High Agency Stoicism:
Stoicism for High Achievers

Does the following sound familiar?

  • You worry a lot
  • You try to make the world fit you
  • You try to influence things you cannot

That’s how I am was.

Because, when I discovered stoicism, it changed my life.

Stoicism made me realize a lot of things.

Material possessions don’t matter.

Death is not something to be denied but meditated upon.

But the main thing I’ve learned is…

… that I should make a clear distinction between the things I can control – and the things I cannot control.

The things I can control are my thoughts and actions. Those should be my only focus.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

This has been a very freeing heuristic.

However, I also have a BIG problem with this (and a solution).

Let’s go to a job interview…

What is stoicism?

Not sure what stoicism is? Here are my top-3 resources.

1: Derren Brown’s book “Happy”.

2: William B. Irvine’s book “A Guide to The Good Life”.

3: Tim Ferriss’ guide to Stoicism.

You’re called in for a job interview

Let’s say you’re called in for an interview about a job.

Leading up to the day of the interview, you slowly feel your anxiety rising.

You don’t wanna blow this one!

To get some much-needed advice and calm, you call your friend, Buddy.

Introducing Buddy. Buddy has been a great friend to you for years, and he’s always able to put things in their proper perspective. Buddy has read all about stoicism and thinks it’s changed his life.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

You: Hey Buddy! I have this job interview coming up in a few days, and I’m starting to get REALLY nervous.

Buddy: I understand. But the job interview is in the future. That means you don’t have a problem right now. The nervousness you’re feeling is because you’re not present. Try shifting your perspective from the future to the present.

You: Aaaah, you’re right. I already feel a ton of weight lifted off my shoulders. But the job interview is going to take place very soon. What should I do? I really want them to hire me!

Buddy: Whether they decide to hire you or not, is not within your control. That’s their decision. Instead, you need to focus on what you can control.

You: And what’s that?

Buddy: That could be things like making sure you’re well dressed, that you’ve practiced answers for tough questions, and that you’ve read about their company. Prepare as much as possible. But focus only on the things you can control.

You: And what’s that exactly?

Buddy: Your thoughts and actions.

You: Wow, that’s great advice! I’ll get right to it! Thanks, Buddy.

As always, Buddy provides you with much-needed clarity and calm.

As always, Buddy provides you with much-needed clarity and calm.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

So, leading up to the interview, you start preparing.

You get a haircut, rehearse your answers, read about the company, etc.

And the day has finally arrived, the job interview is today…

The interview takes place

The job interview takes place.

After the interview, you think it went well.

The job sounds even better than you had expected…

… now you REALLY want the job!

You anxiously wait to hear back from them. They said they’d return to you within a few days.

So, you start thinking about the interview over and over.

“Why did I say that?!?! I should have said this instead!”

Your anxiety levels start rising and you start doubting whether you’ll get the job or not.

So, you call Buddy once again!

“The meeting is in the past”

You tell Buddy about how you want this job.

But you might not get it, because you think you messed up a few answers and had something between your teeth.

Buddy: I understand you’re worried. But the meeting has taken place, it’s now in the past. What happens from here is not up to you, but to them. It’s not within your control.

You feel an instant relief…

“Aaah, thank you, Buddy! I’ll see how things play out from here, and not get bogged down by my anxiety.”

You can’t control the past. Sure?

While Buddy is great at providing relief and clarity, is what he’s saying actually true?

Sure, the best way to make sure that the job interview goes well, is to focus on what you can control (your thoughts and actions).

Of course, you should prepare, rehearse, look good, etc.

But what about the “fact” that you can’t control the past?

Does that hold up?

I’m not so sure…

Because there’s something you can do after the interview to influence their decision!

You can call him and ask if he has any follow-up questions☎️

You can pay him a visit🤝

You can write him an email📧

Heck, you can even try and schedule another interview.

All these actions, that are all in your control, influence your chance of getting the job.

It’s not just “in the past” and therefore untouchable.

You CAN impact other people’s thoughts and actions

Stoicism reminds us to only focus on what we can control: our thoughts and actions.

