Would you rather burp confetti or fart glitter?
While that might seem a bit ridiculous each and every one of us has been in the position of having to choose between two equally good (or bad) choices.
Deciding to move back to Canada after two years in the UK was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made. Europe offers so much culture, history and excitement that it was difficult to give it up and come ‘home’.
My girlfriend and I spent months agonizing over the decision. We fought regularly about whether we should stay or not. Even after we decided to leave we were faced with deciding where to live in Canada.
It seemed like at every step of the way we came to another hard decision.
Should we move somewhere we are already familiar with or somewhere new?
Is it more important to be in a city with more job opportunities or be closer to family?
As much as we tried to make it a logical process, once our personal values and biases came into play making a reasonable choice was nearly impossible.
Every choice meant consciously giving up something we both wanted.
We might as well been farting glitter.
What makes a tough decision, well, tough?
Decisions are the building blocks of our lives.
Every day we consciously and unconsciously dictate everything in our lives from when to get out of bed (instead of hitting snooze again) to what to eat or whether to go to the gym, and so on.
A recent study from Columbia University decision researcher Sheena Lyengar found that on average, Americans make 70 conscious decisions a day. That’s 70 distinct moments of wading through options and committing to a certain choice.
Sometimes these choices come easily because one clearly provides more worth based on our own system of values.
Think about what you ate this morning. Did you choose to have a sugary cereal or something healthier like oats? If you value health over taste then you probably chose oats, and vice versa.
But how does this system of weighing values work when we look at decisions beyond the everyday?
What makes a hard decision that much harder?
Thinking beyond value
When we pit two choices against each other we automatically assume that one must be ‘better’ than the other. We weigh the intrinsic values of both choices with the hope that when the scale settles there will be a clear winner.
But hard decisions are hard because there is no way to choose through reason and logic alone.
Thinking logically when comparing two options (A and B) there are three potential outcomes: A is better, worse or equal to B.
Philosopher Ruth Chang, however, believes there’s a fourth option: ‘on a par’.
When two choices are ‘on a par’ one is neither better or worse or really even equal. On a par choices are ‘in the same neighborhood of value’ as each other and offer compelling, yet different reasons why you might choose them.
Each choice means simultaneously gaining and losing.
When the choices are weighed against our own personal values there’s just no logical answer.
But there can be beauty in this uncertainty.
Within this drowning existential weight is the potential to affirm your own personal values.
Facing a decision with no clear winner based on value alone means that you are in complete control over your choice—reasons crafted by value give way to reasons crafted by us.
What every confident decision maker knows is that external outcomes aside, a decision is always an opportunity to become a stronger, more self-confident person.
With great power comes great responsibility
We’ve been taught to respect people who seem at ease making hard decisions—CEOs, politicians, medical professionals—because they fearlessly face the consequences of their choices.
But it’s not just the fear of external consequences that makes most of the rest of us cower away from making decisions but also the fear of showing the world who we really are.
Remembering that every hard decision is an opportunity to affirm your personal values and what you stand for is a great starting point but here are a few more suggestions for what to do when faced with on a par choices…
Make the decision about you
Despite what business classes and management textbooks might tell you about the merits of the rational model of decision-making, it is nearly impossible to totally remove our own perceptual biases and personal values from any decision.
It’s important to realize this isn’t a bad thing.
When it comes to big decisions bringing your personal values into the equation is a way to break out of the cycle of causal determination—the idea that every event, such as a decision, is necessitated by previous events and conditions.
Take control and make the decision based on your own set of personal values, not those of friends, family or the society you live in.
Stand by your choice
Whenever you make a conscious decision to choose one thing, you’re also making a decision to not choose the other option, which can often mean losing out on something appealing.
It’s what economists call opportunity costs—the value of the best alternative, which you’ll miss out on. While these costs should definitely be taken into consideration, don’t let them get in the way of making a confident decision.
“For without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk, the greater the faith.” Soren Kierkegaard
Stay away from the ‘What If’ game
There’s a phenomenon called Counterfactual Thinking that describes how we dwell on the outcomes of actions we didn’t actually take. What if I’d answered that interview question differently? What if I’d said what I really meant?
If you make a decision and it goes wrong, accept that you haven’t made a mistake. As long as your decision aligns with your personal values you’ve made the right choice for you.
Be in the moment
One of the hardest things about making a decision is that we are notoriously bad at gazing into our own crystal ball. When weighing a decision think less about what the external implications are and more about the person you will become once you make the choice.
“The bottom line of decision making involves determining which potential decision will offer the best possible outcome based on what we know now.” Jim Taylor
The idea that we are in control of what happens to us can be a terrifying one because of the responsibility it places on us.
But what if you were able to take that fear and instead use it to affirm your personal values?
What if every time you were faced with a hard decision instead of drowning in the ‘what ifs?’ you took it as an opportunity to consciously move towards becoming the person you want to be?
“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 the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and 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.” Ruth Chang
Hard decisions are called hard for a reason and it’s impossible to give suggestions of how to make them any easier.
However, framing the decision as an opportunity to show who you are and your personal values lets you spin what normally would be an anxiety inducing situation into something positive.
So, which would you rather?