How to See Hard Choices as Empowering

Big decisions don’t have to be overwhelming. It’s all in how you frame the answers.

How to See Hard Choices as EmpoweringIllustrations by Jeannie Phan

When confronted with a difficult decision, we can be like deer in headlights: dazed and unable to choose a direction. Should you start your own company or stay in your current job? Pick investment A over investment B? Opt for this course of medical treatment or that one? The answer isn’t always obvious, and the fear of making a potentially dis­astrous move can send anxiety levels skyrocketing or allow paralysis to set in.

Despite these pitfalls, empowerment is possible-it’s a matter of shifting our mindset. Here are some steps to feeling liberated in the quest to find answers.

Step 1: Take It Easy
“Most of the paralysis in decision-making comes from assuming the world has the right answer and we’re just too stupid to figure it out,” says Ruth Chang, a philosopher at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Not so, she insists. Chang studies the process of making hard choices and has outlined a new framework for those tough calls. According to her thinking, in truly complex situations, there is no right answer and no one option better than another. “So when we face hard choices,” she says, “we shouldn’t tear our hair out trying to figure out which alternative is better.”

If you need further incentive to ease up on yourself, consider a 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors found that anxiety clouds your judgment and makes you more likely to seek outside counsel and act on bad advice.

Step 2: Do the Grunt Work
While less-demanding decision-making is your goal, you still have some heavy lifting to do. There has been a surge of insight into the field of emotional/instinctual/intuitive decision-making, yet you should still start at the beginning: with the facts. Chang argues that studying the alternatives, making pros and cons lists and working out the hypotheticals is important and unavoidable. However, if you’ve studied all the options and a clear decision doesn’t rise to the top, don’t get stuck. Move on to the next step.

Step 3: Dig Deep
Montreal-based certified life coach Erica Diamond knows that finding the answers to life’s truly tough questions requires a one-two punch.

“We often think that decision-making is all logic,” she says. “But the best decisions are made with a combination of intellect and instinct. Good strategists collect information based on these two things until they feel they can make a good decision.”

In research released in 2014 by Time Inc.’s Fortune Knowledge Group and global advertising firm Gyro, 62 per cent of executives admitted to relying on gut feelings and other unquantifiable factors, while 65 per cent said that subjective elements influenced the choices they made.

“Any big decisions can’t be made in a vacuum of analytics,” said Christoph Becker, Gyro’s CEO, in an interview shortly after the study was released. “It’s underscored by a rational structure, but emotion has to lead.”

Step 4: Distinguish Yourself
In going through the exercise of listing the facts, pondering the possibilities and letting sentiments play a part in decision-making, remember that hard choices are an opportun­ity. “When we pick between options that are on a par, we can do something rather remarkable: we can put our very selves behind an option. And what we put our agency behind really does define what matters to us and who we are,” says Chang. “You might say that we become the auth­ors of our own lives.”

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, would agree. In a commencement speech he gave to Princeton’s class of 2010, he echoed Chang’s philosophy, outlining why we should view decision-making as empowering. “When you are 80 years old and, in a quiet moment of reflection, narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story.”

The Gadget
Want to try a totally 21st-century method of decision-making? Turn to for answers about where to work, live and invest. Created by financial-tech whiz kid Ben Gimpert, the web tool allows you to plug in and assign a weighted percentage to your priorities, like vacation time, pay and
office environment. A quick analysis of the numbers and-bam-the choice is made.

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