How to make hard choices?

To academe or not to academe?

For many early career researchers this is the hardest choice they faced so far. And it is a big, momentous choice. Especially if you are intrinsically motivated for your topic of expertise and if your research matters to you.

Other hard choices in this stage of building a research career turn on your choice for a place and way to live. What city to settle in? Whether or not to uproot your life to work abroad? Have children now or wait for a more permanent job? These questions seem excellent occasions for agonizing, hand-wringing, brooding, sleepless nights etc.

However, thinking deeper about what makes some choices hard, you can better understand the role they play in our lives and uncover a hidden power each of us possesses to solve them.

In her TED Talk, Ruth Chang argues that some choices are hard because of 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.” Staying in academia is better in some ways, leaving it is better in others, but neither is better than the other overall.

What can you do to better deal with hard choices? 

  1. Realize that not all hard choices are big and momentous. This makes hard choices more manageable. Small choices can also be hard: suppose you value health and taste, will you choose a healthier cereal or a tastier donut? If you are a career worrier you can console yourself with the thought that since you figured out what to have for breakfast, you are able to figure out where to go with your career.
  2. Do not believe the myth that hard choices are hard because you are stupid. If only you had all information available, you could easily decide which career to pursue, right? As an academic you are particularly good at investigating all sides of an issue! The frustrating thing with hard career choices is that even if you had full information about each alternative, the choice would still be hard. It is simply is not the case that one alternative is better than the other.
  3. Do not instinctively choose what appears the least risky option. When the alternatives are equal, to base your choice entirely on risk avoidance is likely to be a costly mistake, especially in career choices. At worst you end up unhappy in a job that does not need or allow your talents, or in a city that you hate. At best you take a detour of a year or two (or many more!) before landing in a place that fits with who you are. Ruth Chang taps into her own experience to illustrate this.

Now, thinking logically, if there is no best option, and if I should not let fear of risks drive my decision, then surely the alternatives must be equally good. Right? I dare you to flip a coin and seriously let it decide between alternative career options or places to live. You will agree that this is not a well-founded way to decide such a hard choice.

So how to decide in a dilemma without one best option and without completely equal options?

Chang proposes a thought experiment. Take two jobs, one academic, the other outside academia, for instance you could be an assistant professor or a business case manager. There are a variety of things that you may find valuable and important in this choice, like the excitement of the work, achieving financial security, having time to raise a family, challenges to excel, and so on. Imagine the two jobs however you like so that neither is better than the other. And then suppose we improve one of them a bit. E.g. the company is doing well and offers you a significant pay raise. Does the extra money make the job in business better that the academic job? Not necessarily. It makes the job better than it was before, sure, but it may not be enough to tip the scales. However, thinking logically again, if you start with two things that are equally good, and you improve one of them, it now must be better than the other. But that is not the case with the options in hard choices like this.

We are left with a puzzle. We have two jobs, an academic and a non-academic. Neither is better than the other, nor are they equally good. So how are we supposed to choose?

The puzzle arises because of an unreflective assumption we make about value, Chang argues. Hard choices become impossible if we unintentionally assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are like scientific quantities, such as length, mass and weight. Comparing two scientific quantities is easy. Not so with values.

“As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t. We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of lengths and weights, has the same structure as the world of ought, of what we should do.” It is a classic instance of the naturalistic fallacy, well known among philosophers.

Since what matters in a hard choice, your values, cannot be represented by numbers, why should you believe that there are only three possibilities? That one alternative is better, worse or equal to the other? Rather the alternatives are on a par. They are in the same level of value, yet very different in kind of value. That is why the choice is hard.

But this is not a problem. To the contrary, it gives you a beautiful opportunity for freedom. Imagine a world in which all choices are easy. There is always an objectively best alternative given. Such a world would enslave you to reasons, because part of being a rational human being is choosing the better over the worse.

In a world with hard choices, when alternatives as on a par, the so-called ‘objective’ reasons, the reasons given to us to choose one over the other, are silent. We have to turn to our power to create reasons ourselves. We have to create our own reasons to pursue this career, enjoy these hobbies, live in that house and that city. We have to create our personal identity, put our actual selves behind an option. This response in hard choices is rational, but it is not determined or dictated by reasons given to us.

“When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.” says Chang.

So when you face the hard choice whether or not to become an academic, look for reasons inside yourself. Do not become adrift by giving up your power to create reasons. Do not give up your freedom and let the world write the story of your life.

Understood in this way, hard choices are no longer sources of worry and fear but become opportunities to enjoy your capacity for freely creating reasons for yourself and become the distinctive, unique human being that you are.




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