the worst case scenario and prepare yourself for it. This is what the Stoics used to do. They would often imagine really drastic situations (like death) and start mentally preparing themselves for it.

You don’t even need to be that extreme. These types of extreme situations are very unlikely to happen. You can instead just prepare yourself for the realistic worst case scenario.

You are late for work? What is the worst case scenario that could happen here? You could get fired.

Is that realistic? No, not very. The most likely worst case scenario is that the boss will just look at you funny.

For any type of situation, ask yourself these two questions: What is the worst thing that could happen here? Is this scenario realistic?

Examining a situation from this perspective can have a really calming effect, so do this whenever you feel anxious or stressed. You will realize that often you have these feelings for no reason.

Focus internally.

One aspect of focusing on things that you can control is that while you can’t control what others think or do, you can to a large extent control what you yourself think and do.

That’s the reason why the Stoics focused internally. You should be your own judge of the value of what you do and create. Don’t let others be the ones who determine that.

That is why having intrinsic motivation is key if you want to achieve goals and have a happy life. You need to be internally driven, if you want to have complete control over your actions and reactions.

That is usually not the case. Many people are driven by external things like fame, money or other externalities. The problem is that these things are outside your control to a large extent (besides the fact that seeking fame as the goal of your existence is pretty vain), and that’s why focusing on them can cause a lot of unhappiness.

So how do you make intrinsic motivation a part of your system?

The first thing that you should do is to convince yourself how silly and vain some of these external pursuits are. Marcus Aurelius would often try to look at the big picture. Once you take things from a wider perspective, you will see how insignificant these things really are.

This type of an internal focus is at the basis of the discipline of desire. Realistically, you can only affect a limited amount of things, so your desire should be limited to these things. You need to want things that you can realistically get.

Live according to nature.

So if you shouldn’t focus on things like fame or money as your end goal, what should you focus on if you want to be happy? Marcus Aurelius had a simple answer: live according to nature.

If you look at it, in order to achieve the basic goals of existence, survival and reproduction, you require very few things. You need access to food, shelter, sex, and some other basic things. Except for sex, in this day and age, these things are pretty easy to get in the developed world.

You usually have these taken care of already. What else should you do in order to live according to nature?

Most people in today’s world spend their time locked up in the office, typing away at the keyboard or in endless, pointless meetings. Is this living according to nature? Yeah right!

Humans are meant to be fighters, explorers, and adventurers. By nature, they are curious creatures, and they want to prove themselves. Internally, they yearn to do things that satisfy these internal drives.

How can you do that? I have implemented a simple solution in my life. I go travel, learn to fight or climb mountains. In this way, I at least partially satisfy my internal natural drives that are bottled up by my daily sedentary, desk jockey existence.

These types of things are extremely rewarding and can do wonders for your self-esteem and internal drive. Engaging in such activities can really boost your powers of intrinsic motivation.

In many of these activities you are battling yourself and when you end up vanquishing this mighty opponent, you emerge stronger mentally.

The Stoics had an exercise where they would actually go live their worst case scenarios for a few days in order to know how it is and to toughen themselves up. For example, they might live a few days as a poor person wearing raggedy clothes and eating shitty food.

You can always do that, but I think that things like hiking in the mountains or fight training are much better ways to test your perseverance and to prepare yourself for the harsh realities of life.

Hiking in the mountains is tough. The higher you go, the harder it gets. Often, you have to carry the things that you will eat and sleep in. You are basically living a “tough” life for a few days.

This activity also helps you to practice another Stoic mantra, living in the moment. When I am climbing mountains like Mt. Blanc, when I am exhausted, the only thing I am thinking about is the current moment, and just putting one foot in front of the other.

The goal of reaching the top is far away, but by concentrating on doing one action after another, you will slowly get there.

What about your dealings with other people?

One common thing that people worry about are the reactions or actions of other people. Marcus Aurelius had a simple solution: don’t worry about them. You can’t control what others think of you, so it shouldn’t bother you.

People will always be mean, malicious or petty. This is something you cannot change. That is just basic human nature.

You need to accept it.

OK, now that you have adopted this type of mindset and come to accept that changing basic human nature is beyond your control, how should you act towards others? You will still need to interact with them and function in a society.

One thing that Marcus outlines that you should do is to examine people’s principles. Based on these principles, you can find out whether they pose a danger to you or not.

What is a principle?

To quote Stephen Covey, the author of the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”:

“A principle is a natural law like gravity. If you drop something, gravity controls. If I don’t tell you the truth, you won’t trust me; that’s a natural law.”

Ask yourself: Is that person honest, trustworthy, dependable? If your answer is NO, then stay clear. You can never affect what another person does, but you can minimize your chances of getting damaged or cheated, if you minimize your exposure to bad people.

How can you tell a person’s principle? It might be hard at first, but you need to learn from experience. As the saying goes: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Another thing that you need to assess is the circumstances in which the other person’s actions took place. One common cognitive bias that people fall for is that they excuse their own bad actions by circumstances, while they blame the bad actions of others on their character. That is not always true.

Circumstances can sometimes have a big impact on how a person acts. A person might have steadfast principles in most cases, but a particular circumstance can change that. A dog that is usually happy and nice can start biting when he is cornered into a corner. Same thing happens with people.

When dealing with people you need to keep these three things in mind: human nature, the principles of the person, and circumstances. Having this perspective will help you in your daily interactions with other people.

Knowing what you can control and what you cannot is the key to adopting a positive attitude and to overcoming difficulties in your life. By focusing internally you can really take control of your life and realize that you can in fact overcome many types of problems.

You need to want the things that you can influence and forget about the rest. If you want things that you can get, then you are not burdened by things that do not depend on you. You will finally have a peace of mind.

The only things that you can really control in this world are your thoughts and your actions. Your virtue and drive for excellence are your roads to happiness.

The Framework for applying the Discipline of Desire

The basic framework for applying the Discipline of Desire consists of four elements:

1) Keeping in mind what you can control and what you cannot:

Whenever you are faced with a problem, ask yourself this simple question: What can I control?

Based on the answer to this question, you can apply a simple formula.

1) For things you can control: change them up.

2) For things you can partially control: define which parts you can control, work on them, and forget about the rest.

3) For things you cannot control: forget about them.

2) Imagining worst-case scenarios and preparing yourself for them:

One exercise that you can incorporate is imagining the worst-case scenario. This you can do in two ways: periodically practicing worst-case scenarios and mentally preparing yourself for them, and in tough situations coming up with a realistic worst-case scenario and seeing that it is in fact not that bad.

3) Focusing internally:
Motivate yourself internally, instead of looking for external things like money or fame.

4) Living according to nature:
Start living a more adventurous life by going hiking, climbing mountains, training martial arts, and other similar activities.

Go on to read the next part: The Discipline of Action.

All the articles in this mini-series:
The Introduction
The Discipline of Desire
The Discipline of Action
The Discipline of Assent

Read More:
Read the article linked below first. This will be one of the most powerful reads ever, as I take lessons from the quotes of Marcus Aurelius directly. Lessons and quotes from the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius:
Marcus Aurelius: How to gather the strength to survive in adversity.

Marcus Aurelius: How To Have Character.