How To Make A Hard Decision : Life Kit Making a hard decision can be agonizing. What if you pick the wrong thing? In this episode, an Oxford professor walks us through a different approach: What if there isn't a best alternative?
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Faced With A Tough Decision? The Key To Choosing May Be Your Mindset

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Faced With A Tough Decision? The Key To Choosing May Be Your Mindset

Faced With A Tough Decision? The Key To Choosing May Be Your Mindset

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MEGHAN KEANE, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Meghan Keane, and welcome to 2021. We made it. 2020 meant facing a lot of big decisions and all the emotions that come with them - uncertainty, frustration, anxiety but also excitement and hope. So if you're staring down a big decision in 2021, you are not alone.

RUTH CHANG: The pandemic has definitely wrought some big changes in our society. I think it's a great opportunity to think about how to think.

KEANE: That's Ruth Chang. Ruth is an expert on thinking about how to think. She's a philosopher and professor of jurisprudence at Oxford University, and one of Ruth's research areas is decision-making - how we can think about making hard choices. Turns out pros and cons lists, while helpful, are just the beginning of this process. So if you're facing a big decision in your life, like getting a pet or moving abroad or switching careers, or maybe you're thinking about having kids or going back to school or breaking up, Ruth can't tell you what choice to pick, but she can give you useful strategies of thinking through those choices. And a quick note before we dive in - Ruth gets all sorts of emails from people looking for advice.

CHANG: Surprisingly, a fair number of them are from middle-aged men, usually from the Western Hemisphere, asking me for permission to cheat on their wives, which I do not grant.

KEANE: No.

CHANG: Yes.

KEANE: Wow. I feel like they really misconstrued your thinking (laughter)...

CHANG: Yeah.

KEANE: ...On hard decisions.

CHANG: Yeah.

KEANE: Wow. They are not getting the message.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: Hard choices feel hard because, at least for me, it feels like so much is riding on it. You want to move to a new city or take a different job, maybe move closer to family. You know, all these things have a really big impact on how someone's going to live their day-to-day life. But something that you say is that we kind of misunderstand why hard choices are hard. What do you mean by that?

CHANG: Well, the first thing I would say is that it's really important to distinguish big choices from hard choices. You might note that some of your big decisions, while life-altering, are perfectly easy. You get an operation that will cure some debilitating disease you have, so it's an easy decision. And marrying the person you love can also be an easy but big decision - easy because it's clearly the right thing to do but big because your life will change significantly.

So I think of a hard choice as a choice between alternatives where there's a bunch of things that matter in the choice between them. Let's say you've got two careers, two places to live, you know, to have children or not to have children and so on. So you've got these two alternatives. You have things that matter in the choice between them. And one alternative is better than the other in some respects, the other alternative is better than the other in other respects, and neither seems better overall. And so that's the paradigmatic indicator that you're in a hard choice.

KEANE: That makes sense because, you know, if someone's like, hey; you have to get an operation; it'll save your life - like you said, big decision but not hard. But if you're looking at two jobs that might be on opposite coasts and they seem more or less the same, that's the thing that actually makes it hard - is when they're kind of on par with each other, right?

CHANG: Right. A hard choice is characterized by the options being pretty different. One, you get to go surfing every weekend. The other one, you get to go shopping at Tiffany's or something - right? - if they're on different coasts. So they're different, but they're on a par. And on a par means one isn't better than the other, but nor are they equally good because if they were equally good, then the right thing to do is to flip a coin between them.

So when you face a choice that seems to you hard, you can run a little test. First, you figure out, look; is one alternative really better than the other? And chances are you won't be sure. But it's a mistake for you to think, oh, you know, they're so similar. They're basically the same, so I should just flip a coin or randomly choose between them. And the test goes as follows. Suppose you've got the one career on the West Coast and the other career on the East Coast. Well, they're very different because one job is better than the other in some respects. The other job is better than the other in other respects. But it doesn't seem like one of them is at least as good as the other with respect to all the things that matter in choosing between jobs.

KEANE: Right.

CHANG: OK, so now we offer you the hypothetical. We say, OK, guess what? We're going to raise the salary of your West Coast job...

KEANE: OK, tempting.

CHANG: ...By thousands of dollars a year. That's better than it was before, but it doesn't seal the deal. It doesn't make that improved job now better than the East Coast job. And that is a kind of test you can perform on any putative hard choice you face to see whether it really is hard. And if you've got alternatives that are evaluatively very different and yet you run this test - I call it the small improvement test - and it doesn't follow that improving it a little bit makes it much better than the other one, then you know you're stuck in a hard choice.

