'My Stand-up Success Secret: The Dichotomy of Control' by Michael Connell

My Stand-up Success Secret: The Dichotomy of Control

by Michael Connell


Before I tell you a bit of my story, here is my new new comedy special.  As you can guess from the title, it uses and applies Stoic philosophy in a stand-up comedy context.

And now that you’ve seen that, here’s my story:

When I was getting started in stand up, I got to do some gigs with a guy called Dave who was not only a great comedian but (I realised later) was kind of a philosopher.

I’d probably only done a show or two at this point, but Dave was a seasoned veteran. In fact he was something of a legend of Australian comedy, and even though I was so new I’d heard he was something of a stand up genius.

Not wanting to miss this opportunity, when we were backstage waiting for the show to start, I asked if he had any tips. What advice could he give to a newbie like me just starting out in comedy?

“Everything’s your fault” said Dave.

I was sort of shocked and sat there stammering and wondering what I’d done wrong. Here I was, two or three gigs into my comedy career and all ready I’d somehow ruined everything. Seeing that I really didn’t get what he was trying to tell me Dave explained. “Whatever happens it’s on you. If you want to get anywhere you have to accept that it’s your fault, even when it’s not your fault.”

It’s my fault even when it’s not my fault? This was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard.

Dave tried to explain what he was saying by giving me this example; imagine you go out onstage, tell a joke and no one laughs. Whose fault is that?

Is it the audience’s fault? Were they too dumb to get what your joke was about? Were they not interested in watching the show? Well, that might be true. However if that’s the way you see things then there’s nothing you can do.

You can’t make the audience smarter so they get your material. You can’t force them to be polite and pay attention. If you decide that not getting a laugh is the audience’s fault all you can do is try and find another, smarter, audience.

If you decide the reason the joke didn’t get a laugh is your fault though, you have a lot of options.  You can write more accessible material, explain the set-up better, practice your performance so you can grab their attention, and so on.

It’s your fault, even when it’s not your fault.

This theory, said Dave, applied to everything in your comedy career. Even offstage. If you got onstage and the mic was faulty, that was because you hadn’t checked it. If you showed up to a venue and the audience was seated badly, it was your job to move them.

Even if the set-up for the night would make doing a comedy show impossible (the promoter wants you to perform to the Klan while hanging over a pit of crocodiles), a bad gig is still your fault because you failed to find out what they had planned and pull out before the gig started.

Other comedians would often joke about Dave’s habit of turning up early to gigs and adjusting lights and moving chairs. He always killed though, and was an amazing performer. According to Dave having the right mindset was what separated successful comedians from the rest.

Comedians who took responsibility for their successes, failures and everything else that happened to them learnt and improved and eventually became good acts. Performers who didn’t accept this responsibility, waited around for something to happen, blamed someone or something outside them when it didn’t, and then eventually quit.

I always thought this was great advice and tried to live by it through my comedy career.  Sometimes I’d try and tell other comedians, but they’d never really get it because I never knew how to explain this concept as well as Dave had put it to me.

“It’s always your fault” I’d say, and they’d reply that I was being ridiculous. How could I expect them to be responsible for everything? That’s not fair.

All I could say was that it worked for me.

And it really did. Even though I’ve never had any huge breaks, I’ve done quite well and managed to make a decent living for the last ten years or so. I’ve also felt happier and more in control than a lot of comedians I’ve worked with – at least they seemed a lot more angry, bitter or frustrated than I usually feel.

Mostly, I’ve put this down to Dave’s little “everything’s your fault” tip. Unlike a lot of other comedians who felt frustrated by some gatekeeper, I’ve usually managed to work around these obstacles and push ahead.  If I wasn’t getting booked at enough comedy gigs I’d organise my own shows.

When audiences didn’t laugh at a bit I’d rewrite the material until they did instead of just writing them off as dumb. When I couldn’t afford to hire a graphic designer I taught myself photoshop and made my own posters.

I found I also started using Dave’s tip in situations that had nothing to do with comedy. I remember getting into a fight with a girl and thinking “How is this my fault? What can I do to fix this?” Acting as if everything was my fault (even if it arguably wasn’t) really improved my life.

Turns out Dave wasn’t the first person to think of this. About ten years after Dave shared his little bit of wisdom with me, I read a book on philosophy called A Guide to the Good Life. This book was all about Stoicism, which is (I learnt) a form of ancient Greek and later Roman philosophy.

As I learnt about Stoicism I of course came across this quote by Epictetus:

Some things are in our control and others not.”

I was shocked. Here was Dave’s idea being espoused by an ancient Greek philosopher. What Dave had explained to me all those years ago was pretty much Epictetus’ Dichotomy of Control. Just like Epictetus, Dave had argued that you should focus on the things you could control.

