How to Make Hard Choices

Think of a hard choice you’ll face in the near future. Chances are, the hard choice you thought of was something big, something momentous, something that matters to you. Hard choices seem to be occasions for agonizing, hand-wringing, the gnashing of teeth. But understanding hard choices uncovers a hidden power each of us possesses.

What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall.

Hard choices are hard because there is no best option. In hard choices, one alternative is not better better, worse or equal to the other. In hard choices the alternatives are “on a par.” When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose, but one alternative isn’t better than the other. Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value, in the same league of value, while at the same time being very different in kind of value. That’s why the choice is hard.

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am. This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are and we become the authors of our own lives.

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.

Summing-up: When we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

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