KEANE: That's interesting because I feel like myself, a lot of my friends and colleagues kind of obsess over those small improvements. I have a lot of friends who are, I would call, like, maximalists or optimizers when they're thinking about decision-making. What has your work taught you about obsessing over those tiny, little distinctions when you're making a hard choice?

CHANG: So when people obsess over these tiny, little differences, I think what's going on is the second biggest mistake, right? The first biggest mistake in thinking about hard choices is thinking that, oh, well, they're just big. That's why they're hard - because the consequences are huge for my life. The second big mistake, I think, is manifested in the character you just described - the maximizer who tries to get every little bitty thing, you know, in favor of one alternative and tries to get the best that they can and agonizes over whether this small change in the one career then makes it better than the other.

But the sad truth about hard choices is that the choice is hard because one option isn't better than the other. And if you don't recognize that, you'll fall into the trap of thinking, well, one alternative really is better. I just have to work harder at getting more information, finding out more details about how this job on the West Coast gives me all these little, tiny benefits that I hadn't realized before, and similarly for the job on the East Coast. And that will settle the matter as to which career is better. That's a mistake because in a genuine hard choice, one isn't better.

KEANE: OK, so that's a mistake to, like, obsess over this idea that there is a best alternative, that you might have missed out on something. I guess throw the pros and cons list out a window. Is that even helpful?

CHANG: No, no. You have to do the pros and cons thing. There's no shortcut in decision-making. You've got to figure out your pros and cons list. And then - so I have this little kind of cutesy six-step thing for how to make decisions.

KEANE: Oh, we love a cutesy thing.

CHANG: Together, it spells AUTHOR, so you can be the author of your own life. OK, so the first step is you got to ascertain what matters in the choice between the alternatives. And, you know, this is a tough step because when you're choosing between careers, you have to figure out whether, you know, what your parents think actually matters or, you know, should you exclude what they think? So first step - ascertain what matters.

Second, you have to understand the pros and cons of the alternatives with respect to what matters. Third step - you tally up the pros and cons. So this is when you get out your graph paper, draw the line in the middle, and list up all the pros and cons. And then you figure out, OK, overall, which is better? But those three steps lead you to agony when you're in a hard choice because you can't tally them up, right? You don't get...

KEANE: Yes.

CHANG: ...One alternative being better than the other. And since we think those three steps are all there is to choice-making, all we can do is lather, rinse and repeat, and that is a recipe for disaster. So we need some further steps.

KEANE: I think that's where people get stuck. I know that's where I do. Like, why bother?

CHANG: Right. People don't have the tools to push forward in hard choices because these three steps are thought to be the only three steps. OK, so you need some more steps. What's the next step? Well, you home in on the fact that, oh, this is a hard choice. And what's true about the alternatives is that they are on a par. It's not the case that one option is better than another. You could be a lumberjack, or you could be a journalist. And guess what? In some respects, being a lumberjack is going to be better than being a journalist. But the vice versa is also true. They're just two very different careers. They're on a par.

KEANE: How did you know that lumberjack was my backup career, Ruth?

CHANG: (Laughter).

KEANE: I'm actually wearing a, like, lumberjack shirt right now - flannel. So...

CHANG: Pandemic flannel. I'm totally with you.

KEANE: OK, so where were we?

CHANG: OK, so the fourth step is you home in on the fact of parity.

KEANE: Right.

CHANG: Next step - you have to open yourself up to the possibility of making a commitment. And when you do that, you finally remake yourself...

KEANE: Right.

CHANG: ...Into - or realize yourself as someone who has committed to the career on the West Coast or to lumberjackhood (ph). And you make yourself into someone for whom it is now true that you have most reason to do that. So if you take all of those steps together, that's AUTHOR, and you become the author of your own life.

So this is why hard choices are important - because they're like junctures in our life where we get to realize ourselves as one kind of agent as opposed to another, someone who has most reason to do this thing instead of that thing. And it's up to us. That's what's so scary about them. Instead of looking out into the world and trying to discover some nonexistent fact about which path of life is best for you, you actually get to create that value for yourself by committing to things.

And I think the best analogy of this is really love relationships. The truth is there isn't one person on the globe who's best for you with respect to all the things that matter in having a life partner. There's a bunch of people who are on a par.