Other people’s thoughts and actions shouldn’t be of our concern, as we can’t control them anyway.

But herein lies a paradox.

If you need to remind yourself to not be influenced by other people’s thoughts and actions, clearly these do affect you.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

So, are my thoughts and actions 100% within my control?

No, that would be naive.

Can I then control other people’s thoughts and actions?

The answer is “Yes!” – to some extent.

And this is the beginning of my problem with stoicism.

Back to Buddy!

He advised you to not concern yourself with other people’s thoughts and actions.

Say you believed in Buddy. Would you even have considered the fact, that you could still do something after the interview was over?

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

That you still had a chance to impact the interview?

If you confronted Buddy with this, I’m quite sure he’d have a great answer for you.

Because he already knows that this is an issue.

That’s why he often quotes the Serenity prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.”

To me, this sounds great, but it’s highly impractical.

“Eh, so I guess, I should be aware that I may mistake what’s in my control – and what’s not?! Gee, thank you!”

But if it’s so impractical, why does Buddy say it?

Because of his incentives!

Let’s use Pascal’s Wager to uncover Buddy’s incentives…

Let’s apply Pascal’s Wager to Stoicism

As a Stoic, like Buddy, you have all the incentives to label something as “not in my control”.

This solves most of your problems almost immediately, and you’ll always be right.

To illustrate this point, let’s use Pascal’s Wager!

Originally, Pascal’s Wager gets applied to whether we should believe in God or not.

God exists God does not exist
You believe in God Eternal happiness Nothing happens
You don’t believe in God Eternal damnation Nothing happens

According to this simple matrix, we might as well believe in God.

Interesting!

Let’s apply Pascal’s Wager to the Stoic advice of focusing on what’s in your control.

Controllable Uncontrollable
You believe it’s uncontrollable You won’t know, because you never tried controlling it. You’re right.
You believe it’s controllable You’re right. Your effort is futile.

Now, depending on who you are, you’re going to look at this table in one of two ways.

1: “Hey, you proved the Stoics were right. If I err to the side of things not being in my control, I can only be right – and I won’t even know if I’m wrong. So, I can only win!”

or

2: “I don’t mind wasting effort sometimes. At least, I’ll get maximum impact whenever a situation is controllable. So, I’ll act like everything is in my control.”

And if you, like me, want to get maximum impact, I’ve come up with a slight tweak to Stoicism.

The solution: High Agency Stoicism

Stoicism advises us to focus on our own thoughts and actions.

Others’ thoughts and actions should be ignored as we can’t control them.

As you saw earlier, this isn’t great advice if you want maximum impact.

To combat this, and make Stoicism even better, High Agency Stoicism (HAS) uses the following tweak.

Act like every action and thought is within your control – accept that it’s not.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

The important word here is “act”.

If you act like every thought and action is within your control, you’re going to exert maximum effort.
 
This effort maximizes your impact on whatever it is you want.
 
Sure, your effort will sometimes be futile. But you’re going to seize opportunities that the “regular stoic” would never have thought of.
 
That means a whole new world of possibilities opens.

How effort works

Let’s look at effort for a moment.

To influence things that are controllable with your thoughts and actions, you need to make effort.

Some things need a little bit of effort – some need a lot.

Let’s say you want to start a company.

For it to succeed, you need to give it all your effort, let’s call it a 10/10. Only then, it will succeed.

Things will not work out if you give it an 8/10 – or even 9/10.

You need a 10/10 effort.

When does a “regular stoic” reach the conclusion “I tried my best, but it’s not working out. There’s nothing more I can do.”?

As we saw from applying Pascal’s Wager, a Stoic reaches the above conclusion sooner than later.

Buddy might as well turn to “that’s outside my control”.

Buddy has everything to gain by labeling something as uncontrollable.

Either he’s right – or he will not know he’s wrong. So he’s going to feel right no matter what.

Ignorance is indeed bliss.

Stoic framing

Stoicism frames a complex world into “in my control, not within my control”.

That thought is appealing. To some extent, it’s also correct.

But you’re going to default to “outside my control” sooner than needed as you have incentives to do so.

