Why hard choices are a godsend
Many of us have a difficult choice to make right now.
For some of us, that choice is whether to stay in a relationship that’s just sort of ok. For others, it’s whether to take our business in this direction or that.
I was recently in the latter camp, having assumed the helm of a 14 year old company. Though I’m a co-founder, that responsibility has always been shared. But now, all of it is on my shoulders—and as an only child, I love that. Mostly.
The questions that I was working through were related to how discerning to be with our clientele. First and foremost, I wanted to work only with good people doing good things for the world. Idealistic? Maybe.
There were some important choices to be made:
- Reposition our messaging to work more with non-profits? Maybe.
- Target wealthy foundations that have big budgets to spark even bigger change in the world? Maybe.
- Focus on for-profits that contribute something meaningful that helps inspire social change? Perhaps.
- Scrap it all and live off the land, off-grid, helping others do the same? Doesn’t sound half bad.
I realize that the biggest problem isn’t a lack of options. It’s the lack of a clear winner. There isn’t one alternative that stands out as being “better” than the others. And that is precisely what makes decisions hard.
A couple of years ago, I watched a TED talk by Ruth Chang that apparently stuck with me, as I find myself coming back to it whenever I have a tough choice to make.
“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. You agonize over whether to stay in your current job in the city or uproot your life for more challenging work in the country because staying is better in some ways, moving is better in others, and neither is better than the other overall.”
All too often, when we’re presented with a tough choice, the first thing we wish for is a different situation. We wish for a clear answer, or for a sign to move in one direction over another.
But this is wishing for the world to guide us instead of guiding ourselves. It means looking to the external universe to make the choice simple, and reacting to what’s given to us.
Imagine a world where every choice were easy. We’d coast through every fork in the road following the path of least resistance, landing wherever it was most convenient.
When we’re faced with hard choices, what we’re really faced with is a remarkable opportunity to be proactive—to step back, think critically, assess who we are, what we believe in, and what’s most important to us. And then choose. Choose with agency. With thought. With intention.
Now, we may not always choose right. There’s no magic bullet there. But whatever we choose will have been the result of an active process of meaningful thought, and the knowledge that we are designing our future path intentionally.
As Ruth says:
“Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition. […] It is here, in the space of hard choices, 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.”
Easy decisions are practically made for us.
It’s he hard ones that let us shape who we will become.
But only if we see them that way.