How to make hard choices

In Glasgow with Mike and Katie in 2006, trying to make a decision on where to go next. :)
In Glasgow with Mike and Katie in 2006. We are puzzled and trying to make a decision on where to go next. :)

I recently had a close friend have one of those movie-like scenarios where she had two weeks to make a life-changing decision. She was given two options, and her choice would impact her career, where she lived, and her relationship.

I’ve never had to make a truly hard decision in my life, at least not yet. But, I know that there will be many, many hard choices that lie ahead of me. And though I’ve never been in my friend’s position before, I spent a lot of time listening to her while she talked it out. In our conversations I gave her two pieces of advice:

1. Even though it feels like a huge life decision, you’ve actually already been making a lot of little decisions every single day in one direction or another. These little decisions tell you the kind of person you are and what makes you happy. I often have friends who make career changes — “I’m going to quit teaching to be a graphic designer,” or “I’m going to leave my job and publish a book,” — and in almost every scenario, they were already making little changes along the way before they made the “big decision.” You are a sum of your choices, and it’s all about being in tune with yourself.

2. Throw everyone else’s opinion (and society’s opinion) out the window. The only decisions I’ve ever regretted in my life were the ones I made to try to make someone else happy, or ones where I thought I “should” do something. Every time I’ve made a decision for me and what I wanted, I’ve never thought twice about it.

After our phone chats, I came across this gem by Ruth Chang (thanks to my dad) on “How to make hard choices.” She reframed the entire decision making process in a way that I’ve never thought of, but I really love. Her talk is what inspired this blog post.

When making a hard choice, she says, you’re often looking for reasons to decide one way or another. Let’s say you’re graduating college and deciding whether to be an investment banker or an artist. Right now in your mind, they’re tied, and you’re weighing the options.

So… let’s improve one option. Say that the bank, trying to win you over, adds $500 a month to your salary. Does the extra money make the banking gig better than the other? Not necessarily. But, if you improve one option, surely it should become better than the other?

Not the case with hard choices. You’re assigning scientific measurements, like length, mass, and weight, to values like justice, beauty, happiness, kindness. This type of reasoning doesn’t work with hard choices.

In a hard choice, there is no best scientific alternative. In making a hard choice, you are given a unique power to create reasons. Reasons are why you live where you live, and why you do what you do. You make reasons for yourself to choose one thing over the other.

“When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable,” she said. “We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am.”

I loved how she reframed the difficult decisions in our lives, and after watching the video I shared it with my friend right away.

“Everything that she said was exactly something that I have thought of in the past 2 weeks.” she emailed back. “She’s totally right. And actually one of the hardest things about making this decision from the beginning, is that I knew that there wasn’t the perfect answer, but I knew that whatever decision I made would be a reflection of the values I hoped to represent in the future. Doesn’t make the decision any easier.”

It doesn’t, but at least in the midst of making a hard choice, you should know exactly where to start looking for the answer.

“Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here,” Ruth Chang said. “Who am I to be?”

If you want more reading, here’s a beautiful advice column another friend sent me about choosing to (or not to) have children. The last paragraph is beautifully written.