KEANE: Yeah.

CHANG: But if you are affianced or in a committed relationship, it's because your commitment to that person makes that person the right person for you, and you give that person extra value by committing to them. It's entirely different.

KEANE: I've never liked the phrase everything happens for a reason (laughter) as if there's, you know, something - you know, some omniscient, you know, power, deciding everything for us and we have no control. But I do like the idea that we can create a reason for everything happening. Someone makes, for example, a big career change. And the reason it happened is because they wanted it to happen because they needed that change or what have you, that they were able to create that change in their life and make that decision rather than life just kind of passively happening to them. And then, you know, they're able to really own it and embody it rather than just have life kind of drift and have the status quo.

CHANG: Yes. And I think hard choices are precisely the juncture at which we, humans, have this capacity to take charge of our lives because the world is silent. The world tells us, you know, the alternatives are on a par, which is not to say it doesn't matter which you choose. Of course it matters because you could be a lumberjack as opposed to a journalist.

KEANE: Yeah.

CHANG: Those are very different lives for you, and it matters a great deal. But you're not making a mistake if you take one option as opposed to the other. We don't have to beat ourselves up in trying to find out more and more information - right? - the fine details of the job on the West Coast as opposed to the job on the East Coast. If, in fact, it's a hard choice, those options are going to be on a par.

I don't want to say it's a shame that the Enlightenment happened because it certainly was not a shame. The Enlightenment was fantastic. But one of the upshots of the Enlightenment was this scientistic view of the human condition. You know, all the facts are out there, and our job is to go out and discover those facts. That picture works great for science and great for building bridges and solving pandemics and things. But when it comes to moving through your life, deciding how to live, what to do, I think that model is a mistake. There are some facts out there we have to discover, but there are lots and lots of cases where those facts will be on a par. And the truth about what we should do is not just found out there in the world but in us.

KEANE: You know, I was talking with someone recently about big decisions, and they said to me that making a big decision can sometimes feel like progress whether or not that's true. I mean, it sounds like you're kind of in favor of making that potentially riskier move. But do you think that we value, like, as a culture, making those, like, big decisions - like, take that job; marry that person - that we really value making the riskier move or the bigger move rather than kind of sitting still?

CHANG: You know, it's hard to say because on the one hand, people admire people who appear to be always moving forward, doing scary, risky things. On the other hand, most of us are not like that.

KEANE: Right.

CHANG: Most of us drift and go along with the status quo. And we're quite timid for good reasons because, you know, if you think about our evolutionary history, you put a foot wrong, and, you know, a snake bites you or you fall into quicksand. So, you know, we're cautious. We're a cautious species. The point is that you should - you have this capacity to commit and to create value for yourself in your life instead of being a passive recipient or discoverer of the value that's out there in the world and then reacting passively to it. My work tries to highlight that there's this other possibility. We can actually throw ourselves behind something - right? - and actually make it true that that's the right path for ourselves.

KEANE: That is super-insightful. And I think a lot of people are going to benefit from thinking this over. And, I mean, the reason I want to do this interview now for our new year's time is I just - I feel like the pandemic especially has put everyone in face of big decisions of, should I blow up my life? Should I move? Should I be with this person? Should I switch careers? And I look around. I'm like, should I be making a big decision? What does that even mean, right?

CHANG: Well, there's no doubt that the pandemic - because it's put a damper on beehive-like activity, which is a large part of the human condition - gives people more time to reflect. And now that people have time to, you know, contemplate their navels and think about the direction of their lives, I think it's a great opportunity to slow down, take a breath and think about, who can I commit to being? The answer you come to - and I think it's actually plural; you'll come to a bunch of different answers - will feed into how you face hard choices down the road.

KEANE: That's Ruth Chang, professor of jurisprudence at Oxford University. OK, so mini-recap - the big idea here is after you've realized you're facing a hard decision, that there are no best alternatives, you just need to open yourself up to the possibility of making a commitment and really think of yourself as someone who is fully inhabiting that choice. Like Ruth says, who can you commit to being?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one about how to organize your photos - digital and prints. You can find that at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And if you got a good tip, leave us a voicemail - we love hearing them - at 202-216-9823. Or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Meghan Keane. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: There are some rankings of careers that list lumberjack and journalism as the two bottom...

KEANE: Oh, God (laughter).

CHANG: ...Careers. Just thought I'd share that with you.

KEANE: Oh, man. Oh, man.

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