On making choices, especially the hard ones

I don’t think I’ve ever made it a secret that I tend towards indecisiveness, that I often find myself being distracted by new and shiny ideas, but rarely make significant progress on anything in particular.

As 2015 progresses, I’ve been thinking more about the choices I make – the choices of how I spend my time and what I focus on – and what these choices say about what is important to me, and what I want my life to be about. Given how much I think about community and economic cooperation, about public and active transportation, and about public engagement and democracy, I have been thinking about what I can do this year to take this thinking from theory into practice, to turn my aspirations into action. In fact, I was in the process of drafting a different blog post about just that, when a Netflix TED playlist presented me with Ruth Chang’s talk, “How to Make Hard Choices."


I had actually watched this talk, at some point, once before but, as with so many things, the impact of something like this often depends on being in the right frame of mind, or open to hearing it. Today, I was primed for this talk’s message. Chang suggests that hard choices offer us the opportunity to create our reasons for making a choice, to put our very selves behind the choices we make, to "become the authors of our own lives."

As someone who, looking back, has made many if not all of my major choices based on reasons given to me by others, Chang’s message is at once confusing and liberating. When Chang talks about people who don’t use their normative power to make choices as “drifters," it feels as though she is talking, quite specifically, about me. “Drifters," she argues, “allow the world to write the story of their lives, they let mechanisms of reward and punishment – pats on the head – fear, the easiness of an option, to determine what they do." Boy, does she ever have me pegged!

But Chang doesn’t abandon us drifters as lost. She has some advice: “Reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person." And it’s this piece of advice, this call to personal agency, so distinct from how I have felt in making so many of my choices in life, that resonated most strongly with me.

So, yes, I am going to make some hard choices. But, if I think differently about these choices, if I look at them as an opportunity, I think it will feel much better to make choices, and I think I will be much happier with the choices I do make. And, hey, what could be a better opportunity for a writer-in-progress, than the chance to write my own life story, while it’s still happening!

What have been your experiences with hard choices? Do choices feel like opportunities or challenges? Have you changed how you think about choices over time?

I’ll let you know more about some of my choices over the next few months. Stay tuned!