We often think back to important forks in our lives, and wonder how things would have been different had we gone in a different direction. What if I had gone to college X instead of college Y? What if I had become a profession A instead of profession B? What if I had been friends with circle C instead of circle D? The number of “what ifs” grow with age, I think, but as you mature and grow to understand them properly, they are less nagging the older you get.
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.
My favorite Ted Talk of the hundreds that I’ve watched — perhaps surprisingly — is Ruth Chang’s How to Make Hard Choices. It’s only one of two Ted Talks that I’ve watched three times or more (the other is Tony Robbins: Why We Do What We Do).
I say this is surprisingly my favorite Ted Talk because Ruth Chang isn’t particularly charismatic, funny, charming, or any of the other characteristics of classically dynamic speakers (like Tony Robbins). But it isn’t her delivery that impressed me, it’s her message, which shook me and inspired a deep understanding about my life more than any other video I’ve watched online.
Dr. Chang is a philosopher who studies hard choices. In other words, think about a future hard choice you have to face, and try to understand why it is a hard choice:
“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. 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 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 peace with the paths the lay before me that I had not pursued and paths that lay ahead of me that I will never pursue. Forever evaluating the infinite space of options that lay before us and behind us will inevitably lead 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 self-identify. You, alone, will write the story of your life. Every life and set of choices in beautiful. Make your set of choices not only beautiful, but consistent with who you are as a person and what is worth deciding about. The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.
— Thriving Dad