Why We Cannot Out Think Hard Choices?

Often, when we face a dilemma, the more we think, the less certain we become. Why is that? In this Growth Zone Series, let's uncover what's happening when we face difficult choices. And what questions we can ask ourselves to make better decisions.

Text from video,

We all faced hard choices in our life. 

If you were asked to name one, you could go with choosing between different fields of study, like graphic designer or banker.

Or you could say the choices between two job offers. 

One in a big corporation, excellent for your career progression, or one in a startup, exciting and promising.

But when we are asked for hard choices, we won’t mention the one we had to do for desserts. 

Do we go with the creme brulee or the chocolate fondant?

For those with a sweet tooth like me, the choice is tough.

And that’s one of the first misconceptions we have about hard choices. 

There are not necessarily big choices, like making the decision to change your career or expatriate. 

And the opposite is also true. 

Big choices are not always hard choices.

A choice is easy when there’s a clear “winner” between all your alternatives. 

When there’s one solution that stands out, that looks like the obvious one to pick.

In this case, we have an easy choice. 

Maybe buying your first house, or deciding on having your first child is an easy choice, even if this is – at the same time – a big decision.

So what makes a choice difficult? What is a hard choice?

That would be a choice where there’s no alternative that really stands out. Each option seems valuable. 

So what do we do then? 

We sit down at our desk, take a notepad, draw two columns. On the left side, we write pros. And on the other side, the cons. We try to list all the elements in favor or against our choice.

That’s the rational thing to do. 

Let reason be our guide to make this hard choice.

Now, if this is a hard choice, this list will not help you. 

But you probably know it already, don’t you?

You already did this list. Maybe several times. Writing in your notepad or thinking in your head. You are repeating the same arguments, again and again – without coming up with a conclusion.

We can’t out-think a hard choice. 

We won’t know, for sure, the outcomes of our choices, no matter how hard we try.

We won’t know all their ramifications. So our comparisons will always be incomplete. 

There will always be some unknown.

But more than that, how do you weigh or quantify things such as freedom, growth, well-being, which are usually factors in our hard choices?

In her TedTalk, Ruth Chang, professor at the University of Oxford, explains that hard choices can’t be rationalized with scientific measurements. 

She gives the example of comparing the weight of two suitcases. 

There are only three possible outcomes. 

The first suitcase is heavier, lighter, or has the same weight than the second suitcase.

But that’s different in the case of hard choices. 

If we make the comparison between two job offers: one as a data analyst in a startup, on an exciting topic. With some shares but a low wage. 

The other one as a financial analyst for a big bank. Nothing exotic, but giving you financial security. 

That could be your hard choice. 

The choice is difficult because we cannot decide which job offer is better than the other. 

So if there were suitcases, none would be heavier or lighter. They would have the same weight. The job offers would have equal value.

Now let’s say, we increase, by a little bit, one of the alternatives. 

Let’s say the bank is offering five hundred dollars more per month.

If both options were equal before, then increasing the value of the banking job should make it a clear winner, right?

But that’s often not the case. 

Even with this change, the choice still remains difficult. 

That’s what professor Chang called being “on par”. 

The alternatives are in the same range of value. We can’t scientifically, mathematically compare them, yet we value them roughly the same.

And because we can’t reason out our hard choice, we create reasons for ourselves. 

We create reasons to justify our choice.

And we all have a default setting. 

An automatic way to deal with the uncertainty of a hard choice. 

We choose the safest option. 

We choose to remain in our comfort zone.

Choosing by default, being passive, often driven by fear, is a recipe for disaster or at the very least dissatisfaction.

So how should you make a hard choice? 

Ask yourself, who do I want to be? What do I truly value above everything else? 

What are my core values and is one alternative more aligned with these values?

A good question to ask yourself is this: What would a friend advise me? 

It’s unlikely she knows every detail of your choice. So she would only focus on the big picture, on what truly matters to you.

So when you face a hard choice, it’s probably because, in your view, there is no clear alternative that is better than the others. 

You can’t rationalize a clear winner. 

If that’s happening, a way forward is to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and find the reasons within you, your core values, to guide your decision. 

If you like this video, leave me a comment. And if you want more, follow me on my socials.

See you soon, 


Picture of Lison Mage

Lison Mage

I help clever individuals and teams conquer overthinking and perform at their full potential. Together, we can go from a place of uncertainty and being paralyzed by doubt to gaining clarity on your current situation, where you want to go, and how to get you there!


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