Ruth Chang, TED Talk on Hard Choices

“This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by 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.”

When I was still going through school, I kept changing my mind about what I wanted to do with my life. Maybe I’ll be an accountant. Maybe I’ll be an architect. Maybe I’ll be a psychologist. I kept looking for reasons why I should pursue one career over another. Upon graduation, I stumbled (“accidentally on purpose,” as I like to tell people) into my career as a freelance writer. And then I found myself having to justify my career choice.

My family thought this freelancing “thing” was just a phase, something that I’d do until I “got a real job.” I kept having to defend my position, explaining to them what it was that I was doing and why I was doing it. And in explaining and justifying my choice to my parents, I threw myself behind the decision too. My hard choice was justified by reasons I created, rather than by reasons that existed in the outside world.

At the very crux of the TED talk given by lawyer turned philosopher Ruth Chang is this notion that ultimately you’re in control of your own fate, because you are the only one who can make these hard choices. It’s not that one option is necessarily any better than the other; it’s about putting yourself behind the decision.

That’s how we can become, as she says, the authors of our own lives. We choose our own adventure and we can justify our decisions, not based on external circumstances but on internal factors. We choose based on our personalities, our standards, and our values.

“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?”

If we were to allow the external world to dictate all of our decision making, we would all be driving our very utilitarian vehicles to our very utilitarian jobs to pay for our very utilitarian bills. There would be no room for artists or philosophers or exotic sports cars. When we look within ourselves and work toward becoming the people we want to be, far more amazing things can happen.

Yes, like me, you may be tempted to do all the things and end up accomplishing nothing as a result. What we need to recognize is that we need to choose something, as hard as it may be, and recognize that there never was a best option from the start. The best decision is the one you make, not the one you choose not to make altogether.

Ruth Chang is the author of Making Comparisons Count and is currently a philosophy professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her TED talk is embedded below.