Buddy accepts that it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s in his control – and what’s not.

Buddy’s solution is to quote the Serenity prayer. Then he leaves it there and returns to his tranquility…

… and that’s where High Agency Stoicism starts.

High Agency Stoicism (HAS) instead accepts that we don’t know what’s in our control, and what’s not, and deals with it.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

With HAS, you know you cannot control the uncontrollable. So, you might as well act like everything is within your control.

Stoic Elon vs High Agency Elon

Elon Musk looked to Nasa to get us to Mars, only to discover they had no such plans.

“Stoic Elon” could’ve said, “well, that’s too bad. But I can’t control what Nasa spends their resources on, so I’ll abandon this dream as there’s no way I can control this”.

“High Agency Elon” instead thought, “Okay, so Nasa’s not going to Mars? That’s insane. Now, I’ll set out to get to Mars. I need to assemble a team and get them working towards this mission.”.

Yes, in principle, a stoic could’ve done what Elon did.

But would he?

Wouldn’t it be much smarter to abandon the idea and place it in the “outside my control” area?

My guess is, he would.

This is a HUGE issue for stoicism, and something most stoic-thinkers ignore.

Dealing with things outside your control as a High Agency Stoic

“But Mikkel, some things ARE out of your control!”

That’s 100% true.

Can you impact whether the sun rises tomorrow? No, you cannot.

So, the “only” thing you need to accept is, that there are some things you cannot control – and be fine with that.

Until reality proves to you that something is NOT in your control, you’re going to act like it is.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

That’s the only way, you can get maximum impact.

By acting like everything is in your control, reality will kick in and tell you when it’s not.

In contrast, if you make the distinction before facing reality, you miss out on valuable opportunities.

You might lose some peace of mind.

But isn’t it OK to trade that for impact? I think so.

  • You need to be able to quit your effort, at SOME point.
  • You need to seize control, at SOME point.
  • You need to let go of others’ thoughts, at SOME point.

If you can do that, and still act like everything is within your control, you have the best of both worlds.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

You’re going to come much closer to that POINT by acting like everything is within your control.

You get maximum impact on thoughts and actions – but still have peace of mind.

Let’s look at 3 different scenarios, and see how a “regular stoic” compares to a High Agency Stoic.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

Scenario 1: “I want to be an entrepreneur”

Scenario 2: “I want to win this game”

Scenario 3: “I want that other person to like me”

My core issue with Stoicism

As I mentioned in the beginning, learning about stoicism has been a real gamechanger for me.

It provides a framework for thoughts, that has been in the work for thousands of years.

But as with any other ism, it has its shortcomings.

My main concern with stoicism is that you limit yourself too soon.

Stoicism provides you with incentives to label something as “outside my control” sooner than later.

This approach probably leads to a more tranquil life (as we saw by applying Pascal’s Wager).

So, if you’re optimizing for peace of mind, “regular” stoicism is the way to go.

The problem is you’re going to label a lot of controllable things as uncontrollable.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

As a regular stoic, you’re going to be wrong A LOT (but you won’t know).

The moment you decide something’s outside your control, you shut down the problem-solving part of your brain.

If you’re optimizing for impact, High Agency Stoicism is the better solution. It provides you with a small tweak, that maximizes your impact.

To repeat:

Act like everything is in your control, accept that it is not.

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com

To me, it’s much more preferable to act like everything is within my control – while knowing that it’s not.

Only by acting like everything is in my control, will I apply maximum effort. This results in the largest amount of impact possible.

I’ll also listen carefully to reality when it tells me that my effort is futile.

When reality kicks in, I’ll accept the situation and apply my effort elsewhere. Sometimes, that’ll be later than sooner, and I’ll waste some effort.

But that’s okay. Because then I know I’ve crossed the domain from “controllable” to “uncontrollable” and it’s time to refocus.

What did I miss?

Where do my thoughts not hold up?

Where have I misunderstood something?

Please write to me with all your comments, thoughts, and concerns!

I’d love to hear from you 🙂

Mikkel Sciegienny, creator of MorningQuestions.com