How To Make The Hard Choices: An Interview with Dr. Ruth Chang

BW: How would you define “on a par”?

RC: When you make your hard choices, I say to seek alternatives that are on a par. If you’ve got two items that are qualitatively very different — like the architect career and the journalist career  — but nevertheless in the same overall neighborhood of value, then that’s a mark of parity. If you think about most hard choices people have to face, you’ll find that to be the case.

BW: Would you say hard choices are necessary?

RC: I’d say yes, they are necessary, because they are the nexus at which we can actively determine what we have most reason to do. We come out of the womb, stuff happens to us, we come with genes and dispositions, and then there’s causation. The environment causally impinges on the stuff that we come with; our psychological economies. If you have this psychological makeup and you’re in this kind of environment, then you’ve got most reason to be a journalist rather than an architect. The other passive story is that it turns out that because of what you’re born with and the environment you grew up within, you have all these desires, to find out about stuff, and those desires give you reason to be a journalist rather than an architect, since being a journalist satisfies those desires in a way that being an architect wouldn’t.

Both of those stories don’t mention you as an agent. Your will or your agency as a self plays no role. You’re just sitting back and letting other things determine which you have most reason to do. There’s no role for you or yourself to make that decision.

BW: Why do the hard choices we make define us?

RC: Well, there are two rational responses to a hard choice. When you have a parity, you can commit — that is, you throw yourself behind it. The most common example of where we commit is in romantic relationships. Say you’re casually dating someone who gets sick and he asks for your kidney. But if it is someone you are committed to, you throw your agency behind this task, you agree to give up a kidney and your reaction is very different. You will see that you have a reason to give up your kidney that you didn’t have before.

Commitment is like that with careers, too. You commit to being a journalist and the obstacles you face are different from ones you would face if you chose another career. Say your editor yells at you for a mistake you make — how you react says a lot. If you’re committed to being a journalist, you’ll think, “What can I do to avoid that mistake again?” If you’re not, your reaction will be, “I should’ve just been an architect!” So in a hard choice, one of the rational things you can do is commit to one of the alternatives. By committing to be a journalist, you actually create new reasons to be a journalist, and those aren’t reasons given to you by the world, but ones you make for yourself.

The other rational response is not to commit, but to drift, intentionally choosing an option without throwing your agency behind it — just as you might drift in your dating life without committing to one person. You’re kind of just going with the flow, not doing something you stand for, maybe choosing one career to make your family happy, or make a lot of money.

It defines who you are, and many people spend their entire lives drifting and never exercise their normative power to create meaning for themselves. That’s a shame. It’s perfectly rational to be like that, but it’s a shame — you never become the author of your own life.

BW: You’ve had a great deal of experience with making difficult decisions — do you think there’s one particular way to go about making them, that works the best?

RC: I have a little acronym, a recipe for making hard choices. [Laughs.] So, it’s spelled “AUTHOR,” and the “A” stands for “Assess” — what matters in the choice between the alternatives. Not everyone’s sure what matters, so you have to figure out what does. “U” is for “Understand” — really understand what’s behind each alternative — will it give you the security or emotional well-being that you want?

For “T,” you “Tally” up each value, each of the things that matters between each choice. Sometimes you can get stuck here (A and B have good things behind them for different reasons), so from here you sometimes end up starting over. Then for “H,” you “Hone” in on a parity. You conclude that the choices aren’t equally good, they’re on a par where they can be compared.

For “O,” you “Open” yourself for commitment to one of the alternatives. You may fail, and that’s OK. Then you reach “R,” where you “Realize” who you are through your response to the parity, and in doing so, you become the author of your life.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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