The world of relationships is rife with hard choices – at each stage, you have to decide whether you’re in or you’re out, whether to brave that next date or relegate them to the friend zone, whether to invest more in an unsatisfying relationship or to throw in the towel and break up. Numerous are the opportunities for “agonizing, hand-wringing, the gnashing of teeth.”

In times where I have to make difficult calls, I find myself coming back time and time again to Ruth Chang’s TED talk on hard choices. Chang is the Professor and Chair of Jurisprudence at the University of Oxford and a Professorial Fellow of University College, Oxford. She’s no stranger to hard choices. After graduating from college, she found herself deciding between a career in philosophy and one in law. Coming from an immigrant family, being a philosopher seemed like the “height of extravagance and frivolity”, so she went with the less risky option of becoming an attorney. After getting her JD from Harvard Law and dipping her toe into the legal world, she soon realized that this path was not for her. She went to Oxford to pursue philosophy, and has since then been studying choice, freedom, value and action.

When I first listened to this talk, I expected a scientist’s approach to decision analysis. Rather, what I found was a philosophers call to arms for agency in identity-creation – one that very much resonated with me then, and continues to do so now. Here are a few excerpts that stand out:

  • There’s no best alternative: “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…. So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be?”

  • On the incommensurability of values: “We unwittingly assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are akin to scientific quantities, like length, mass and weight…. So if what matters to us – a child’s delight, the love you have for your partner – can’t be represented by real numbers, then there’s no reason to believe that in choice, there are only three possibilities – that one alternative is better, worse or equal to the other. We need to introduce a new, fourth relation beyond being better, worse or equal, that describes what’s going on in hard choices. I like to say that the alternatives are “on a par.” When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose, but one alternative isn’t better than the other. Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value, in the same league of value, while at the same time being very different in kind of value. That’s why the choice is hard.”

  • The danger of drifting: “Now, people who don’t exercise their normative powers in hard choices are drifters…. Drifters 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.”

  • Hard choices are a crucible: “When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am…. So the lesson of hard choices: reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person. 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.”