How to Make Hard Choices by Ruth Cheng

Another talk on TED, which came with an epiphany in the end. I love such stories, or such talks for that matter. This one is about making hard choices. I have always been interested in this subject: making choices or decisions, because I repeatedly find myself in that situation. So this fifteen minutes talk spoke directly to my heart. It made me think about my own hard choices in a way I have never done before.

Ruth Chang says that there is something we have misunderstood about hard choices. These are not a source of agony, a reason for sorrowful days or sleepless nights. Instead, these are chances for us to personally grow as human beings. “Understanding hard choices helps us uncover a hidden power that each one of us possesses.” I had to think about this. Really? Is that so? I have had so many sleepless nights in my life because of the hard choices I had to make. All for nothing? But then I reconsider my thoughts, and yes I agree with her. Each time I made a hard choice and started living with the consequences, I felt better. So much better. This was not only because of the feeling of relief I got, but also because of having managed a difficult situation without breaking, and because of being in control of my own life.

Ruth Chang says that hard choices are hard because none of the alternatives is way better than the other. Therefore, even small choices can be hard. Whether to have chocolate ice cream or creme brulee can be a very hard choice indeed, if I like them both and if I am craving for sweets in that moment.  So what do we do? We take the safest option.

We decide to become engineers than artists, because statistically the probability of getting a job as an engineer is higher than that of an artist. So, we take the safest option, because we fear that we are too stupid to understand the better option if the choice to make is hard. We prefer not to take any risks and we go for the option that is rationally comforting.

This is the very mistake we make. Remember, in hard choices no option is better than the other. We simply do not know…How can we know that engineering makes us happier in our future lives? Unfortunately, there are no fast forward and rewind buttons for life. So, does it really make sense to conclude that engineering is the better option?

What goes wrong here is that we are confusing rationality with values, and think that everything what is essentially important in life has be decided and acted upon based on rationality. In other words, when deciding about important things, we think that we should be able to quantify and measure them to eliminate all kinds of uncertainty and mistakes.

But how can we? Isn’t future by default uncertain?

Values are about feelings and about attitudes towards life, so they are truly subjective. Our love for our family, or our passion for a job are fully subjective. These are not quantifiable, therefore not measurable. Or can we say, I love my mother 3 kilograms, I want to become an engineer 5 cubic meters…? So, if we cannot quantify, how can we know one is better than the other? We cannot. And the mistake we make is that we think we can…

“Understanding hard choices helps us uncover a hidden power that each one of us possesses.” Yes.

When we have hard choices to make, we cannot use our reasoning and rationalism because that doesn’t help. What we do instead, is that we create reasons for ourselves to make the choices we make. Precisely this makes us to the people we are. Our ability and power to create reasons to do the things we want to do, to pursue the careers we want to pursue, to marry the people we want to marry, to live in the countries we want to live…

Imagine a life where we have no hard choices to make, because everything is justified by reason, there are no uncertainties, there is never nothing to question…What a boring life would that be? How could we be the people we are without the choices we make?

Through the hard choices we make, “we become the authors of our own lives”.

Ruth Chang: How to Make Hard Choices


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