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How hard decisions help us define and refine who we are

Updated: Sep 19, 2019

Yesterday I watched a TED talk by philosopher Ruth Chang, who, among other things, has devoted time to thinking about the nature of hard decisions and how we actually make them. My takeaways from her talk are:

1) Some things can be quantified (e.g. the weight of an apple). When things can be quantified we can relatively easily compare them with three possible outcomes, "equal to", "less than", or "greater than". Choosing between two things that can be quantified then is generally an easy decision, the challenge being when two things are equal, but given that this is a quantified thing, then it doesn't matter which you select because they are "equal".

2) Some (many) things are multidimensional and cannot be boiled down to a single quantity (e.g. a new job opportunity). With these things we find that one option can be better in a particular dimension (salary) but lower on another (commute). When two or more options present like this, Chang says they are on par and thus our decision becomes difficult because less than, greater than, and equal to fail to help our decision making.

Here's where it gets interesting...

When things are on par we cannot rely on objective critiera (e.g. "long commutes are bad", "high salaries are good") and come to a decision because no one option has all positive aspects. Rather, we have to apply a subjective lens to our decision making and enter into a thought process like, "I am a person who values my time and would be happier with a moderate amount of money and less time spent commuting", or "My long term goals require a substantial amount of money and at this point in my life I am willing to give up some free time to pursue those goals".

It is worth noting that these kinds of decisions do not necessarily carry huge consequences and we are engaging with them all of the time. Deciding on whether to vacuum the floor or go for a walk in the 30 minutes I have available to me right now fits the definition of a hard decision; pausing for a moment and reflecting on what I tell myself to make a choice reveals my values and priorities.

As Chang notes, hard decisions give us an opportunity to craft our personal narratives, our stories of who we are, what we believe in, how we live in accordance with our values. While this happens regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, bringing awareness to this process has the potential to deepen our clarity of "who am I?".

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