How do we make hard life choices? Have you ever really thought about it?
Every once in a while, we face a big choice that impacts our lives in a major way. Do I take X job in industry A, or Y job in industry B? Do I move to the West Coast, or stay here on the East Coast?
How about some of the biggest questions of all:
- Should I marry this person?
- Should we have kids together?
- Should I stay in my current job or pursue my passion?
Basic economics teaches comparing the utility between your choices. Compare the attributes of choice X to the attributes of choice Y. Or maybe they’re exactly equal? Economists assume complete preferences, after all.
But is that the right way to think about hard choices?
My favorite Ted Talk I’ve ever watched (and I’ve watched many of them) is Ruth Chang’s How to Make Hard Choices. Unlike my other favorite Ted Talks by charismatic speakers (i.e., Tony Robbin’s Why We Do What We Do, Simon Sinek’s How Great Leaders Inspire Action), Ruth Chang isn’t particularly flashy or charismatic herself. But her message is immensely powerful.
She states the basic problem of hard choices:
“Think of a hard choice you’ll face in the near future. It might be between two careers — artist and accountant — or places to live — the city or the country — or even between two people to marry — you could marry Betty or you could marry Lolita. Or it might be a choice about whether to have children, to have an ailing parent move in with you, to raise your child in a religion that your partner lives by but leaves you cold. Or whether to donate your life savings to charity.”
“What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall. You agonize over whether to stay in your current job in the city or uproot your life for more challenging work in the country, because staying is better in some ways,moving is better in others, and neither is better than the other overall.”
In other words, hard choices are hard because the alternatives each have appeal. Choice A is better in some ways. Choice B is better in other ways. It’s not that the choices are equal in some utility-mathematical sense, but that they’re different and, in a way, not comparable.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re considering two jobs: one is a teaching job in Northern California, the other is a finance job in New York City. They both have appeal, and you’re on the fence about which to choose. Then, the New York job calls and says they can offer you $20,000 more than before. That job is now better, right, since you were on the fence before? Wrong! It’s not the money, or that the two choices were somehow mathematically equal before. It’s a hard choice because they represent different paths with different attributes. The choice is hard because both paths have appeal in different ways.
When I think back to important forks in my life, I wonder how things would have been different had I gone in a different path. What if I decided to go to Chicago or Yale instead of Princeton for my PhD? I probably would have never met my wife, had my kids, or gone down many of the paths that I went down. Would I even be sitting here writing this article? What if I had decided to stay on Wall Street? How would my life have been different?
About two years after college, I started seeing my friends pursuing diverging careers in a variety of fields. I was stuck in the depths of a PhD program in economics, and saw friends who were getting promoted, making money, and taking paths that were suddenly becoming more distant to me. Around that time, I realized that, by pursuing my path, others paths were becoming less viable. For someone used to keeping options open and maintaining a you-can-do-anything attitude, this was quite unsettling.
It took me a few years to understand and better appreciate these what-if paths. Rather than longing or wishing to pursue them, I now recognize them as alternative good paths.
Rather seeking the best path, we want to spend our lives seeking a good path and, more importantly, defining our path.
My path in life isn’t better or worse than anyone else’s. It’s not even better or worse than alternative paths I could have led. It’s just different, and my path helps define the story of my life.
Back to Ruth Chang:
“Think of a hard choice you’ll face in the near future. It might be between two careers — artist and accountant — or places to live — the city or the country — or even between two people to marry — you could marry Betty or you could marry Lolita. Or it might be a choice about whether to have children, to have an ailing parent move in with you, to raise your child in a religion that your partner lives by but leaves you cold. Or whether to donate your life savings to charity.
Chances are, the hard choice you thought of was something big, something momentous, something that matters to you. Hard choices seem to be occasions for agonizing, hand-wringing, the gnashing of teeth. But I think we’ve misunderstood hard choices and the role they play in our lives. Understanding hard choices uncovers a hidden power each of us possesses.”
Hard choices are hard because they’re different, not because one choice is objectively better than another choice. She proposes several thought experiments that challenge classical ways of comparing choices in economics and psychology. She shows that hard choices don’t fit the bill of usual situations where one choice is better than another.
But if one choice isn’t better than another, what is the meaning of hard choices? Here, Dr. Chang offers the deepest insight I’ve ever heard on this topic:
“So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.
Now, people who don’t exercise their normative powers in hard choices are drifters. We all know people like that. I drifted into being a lawyer. I didn’t put my agency behind lawyering. I wasn’t for lawyering. Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives. They let mechanisms of reward and punishment — pats on the head, fear, the easiness of an option — to determine what they do. So the lesson of hard choices: reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person.
Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.”
This is a truly incredible insight. We should ask not whether we are making the best choices, or the right choices, or even good choices. Rather, we should be asking: What kind of person am I, and what kind of life do I want to lead? What do I stand for, and what decisions should I make as a result that reflect who I am and what I care about?
No exaggeration: this is one of the biggest insights of my 30s. I finally came to terms with never being able to follow paths that lay behind that I had not pursued, and the paths laying ahead of me that I will never pursue. Evaluating the infinite space of options behind us and before us inevitably leads to too much wonder about what might have been and what might be.
Instead, focus on who you are and what you stand for. And make choices consistent with that identify. You alone write the story of your life. Every life is series of beautiful choices. Make your series of choices not only beautiful, but consistent with who you are as a person and what is worth deciding about. And that, Chang would say, is how hard choices help us figure out who we are and what kind of life we stand for.
Readers: What is the last hard life choice you ever made? How did you make it? Did you consider thinking about what you stand for?
Originally written: March 2017. Republished: February 2018.