Knowing Is Half the Battle

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters to that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”


The study of Stoicism is often neatly summarized as ‘focusing on what you can control’. But before you do that, and before you let go of things you can’t control, you have to be able to understand which is which. You need to develop the skill of discernment, so you can ensure you’re spending your time and energy on things that deserve it, rather than banging your head against a brick wall of things that aren’t under your control.

In today’s entry in The Daily Stoic book, the author makes reference to a famous poem that you’ve probably seen pinned to someone’s fridge door somewhere (maybe even your own):

God, grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And Wisdom to know the difference.

The Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

In a way, it’s the last line of the poem that you need first, before the other parts. Before you can implement the serenity of acceptance or the courage to change, you need the wisdom to tell the difference between the two. You have to know what is actually within your control and what’s not. Knowing is half the battle, after all, on the journey to learning how to live.

Once you have that clarity, then you can stop wasting time on battles that can’t be won — and stop pretending that you can alter the past or the future, and start focusing on the present instead. Knowing what is actually within your control takes you halfway to winning the day, for then you can unlock your most powerful ability.

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