The bigger the choice, the more importance we attribute to it. We assume that every choice—every time we have to weigh facts and feelings in an attempt to arrive at the Right Thing to Do—contains a right outcome and a wrong outcome. But what if big choices don't have to be harder than small ones? And what if there is no such thing as an objectively correct Right Thing to Do in most of these cases anyway?
That is the essence of a recent NYT op-ed by Ruth Chang, a philosophy prof at Rutgers who studies and teaches about the value of choice. In it, she argues that hard choices are hard not—as we tend to assume—because there are so many important aspects to consider. Hard choices are often hard because the options have similar value. Not the same value, but similar value, or what Chang calls "on a par."
Take Eve, a hypothetical chooser Chang uses to illustrate a point:
Eve works as a textbook editor at a Boston publishing house and was approached by a small but prestigious imprint on the West Coast that was looking for a fiction editor. The job would be a big promotion, with a significant raise, and Eve had always wanted to work in fiction.
But Eve is in crisis. Should she move her husband and young daughter from their cozy life in Boston, her home of 15 years, to the wilds of California? If she stays, will she be forsaking the opportunity of a lifetime? If she moves, will her new boss turn out to be a jerk? Will her child be bullied at school? What if her husband can't find a good job? Will the family quarrel, the marriage dissolve, her boss fire her for being incompetent, and she and her child end up on food stamps in a homeless shelter?
Here, Eve is trying to identify the objectively better choice, the with a higher value. But she should be putting her energy into trying to figure out what type of person she is, or wants to be.
There are objective benefits and drawbacks to Boston and California, to be sure. But as no one can predict a decision's trickle-down effect, but what makes one option better or worse for Eve hinges on whether she is better suited to staying put or setting up new stakes, to playing it safe, or adventuring. In other words, is Eve the sort of person who could move to California and make a go of it, understanding all that risk?
All too often, we treat big choices as a matter of computation, Chang says, when they're not:
But choosing between jobs is not like computing the distance between Memphis and Mumbai. The view of choice as a matter of calculating maximal value is assumed in cost-benefit analysis, government policy making and much of economic theory. It's even embedded in the apps you can download that purport to help you decide whether to buy a new car, get married or change jobs.
At the heart of this model is a simple assumption: that what you should choose is always determined by facts in the world about which option has more value — facts that, if only you were smart enough to discover, would make decision-making relatively easy.
But when it comes to these big choices, value is a totally different beast, Chang asserts. Value is often determined internally rather than externally. And the good news about big decisions where the options are on a par is that you can't really pick incorrectly:
If your alternatives are on a par, you can't make a mistake of reason in choosing one instead of the other. Since one isn't better than the other, you can't choose wrongly. But nor are they equally good. When alternatives are on a par, when the world doesn't determine a single right thing to do, that doesn't mean that value writ large has been exhausted. Instead of looking outward to find the value that determines what you should do, you can look inward to what you can stand behind, commit to, resolve to throw yourself behind. By committing to an option, you can confer value on it.
This is great news if you're one of those people who is always looking for signs: "the sign" is you choosing! By choosing, you create value, and the action makes you, as Chang puts it, an author of your own life. For Eve, that could mean:
Eve might resolve to make her life in Boston. Someone else, in her shoes, might resolve to start a new life in California. There is no error here, only different resolutions that create different sorts of people.
That is an incredibly liberating idea, no? There is no error here. Only different resolutions. In essence, the choice is the "right" choice because you made it.
Of course, having made the choice is only part of it. You have to mean it and stand behind whatever made you choose. This is why, Chang says, New Year's Resolutions are so easy to make and easy to ditch. It's one thing to resolve to do something you should have been doing all along, like working out, or quitting smoking. It's another thing to become the sort of person who could commit to that task, which is the only way you'd really keep up with it.
In Eve's case, she would have to "create the sort of person she can commit to being, by committing to being that sort of person." If she wants to move to Boston, she has to be the sort of person who would drop everything and move to Boston. This sounds like philosophical double talk, or dressing for the job you want. But ultimately, it's how change works. It's how it worked for me when I quit smoking a pack of cigs a day, for instance. I quit because I got pregnant, but once I was pregnant, I was no longer the sort of person who could smoke. In essence, I created the sort of person I could commit to being—a non-smoker—by being a pregnant person, and by committing to the pregnancy. (Technically, I owe that to my husband, seeing as how I didn't get pregnant alone.)
This understanding of how change works may help you in other arenas. For instance, you could decide to not choose things you already know you aren't any good at, and aren't the sort of person who is likely to be good at. That's a theory Sarah Miller offered up for the New Year in a piece at Café. Miller—who long ago gave up acting, and trying to be the sort of person who is thin and a great cook and doesn't eat sugar or bread—writes:
I am concerned at how hard we try when—and I hope I'm not springing anything on anyone here—we are all going to end up in the same place. And so, as the sun takes another trip around the earth (one of the things I have accepted being bad at is astronomy) is it not time to ask yourself, "What do I keep doing that I suck at?" and "Isn't it very possible that I'm spending a lot of valuable time trying to do something that is never going to come to fruition?"
In this case, you're not so much creating the sort of person you can commit to being, but rather, admitting the sort of person you can't commit to being. Both work wonderfully in tandem.
But back to those choices. If making big choices still seems difficult, consider that they aren't all that different from smaller choices. This is demonstrated in Chang's TED Talk, "How to Make Hard Choices."
Take what to eat for breakfast, a choice between a bowl of cereal and a donut. Chang argues that, if both taste and healthfulness are the goal, a bowl of cereal is better for you, but the donut tastes better. If both taste and healthfulness are equally important, the choice is just as "hard" as Eve trying to choose between Boston and California. But if you can see that you just have to pick one and get on with your day and everything will be fine, then perhaps big choices, too, are a piece of cake. Or in this case, a donut.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.