When faced with a problem you should look for what aspects of the situation you control by asking yourself “how is this my fault?”. Once you figure that part out you can start making changes to overcome whatever obstacle you’re facing.

Dave might not have explained the dichotomy as eloquently as Epictetus – the word “fault” is a bit accusatory – but his simple advice helped me deal with the many obstacles that come with a comedy career.

And the more I read about Stoicism, from its’ radical sense of responsibility to its’ concept of finding success through self mastery, the more I saw parallels with Dave’s ideas. Discovering this philosophy was called Stoicism, not Dave-ism, was quite a surprise. It was a weird feeling realising I’d sort of been following a system of philosophy I’d never heard about.

I never got to find out where Dave got his philosophy from. Unfortunately, I stumbled on to Stoicism several years after Dave had passed away.

There’s a lot of places he could have got his ideas from. Key ideas from Stoicism are also shared by Buddhist, Taoist and early Christian thought, and Stoic themes popping up in TV, film, books, and media from time. It’s possible that he read it in a book or saw something on TV.

However, my guess is that Dave learnt this philosophy from the school of hard knocks. The harsh nature of the comedy industry forcing him to come up with a way to manage and focus his energy.

Intense pressure often leads people towards developing Stoic outlooks. Prisoners, mountain climbers, and soldiers often express Stoic-ish ideas. Maybe the challenges of being a comedian force you to look at the world in a somewhat Stoic way?

Wherever Dave got his idea from it certainly helped me in my career and I’m sure it influenced my general world view too (although I didn’t realise it at the time).

Fast forward 10 years later and Stoicism’s influence on my comedy continues to grow. My latest comedy special uses core Stoic concepts to poke fun at our irrational responses to life’s ups and downs.

A lot of obstacles had to be overcome to create a comedy special like this, and now I’m facing the biggest one: releasing it online for the world to see.

How will people respond?

I hope they’ll like it, but that’s beyond my control.

Neither Dave nor the Stoics claimed that philosophy will get you everything you want – fame and fortune might never come no matter what you do – and are probably not worth pursuing anyway.

However if you focus on what you can control, you have have the peace of mind that comes from being the best you can be.

That’s what I’m aiming for.

Michael Connell is a comedian, and MC, and a longstanding student of Stoic philosophy. You can watch his new stand up special, and find out all about his comedy and biography, on his website: MichaelConnell.com.au

'Stoic Philosophy and Anger' by Greg Sadler


Stoic Philosophy and Anger

by Greg Sadler


Anger has been one main subject of my philosophical research, writing, and practice for roughly a decade. Several different motives steered me in that direction, one of which, I must admit, is a particularly personal one. From childhood on, I found myself struggling with my own anger. Studying what other people had observed, argued, mulled over, and advised in dealing with this difficult emotion proved useful for me, when I could put into practice. Attaining something like a virtuous disposition with respect to anger remains, for me, a “work in progress.”

Back when I was in graduate school, studying philosophy in a pluralistic department – which meant that there was quite a bit of discussion and debate not just between people who shared a common project and perspective, but between philosophers and philosophers-in-training working and arguing from very different bases – I found another motive for examining philosophical approaches to anger.  I was surprised by how frequently anger and other rancorous emotions arose – and then were displayed, acted upon, or even (rather implausibly) denied – not only among my fellow graduate students, but even among the professors.

Knowing that I experienced problems in addressing my own emotions well, I imagined that in a field in which rationality is so highly valued, and ethical comportment and critical (including self-critical) thinking were routinely espoused as ideals, the other members of the department would be much better off than I with respect to anger. A much longer and more detailed story could be told about how I learned this, but suffice it to say, that assumption was not borne out. So, that presented me with a sort of paradox, one I wanted to explore and understand.

Another motivation for focusing a considerable portion of my attention upon anger coalesced through the process of studying what classic philosophical texts, thinkers, and even schools had to say about anger. Many of them situated that emotion in particular, and the emotions, desires, and drives more generally, within a broader philosophical framework focused upon providing a fuller understanding of human nature, particular human beings, the broader social world, and ethical concerns.

I found myself drawn in to study of these more comprehensive philosophical perspectives, in part because they often offered quite complex and sophisticated views to explore, and in part because they proved very suggestive and insightful, but often fragmentary and unsystematic. Much of my academic writing involves what I like to call jokingly “philosophical detective work”, in which I attempt to reconstruct a systematic perspective through exegesis of a body of philosophical work. Put in a different way, I try to assemble a puzzle in which only a portion of the pieces are present, and I need to fabricate some of the missing pieces based upon the materials available.

