The following story was originally told as a speech by Google CEO, Sundar Pichai.
At a restaurant, a cockroach suddenly flew from somewhere and sat on a lady. She started screaming out of fear. With a panic stricken face and trembling voice, she started jumping, with both her hands desperately trying to get rid of the cockroach.
Her reaction was contagious, as everyone in her group also got panicky. The lady finally managed to push the cockroach away but… it landed on another lady in the group. Now, it was the turn of the other lady in the group to continue the drama.
The waiter rushed forward to their rescue. In the relay of throwing, the cockroach next fell upon the waiter. The waiter stood firm, composed himself and observed the behavior of the cockroach on his shirt. When he was confident enough, he grabbed it with his fingers and threw it out of the restaurant.
Sipping my coffee and watching the amusement, the antenna of my mind picked up a few thoughts and started wondering, was the cockroach responsible for their histrionic behavior?
If so, then why was the waiter not disturbed? He handled it near to perfection, without any chaos. It is not the cockroach, but the inability of those people to handle the disturbance caused by the cockroach, that disturbed the ladies. I realized that, it is not the shouting of my father or my boss or my wife that disturbs me, it’s not the traffic jam that upsets me, it’s my inability to manage my reaction to what happens around me.
Famous Stoic Philosopher Epictetus wrote:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, persuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions
A core principle of Stoicism is that we can influence the world around us, and we can’t always control what we feel or think, but we can always control how we act.
As Victor Frankl wrote in in Man’s Search for Meaning:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Next time you’re in a compromising situation, consider it an opportunity to grow this space.