Recently, I watched a TED talk by Ruth Chang (a lawyer, turned philosopher) on How to make hard choices. It has completely revolutionised the way I view major life decisions. I only wish I’d had this insight 5 years ago.
Life – although I feel our twenties in particular – is full of hard choices. Where will I live? What will I study? Which job will I take? Will I marry him/her? Should I move to New York? Should I buy property? I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
Ruth suggests that we have misunderstood hard choices. Rather than being a source of stress and anguish, she says that we should cherish hard choices as opportunities to step up and be active participants in our lives.
Here are my key take aways for dealing with hard choices:
1. Recognise that it’s a hard choice
This is not always as obvious as you might think. Ruth suggests that what makes a choice hard is the “incomparability of the alternatives”. It’s not as simple as calculating the “right” answer and weighing up pros and cons. As soon as you realise that you’re dealing with a hard choice, you’re one step closer to making it.
2. Don’t try to compare fried eggs to the number 9
I used to think that if I thought long and hard enough about a decision, I’d figure it out. I’ve since learnt that is not the case when it comes to the big life choices. As Ruth points out, a decision is easy when there is a best alternative – it is clear that one option is better or worse than the other. But what if the pros/cons cannot be quantified? How do you quantify the experience of living in Paris for a year against the potential career prospects from taking that graduate position at the big corporate? If what matters most to you cannot be represented by numbers, then there are not just 3 possibilities (greater, lesser, equal). Ruth says that, in these situations, often the competing factors are “on a par” – meaning in the same neighbourhood of value whilst at the same time being different in the kind of value. Your pros and cons list just got super complicated. Bear with me!
3. Feel the fear and be brave
The hard choices are usually perceived to be big – where the stakes are high and the outcomes uncertain. So, naturally, fear kicks in and we tend to respond conservatively. Most of us will default to the safest option – the one with the lowest perceived risk of failure. If life begins at the end of your comfort zone, then that makes you the walking dead! Fear of the unknown really has a lot to answer for but fear itself should not be a reason for a decision. Instead, acknowledge it, feel it and be brave. Easier said than done, right? I think (like most things) this gets easier with practice – like exercising a muscle, our ability to resist caving in to fear gets stronger through each hard choice we make.
4. Create your own reasons
We’ve all resorted to flipping a coin for tough decisions. Or in my case, opening a packet of Clinkers (you know, the chocolate coated candy that is pink (no), yellow (try again/maybe) or green (yes) inside). I used Clinkers to decide between moving to Sydney or Melbourne. It took the weight off my shoulders and made the “decision” seemingly easy. This TED talk points out that, one of the reasons that hard choices are made hard, is because we essentially try to apply outside reasons to inside choices. We seek justification from the outside world and, when we cannot rationalise our preferred choice that way, we don’t take it. Hard choices therefore give us an opportunity to create our own reasons.
When we create reasons for ourselves, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are – we become the authors of our own lives.
This empowering statement is both exciting and terrifying. But, how do we create our own reasons? If the decision was whether to live in Italy or Mexico, the outside reasons might dictate that I choose Italy because of my British passport and (albeit, very basic) Italian skills. My (less sensible) reason might actually be that I’d prefer to eat pasta and tiramisu than fish tacos and guacamole (not necessarily true – this really is a hard decision!). I think what Ruth is getting at is that, when the pros/cons list is balanced, hard choices give you permission to give weight to your true reasons.
5. Own it
Another reason #4 above is so scary, is that it requires you to be accountable – to take ownership for your life, decisions and circumstances. No playing the victim. If we always default to the easy option, then we let the world write our story. Ruth says that hard choices give us the opportunity to reflect and really consciously put our agency behind what we do.
So, go out there and own it – seek out the hard choices. After all, “a world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons” and how boring would that be?