The Stoics were in certain respects latecomers to the scene of Ancient Greek philosophy, emerging as a distinct school after other main schools – whether Socratic (Plato’s Academy, the Cynics, Aristotle’s Lyceum) or non-Socratic (Pyrrho’s Skepticism, Epicurus’ Garden) – at the very least had a significant head start. But they quickly developed into a distinctive philosophical school of their own, with substantive contributions to make.  More importantly here with respect to anger in particular, they articulated what would become one of the main philosophically-focused positions on that emotion in ancient Greco-Roman culture (one which would also go on to inform late ancient and medieval Christian discussions of anger as well).

This post will be the first in a series I intend to write – making use of my prerogative as editor of Stoicism Today to contribute entries to the blog – focused specifically upon what Stoics thought and taught about the emotion of anger. As a side note, I intend to alternate these upcoming discussions about Stoics on anger with more or less monthly posts attempting to address matters that people find obscure or problematic about Stoicism (for example, what Epictetus has to say about “general conceptions” and how they don’t conflict with each other – or a recent complaint made in the Stoicism Group in Facebook that classic Stoics provide no way of addressing moral dilemmas).

It is indeed unfortunate that we possess such a small portion of the ancient Stoics’ texts. Imagine if we could read through Zeno’s work On the Emotions, or his Ethics, or perhaps even his On Duty – all lost to us, but known to have existed at one time through the listings Diogenes Laertes provides us. We might also find relevant and useful discussions in his student, Cleanthes’ On The Virtues, On The End, On Conduct, and On Friendship – who knows what we might have to work with and consider, since we possess only the titles? Imagine what interesting passages we might find within Chrysippus’ massive catalogue of works!

We do get some doctrines of key Middle Stoa representatives like Panaetius and Posidonius mediated through Cicero’s surviving writings (as well as a few other authors), but it would certainly be preferable to possess the originals. Who knows what insights about anger we might find in the full text of Hierocles’ Elements of Ethics, or in his other writings? Given how many Stoic writers and teachers there were in antiquity, one could go on and on with this line, which risks transforming into a dismal litany of loss.

On the brighter side, we do at least have a good representation of works from the Late Stoa – Seneca’s various works and letters, the Enchiridion and Discourses of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, supplemented by Musonius Rufus’ own Discourses (or Lectures) – and those do comprise substantial bodies of philosophical literature. Among those, we are fortunate enough to have one work specifically devoted to the topic of anger by Seneca. There are a number of discussions bearing on anger, either directly or by implication, contained within the other texts of the Late Stoa.

The Stoics staked out a rather uncompromising but coherent position grappling with the emotion of anger, viewing it as a passion that could never prove good, rational, or morally legitimate. In this, they set themselves at antipodes from the wider culture of antiquity, which occasionally glorified instances of anger, at other times saw it as a sign of virility or spiritedness, but also worried about its tendencies towards excessiveness.

The Stoics also ended up distancing themselves from other main philosophical schools, in particular the Aristotelians, since Aristotle himself had articulated a conception of a right mean with respect to feeling anger, the virtue of “mildness” (praotes). Epicureans developed what they took to be a middle position between the Aristotelians, who gave far too much legitimacy to a troublesome emotion and the Stoics, who declared that anger always represented or stemmed from a moral failure.

Cicero himself, who develops an eclectic position that differed from the Stoics at multiple points, did nevertheless adopt a Stoic position on anger. The Stoic position represented what many regarded – then and perhaps even now – as an extreme one , but they provided powerful and persuasive reasons for the stance that they adopted.

I should make clear at this point that my own stance, as a philosopher, is an eclectic position resembling the one Cicero works out.  While not a Stoic in an orthodox sense, I draw extensively upon Stoic thinkers on many topics where I find their doctrines and overall system useful. On this particular topic of anger, though, I do part company with both Cicero and the Stoics, and tend more towards the Aristotelian position on the emotion. Still, I view what the Stoics have to say as well worth taking into consideration – as valuable, and on some points superior to what Aristotle and his successors have to say. You might say that I see them as not merely useful, but essential, dialogue-partners as I continue to think out – and live out – a philosophical perspective on this all-too-human emotion.

In the months to come, I plan to author a series of posts here in Stoicism Today setting out and explaining some of the key contributions that Stoic philosophers have to make in understanding anger, starting out with Epictetus’s discussions of anger in his Discourses in early May.

I realize that in this post, while I’ve considerably talked up the Stoics as a particularly useful resource for understanding the anger, at this point I have yet to provide any detailed or substantive discussion of their positions on the emotion. Until the next installment in this series, for those who are particularly interested in the topic, I have several video lectures available discussing the Stoics’ positions on the emotion of anger.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the company ReasonIO. the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series, a team member of (Slow) Philosophies, and a member of the Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics.

Understanding the Stoic Response to Anger: A Talk by Greg Sadler

Understanding the Stoic Response to Anger

by Greg Sadler

Anger affects us all. Sourced here.
Anger affects us all. Sourced here.

