How do you feel about truly hard choices?
Tough questions--like whether to leave you comfortable job or start your own business, move across the country in pursuit of opportunity or stick close to home, study economics or art, get down on one knee and propose or give it another year--cause many of us to break out in a cold sweat. Both options have huge merits and significant possible drawbacks, so most folks respond with hand-wringing, misery, and dread.
But that's not the best way to look at hard choices, argues philosopher Ruth Chang in a thought-provoking recent TED talk in which she offers a liberating new framework for making life's toughest calls.
How Most of Us Think About Hard Choices
For lots of rational modern folks, the natural way to look at truly hard choices is the same way we look at any other choice. As always, there are pros and cons to each alternative, but in the case of tough choices they're of different types, so the alternatives are hard to weigh. How do you compare the benefit of being close to your childhood friends versus the possible financial payoff of that new job on the opposite coast? And what's more, how can you be sure, really, how much you truly value each until you experience both?
In this view, the problem is your imperfect knowledge of your preferences and your lack of foresight about how options will play out. The natural response is to pine for more information--if only God could send you a couple of DVDs of your two possible futures and you could view them side by side, you'd be all set, is how Chang sums it up.
The result of this fruitless search for sure comparisons is a whole lot of unhappiness and, in many cases, a final decision to throw up our hands and just choose the safer option. If you can't really justify the new or scarier path, it's pretty hard to pick it, after all.
A Better Option
But according to Chang, this isn't the best way to look at hard choices. "It's a mistake to think that in hard choices one alternative really is better than the other, but we're too stupid to know which, and since we don't know which, we might as well take the least risky option," she says.
Or to put it another way, even if we miraculously found those two longed-for DVDs of the future, postmarked from God, in our mailbox one morning, hard choices would still be hard. Why? These choices are all about values, and no data or advice can tell you what's most important to you. There simply isn't an objective right answer to truly tough calls, Chang insists. It's not that we can't find it; it's that it really doesn't exist.
What then is a better way to think about our most agonizing decisions? Not as the rough equivalent of a really, really hard pop quiz from the universe, but instead as an opportunity to write your own identity, assert your values, and actively shape your life. Use decision-making as an occasion to create a right answer, rather than expect to find it outside of yourself somewhere.
"When we create reasons for ourselves to become this person kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are," Chang says. "We become the authors of our lives."
So when you face your next hard choice, don't beat your head against the wall trying to find the "right" answer. "There is no best alternative." Chang insists. Instead, see the choice as a fork in the road, an opportunity to choose who you really want to be. The alternative is to be a drifter, one of those people who don't declare themselves "for" anything, who allow "the world to write the story of their lives," as Chang puts it, who blindly follow affirmation or avoid the terror of the unknown.
"Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities," concludes Chang. Want to hear more? View the entire 15-minute talk here.
Could you make things easier on yourself if you stopped believing that there really was an objectively correct answer to each tough call?