Ruth Chang on How to Make Hard Choices (Transcript)

In this TED talk, philosopher Ruth Chang offers a powerful insight and a framework for shaping who we truly are and this is a talk that could literally transform your life…

Ruth Chang asks why some choices are so hard — and what that means for the human condition….

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Ruth Chang – Philosopher

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.

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.

We shouldn’t think that all hard choices are big. Let’s say you’re deciding what to have for breakfast. You could have high fiber bran cereal or a chocolate donut. Suppose what matters in the choice is tastiness and healthfulness. The cereal is better for you, the donut tastes way better, but neither is better than the other overall, a hard choice.

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Realizing that small choices can also be hard may make big hard choices seem less intractable. After all, we manage to figure out what to have for breakfast, so maybe we can figure out whether to stay in the city or uproot for the new job in the country.

We also shouldn’t think that hard choices are hard because we are stupid. When I graduated from college, I couldn’t decide between two careers, philosophy and law. I really loved philosophy. There are amazing things you can learn as a philosopher, and all from the comfort of an armchair. But I came from a modest immigrant family where my idea of luxury was having a pork tongue and jelly sandwich in my school lunchbox, so the thought of spending my whole life sitting around in armchairs just thinking, well, that struck me as the height of extravagance and frivolity.

So I got out my yellow pad, I drew a line down the middle, and I tried my best to think of the reasons for and against each alternative. I remember thinking to myself, if only I knew what my life in each career would be like. If only God or Netflix would send me a DVD of my two possible future careers, I’d be set. I’d compare them side by side, I’d see that one was better, and the choice would be easy.

But I got no DVD, and because I couldn’t figure out which was better, I did what many of us do in hard choices: I took the safest option. Fear of being an unemployed philosopher led me to become a lawyer, and as I discovered, lawyering didn’t quite fit. It wasn’t who I was.

So now I’m a philosopher, and I study hard choices, and I can tell you that fear of the unknown, while a common motivational default in dealing with hard choices, rests on a misconception of them. It’s a mistake to think that in hard choices, one alternative really is better than the other, but we’re too stupid to know which, and since we don’t know which, we might as well take the least risky option. 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.

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Now, if there’s no best option, if the scales don’t tip in favor of one alternative over another, then surely the alternatives must be equally good. So maybe the right thing to say in hard choices is that they’re between equally good options. But that can’t be right. If alternatives are equally good, you should just flip a coin between them, and it seems a mistake to think, here’s how you should decide between careers, places to live, people to marry: Flip a coin.

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