The Hard Thing about Hard Choices

The Hard Thing about Hard Choices 1


We all need to make big decisions. It might involve our career or relationship or location or tweet. And usually – when we make these decisions – we do our best to think rationally.

But what does it mean to think rationally? That’s not an easy question to answer. You might think that whatever is best for your future would be the most rational choice – but it won’t take long before you realize that you have no idea of knowing what’s really best for your future. Let’s say you had to choose between two jobs, one is to be an artist and the other is to be a management consultant.

You don’t have a passion for management consulting – but your friends are doing it and they’re being paid well. People seem to respect that career path and it’s generally a good foundation to start your career with. On the other hand, you love being an artist. It gives your life meaning. You’re not sure how much money you are going to make – but you know you’ll be in a state of perpetual bliss while practicing and honing your craft.

What do you do? Do you go for the safe, socially desirable, predictable route? Or do you take your chances and pursue what you love at the risk of social rejection and financial insecurity?


Choose your sacrifice. That seems to be the fundamental tenet of life. No matter what you choose to do – you’re going to have to make a sacrifice. But few of us know what we’re willing to sacrifice. We don’t even know what we want. Adam wanted to be a painter but he also knew he wanted to have a steady income stream. He loved to use his creativity but he didn’t want to be penny-pinching on Saturday nights. He craved losing his sense of time – and taking long, beautiful trips in his imagination to the unexplored recesses of his mind – but he wanted his family and friends to respect him.

Changing Frames

Adam didn’t know what he wanted – because he wanted different things – and they were often contradictory. He wasn’t sure which path to take so he opted for the safer path. He went into management consulting.

He drove his car one morning to work. The traffic was – as usual – horrible that day. He hadn’t slept well and hadn’t had his morning coffee yet. He usually prepared his coffee at home and would finish drinking it before he left for work. But today he was late – and he had an important meeting to attend. His boss gave everyone a really hard time for being late. Adam gets more stressed. Five minutes left before the start of the meeting.

The traffic wasn’t getting any better and – as if sympathizing with Adam’s plight – the people in the cars around him start beeping incessantly. Adam begins imagining the worst. He could imagine the verbal massacre he was going to endure. He knew he had a good 20 minutes left (considering the traffic) before he’d get there. That’s it. He was late. He had to call the office.

Adam’s consulting firm was meeting with a big client that day and he was supposed to take charge. Being late for a meeting with a boss was a disaster. Being late for a meeting with a big client? That was a catastrophe. The receptionist answers. He tells her he’s late. She isn’t sympathetic. She tells him the boss is very angry and the client keeps looking at his watch. It’s 8 am. And Adam is already late. Worse – he’s not going to make it for another 15 minutes at least.

He hangs up. His heart is beating faster. He’s sweating. He contemplates suicide briefly but then calms himself down. He’s hyper-alert (even without the coffee) and then joins in on the honking. Adam is usually a calm guy – he doesn’t like to be the victim of loud noises and especially not the cause. But there was no other way to vent his frustration. He had to do something. He punched the ceiling of his car a couple of times. He felt like he was part of the angry commuter community and that alleviated some of his pain – momentarily. But then Traffic started to clear. The burden was finally lifted. Adam was delighted. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so good. The cars were all moving. At this speed, he could make it to the meeting – while being less than 10 minutes late.

He fantasized about the useless, tentative conversations they were having with the client. He imagined that time was probably passing too quickly anyway. That he was worried about nothing. He recalled a few memories of when minutes seemed to pass like seconds. He remembered that time he went to the casino – and then spent 4 hours there playing blackjack without feeling a moment go by. He then recalled another “no time awareness” episode – painting for 8 hours straight. His now optimistic representations of time made him smile with confidence. He couldn’t wait for the meeting. He was confident things were going to go smoothly that morning.

Adam didn’t get reprimanded that day. But he quit a week later.

He didn’t want to be a management consultant anymore. He didn’t want to get dressed up for meetings. He didn’t want to prepare an endless number of powerpoint presentations. He didn’t want to learn about things he didn’t care about. He didn’t want to kiss up to people he didn’t admire. He just wanted to paint.

And he did. He painted. He didn’t take time to think about his decision. He didn’t argue with himself (or anyone else). He quietly went home the day he quit his job. He turned off his phone. And he just started to paint. And he felt free again. He wasn’t stressed. He wasn’t playing a game with time. He wasn’t thinking about what other people were thinking about – or what they would think about what he was thinking about.

The Justification

Ruth Chang once gave a Ted Talk about how she had to make a choice between being a lawyer and a philosopher, and how she ended up going for the safe choice (lawyer). But that didn’t last. She eventually quit her job to become a philosopher. And her fears of being an unemployed philosopher vanished when she realized she was losing her identity – a part of who she was – when she tried to be a lawyer. She was – in her words – “drifting”. She didn’t choose to be a lawyer, she settled for being one.

Then she said something interesting. She said that she had made her decision to become a philosopher and then tried to justify it – rather than justify it before she made the choice to quit her job. In other words – the justification came after the decision. She made it seem like it’s not necessarily a rational choice. In her talk, she frames two different choices as having ambiguous outcomes and that it doesn’t really matter what you choose. It’s all about finding the justification for your choice after the fact.

But I don’t think that’s what happened.

I think Ruth followed a pattern of behavior. She then realized that her chosen pattern of behavior (being a lawyer) wasn’t congruent with who she was. It might have been a physiological response, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an intelligent one. It might have been a subconscious response, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t based on solid reasons.

Our conscience constantly interferes with our actions. It’s that nagging voice or feeling we get when a part of us knows that something isn’t right. It doesn’t randomly pop into existence. Your conscience – as Peterson demonstrates brilliantly in his Maps of Meaning lectures – is something that grows with you. (Jiminy Cricket appears dressed as a tramp in the first scene with Pinocchio. He’s homeless, and his speech is unclear, vague, unintelligible and generalized. He’s the undeveloped conscience)

It develops and is shaped into something more sophisticated. More intelligent. And you’re not really conscious of what your conscience thinks. You might consciously be trying to close a deal, but your conscience knows that you’re leaving out a key detail from your client. You didn’t want to be reminded of that, but you are. It’s hard to know where that came from. But it’s something like the integration of culture into your being – according to Peterson.

I think Ruth – before taking the “lawyer” job – had an underdeveloped set of experiences from which to draw from. Her subconscious needed to grow more, learn more and become more personalized and sophisticated before taking a more clear position on the question of whether being a lawyer was the right thing for her to do. Far from being a choice that you can find reasons to back up – the reasons are implicit in her making the decision to quit in the first place.

She didn’t randomly stop being a lawyer. She knew enough about the job to know that it wasn’t right for her. Even if those reasons weren’t articulated at the time, they still existed, they were within her. She just needed to discover what they were – not make them up to justify her decision.

Link to the Ted Talk

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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