In one manner or another, struggling with anger – my own and that of others — has been a component of my life nearly as far back as I can remember.  I first became interested in philosophical accounts about  – and resources for dealing with – anger two decades ago, in graduate school, for several reasons.   The analyses and advice provided by several classic philosophical schools seemed far more plausible, interesting, and effective for me than what therapy had provided.  There was a possibility, even a promise of valuable insight.  I was also struck by how acrimonious and bitter so many discussions among professors and fellow graduate students could quickly turn, and wanted to make sense of that as well.

The perspectives afforded by two ancient schools have been particularly illuminating for me on topics involved with understanding and managing the emotional response of anger – Aristotle’s Peripatetic school and the school of the Stoics.  On this issue, they were in fact great rivals, setting forth two powerfully and systematically articulated positions on many counts incompatible with each other.  Even a philosopher who was an eclectic in the best sense of the term, considering the contributions made by multiple schools, working them at times into a productive synthesis – Marcus Tullius Cicero – found himself having to come down definitively on one side.  He picked that of the Stoics, who consistently argued that there was no right amount or response of anger, that anything that anger might accomplish or facilitate could be done better and with less problems by rational choice.

This year, I’ve been providing monthly lectures – to be honest, more discussions than simply lectures – in a year-long series hosted by the historic Kingston Library.  Last year, the series was called Glimpses into Existence (if you’re interested, you can see the playlist of lectures here), and this year, we settled on Understanding Anger, in which we’re looking at perspectives on that emotion coming from ancient and medieval sources ranging from philosophy to epic poetry, from drama to religious texts.  We just had a session specifically on the Stoics a little over a week ago.  Here’s the video from the session:

While we did end up in quite a few interesting and on the whole worthwhile digressions, we made it through much of what I’d wanted to present:  the origin and historical development of the Stoic school; their views on emotion, rationality, and the good life; their general views on anger; and then specific teachings about the emotion from Seneca’s On Anger, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (less on this, unfortunately due to time-constraints).

As a side-note, for those who are interested in these three texts and their discussions of anger, I created several videos last year’s Stoic Week:

The Understanding Anger series continues in the coming months, where the views of Epicureans, Plutarch, and early Christian thinkers are next on the docket – and we’ll actually finish the year with Chaucer and Dante.  Doubtless there will be some additional discussion referencing the Stoics, partly because some of the other perspectives take the Stoics as their opponents, and partly because certain perspectives actually end up developing disciplines quite similar to the Stoics.  If you’re in the Hudson Valley in New York, or even in the City and inclined to take a drive, you’re quite welcome to attend and participate!

Gregory Sadler is a philosophy professor, author, speaker, and philosophical counselor.  He also directs the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and is the president and cofounder of ReasonIO, a company devoted to putting philosophy into practice.  He produces popular YouTube videos on philosophy, and his main academic channel recently passed 20,000 subscribers and 1.8 million views.

New Video: Angie Hobbs on Why We Need Greek Wisdom Today (Stoic Week London Day)

Why We Need Greek Wisdom Today

In this engaging talk, Angie Hobbs rounds off the event with a critical discussion of Stoicism, its strengths and weaknesses, with more general reflections on the value of ancient Greek wisdom to modern life.

Angie Hobbs is the professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Click here to see her website.


New Video: John Sellars on Value Judgements (Stoic Week London Day)

Value Judgements and How to Avoid Them

Today John Sellars, from the basis of Epictetus, looks at how to avoid value judgements in this great talk.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy:Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

New Video: Patrick Ussher and Gabriele Galluzzo on Cultivating a Wise Relationship with Technology (Stoic Week London Day)

Cultivating a Wise Relationship with Technology

In this enlightening talk, Patrick Ussher and Gabriele Galluzzo explain how a Stoic would use technology, rather than shunning it. If you’re reading this, you’re using the internet already – are you using it as a Stoic would?

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are Aristotle’s metaphysics and its medieval reception, but he is equally interested in how ancient philosophy has come to shape contemporary thought and ideas. His books include: The Medieval Reception of Arisototle’s MetaphysicsBook Zeta and Universals in Ancient Philosophy. Read more about Gabriele’s work here.

Patrick Ussher is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, working on Stoic ideas of ethical development. His MA dissertation compared Stoicism and ‘Western’ Buddhism. He manages theStoicism Today blog. His first book is an edited collection of writings of applying Stoicism to the modern world, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings. You can read more about Patrick’s research on his Exeter Profile here.  

New Video: Christopher Gill on Stoicism and the Environment (Stoic Week London Day)

Stoicism and the Environment

What does Stoicism have to do with the environment? In this fascinating talk, Christopher Gill applies Stoicism to one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism