About Choice

Making choice could be really hard. What we talk about when we talk about choice? It’s not about what choices we make, but about how we make them.

I recently watched a movie, About Time, which, to me, feels like a warm, sweet love letter of musing to the concept of life, that is, in the context of another concept we called time. What stroke me most is the similarity of that musing to the one about choice that I find myself constantly talking to people about.

There are friends who’d come up to consult me when they are facing choices that they deem hard to make. Quit the job or not, take the job or not, move to another city or not, get serious about the current date or not, which career to pursuit, what to study/learn — some tend to ponder the different options by trying to compare them, and almost always, my consulting session starts with “that’s solid gold crap”.

A Problem of Making Choices

Everyone makes choices every single day. Some choices are effortless, straightforward, or even idiosyncratic; while others could be subtle, confusing, annoying, painful, challenging, difficult, impossible, or, in many cases, some or all of them at once.

It is exactly when we try to compare the different possible choices that we almost always encounter the ultimate block. It’s so hard to compare what my life/career could be if I quit this job (and accept a new one) and that if I didn’t. So we get confused, annoyed, and tend to go to a friend or loved one for advice. More often than not, they are not much helpful and after we head back home, with the waves of encouragement already worn out, the confusion remains annoyingly the same.

What’s the problem? To certain issues (mostly bigger issues: life, love, marriage, career, etc.), the choices you think you have aren’t really comparable.

A Theory of Making Choices

At the core of choice making is, inevitably, our value systems. While you may not even think about what to eat for breakfast and grab a sandwich, I could find determining which book to bring to the washroom, at least emotionally, more challenging than deciding whether to quit my current job. While you are torn between the lover and love you leave behind, I married my first and only girlfriend after dating for three months and lived happily ever after.

Two Insights

There are two subtle insights there.

The obvious one is that different things have different values or weights to us, so we make idiosyncratic or random choices for things we deem unimportant or unworthy of the effort, and we think hard and seriously about the things — and therefore the choices — that could have a seemingly explicit impact on our lives.

I don’t care about the tastes and textures of my breakfast, as long as it’s not hard to swallow, and you know what, sandwiches turn out to be delicious to me. But should I quit my current job and accept the offer that seems to be more aligned with my interests (whatever that refers to)? Aspects of my life and career could be at stake here, man. I need to think about it.

While the less obvious insight is the more important one: You don’t think about the other way around when you seem to be happy with the choices you’ve made. You only do that with regrets, which means you’re not happy about them.

I should have started learning guitar a year ago when I had so much spare time. I shouldn’t have quit my previous job, since this new job at the crap startup really sucks with long working hours and no significant salary gain. Regret is a self-indulging, time travel sci-fi experience, in which we visualize the life outcome that other way could have afforded, with every shinny moment impeded with over-decoration.

The Core Challenge

Down to earth, it’s usually the regrets that make us reflect the choices we’ve made. And ta-da — the core challenge of making choices lies in the fact that we don’t know whether we’d regret about the choices we make.

That brings the issue of comparing choices to light. Both the fallacy of regretting and the incomparability of choices can be analogized to a simple question:

Which fruit do you think tastes better, apple or bokachie?

You don’t know. Because you don’t know what a bokachie is (of course not, I just invented it) and surely haven’t tasted it. And if you don’t know what a bokachie is and have never tasted it, how do you compare it with apple?

You can’t.

So how exactly do you compare a possible future (which you haven’t experienced) with another possible future (which you also haven’t experienced)? Bokachie or Cakoyami, which fruit do you prefer?

Four Paths

When we’re pondering making a choice, for example, either A or B, there are actually four, not two, possible paths:

  • Path A Good: We choose A, and somehow (through our own willpower and hardworking, or just pure luck) we end up very satisfied and happy.
  • Path A Bad: We choose A, and somehow (unfortunately) we end up very bad, filled with regret.
  • Path B Good: We choose B, and somehow (through our own willpower and hardworking, or just pure luck) we end up very satisfied and happy.
  • Path B Bad: We choose B, and somehow (unfortunately) we end up very bad, filled with regret.

The funny and unfortunate thing is, we usually only think about Path A Good and Path B Good, or the other two bad cases, but rarely a mix of good and bad cases or all four of them. We indulge ourselves in the dreamy hyper-reality created in our minds and try to compare which one of the two good/bad outcomes is better/worse.

Worse, we can’t even compare anything at all. Apple and bokachie. We can’t choose A and go down the path with an outcome (good or bad), and then travel back in time and choose B (or still choose A and do things a little bit differently) and then compare the two resulting situations and determine which feels better or looks more promising. Unless you’re a time traveler. We go sci-fi every time we try to make a serious choice, and that’s just pathetic.

The Missing Responsibility

What’s usually missing in the choice-making thinking is the awareness, recognition, and acceptance of responsibility. Yes, there will always be many factors — objective or subjective, expected or unexpected, predictable or unpredictable — that contribute to the outcome, and sometimes it does be pure luck (who knows?). While still we can’t deny that our own action, along with the attitude behind it, is part of it, and in many cases, a big part of it.

Saying we are responsible for our own doing might be a little bit too much, while we can definitely say we are responsible for the choice we make, and we are also responsible for the attitude and action we have regarding that choice.

Some people simply tend to ignore their own responsibility and blame anything except their own doing when things went bad. But —

“…when things got hard, you started looking for something to blame, like a big shadow. Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you’re hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.

Evaluate Choices, Not Compare Them

We can’t compare choices, but we can evaluate choices, which takes us into the realm of critical and/or scientific thinking.

I was not being accurate when I claimed that we can really compare anything. There are factors, or just things, that are relatively easier to estimate or predict with a relatively higher deemed probability/possibility. And based on the careful estimations we make, we may have much better situation than not being able to compare at all.

So how exactly should we do it?

A Practice of Making Choices

Everyone makes bad choices. What we can do is to avoid big mistakes and try to make choices that, hopefully, would turn out to be good.

Two Steps

When people come to me for advice on making big/difficult choices, I usually take two steps in hope to be helpful (if at all):

Step 1: I try to make them realize the absurdity of comparing choices in a wishful, sci-fi manner. Talk about apple and bokachie!

Step 2: I try to help them inspect their own underlying value system, so that they might gain a clearer view of what’s important to them. That’s done through a series of drill-down questions regarding many possibilities and estimations derived from propositions.

It’s all about critical thinking and the science, not art, of measuring — anything can be measured.

Ideal Vs. Reality

A common response that appears during the conversation is: Noah, although what you just said (value systems, what really matters and stuff) is all decent and true, I can’t just think about things purely in its ideal ways, there are many inevitable limitations and painful obligations in real life and I can’t just make choices all by my own ideal.

And I’d reply: Aren’t all those real-life considerations part of your thinking? Don’t they challenge certain factors in your value system? If not, then they’re not limitations and obligations at all — they’re just your excuses.

Further Reading

So how do we really consider the possibilities? How do we know our choices are “right”? There are already quite a few books that answer the questions well and I’m not going to repeat here. When we try to answer the questions, we need to think about how to measure our lives, and where our passions are heading, how to distill clarity from chaotic ambiguity, among many other issues.

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