When we're faced with choosing between two or more options, we tend to make the safest bet, especially in cases when the choice has potentially large implications — like where to live, or what job to take.
It would be nice to have the ability to see how each would play into our future, have more information about the life we would form from selecting a path.
Philosopher Ruth Chang explains why some choices are so hard — and what that means for the human condition. She says:
Even taking two alternatives side by side with full information, a choice can still be hard. Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they're hard because there is no best option.
There's another reason for thinking that hard choices aren't choices between equally good options. Suppose you have a choice between two jobs: you could be an investment banker or a graphic artist. There are a variety of things that matter in such a choice, like the excitement of the work, achieving financial security, having time to raise a family, and so on. Maybe the artist's career puts you on the cutting edge of new forms of pictorial expression. Maybe the banking career puts you on the cutting edge of new forms of financial manipulation. Imagine the two jobs however you like so that neither is better than the other.
Chang says choices seem hard because of our assumptions on value and our reliance on data and scientific thinking for answers. She says:
we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can't. We shouldn't assume that the world of is, of lengths and weights, has the same structure as the world of ought, of what we should do.
To make better decisions in matters where greater, equal or lesser are not useful measures of outcomes we need to inject a fourth dimension in our thinking — one that expresses our views on values. “Understanding hard choices in this way uncovers something about ourselves we didn't know,” she says. We create the reasons for making the choices, not the other way around:
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?
We have agency — the capacity and the ability to act intentionally. Chang says, “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.”
This applies to most choices we make as individuals and organizations. The decisions we make reflect who we are — our personal and business culture.
Watch the full video of the talk below.