The Upside of Hard Choices

Recently, I watched an interesting Ted talk by Ruth Chang about how to make hard choices. It struck my interest, especially the end, because it revealed how hard choices aren’t really a burden. They’re an opportunity.

Before we get to what that opportunity is, let’s take a step back and look at why hard choices are so hard.

Basically, Chang talks about how choices feel difficult when one choice is not really better than the other.

When faced with a hard choice, you can’t toss viable options into bags and put them on scales to see which is heavier. They’re too different for that. Too complex.

But these tough choices are often not so different that they’re incomparable. For example, deciding between two wildly different career paths may result in loads of elements to consider, many of which can’t simply be compared side by side, but ultimately you are deciding between two options for work. The comparison is challenging to make, but at the same time it’s perfectly valid and normal.

In this mess lies opportunity.

When faced with tough choices, many of us try to make sense of the reasons given to us from the world. We gather these reasons, assess them, and painfully pick one route over the other. But the importance of these moments may not be about picking the “right” path.

They’re important, Chang argues, because they’re unique opportunities to assert who you are.

You get to take a stand.

More, you have the opportunity to go beyond decisions presented to you from the world; instead, you can make your own reasons, reasons formed out of an identity you are actively and mindfully shaping.

In other words, it’s when you’re pushing through a tough decisions that you’re really putting weight behind who you are, what you believe, and the life you’re electing to lead. It’s a chance to declare through action: things like “I’m someone who is for working in the art world” or something a bit more mundane like “I’m someone who is for eating a healthy breakfast every morning.”

In short, the upside of hard choices is that, if you approach them as an opportunity take a stand, they’re empowering. More, they may serve as a catalyst for transformations that may have never happened without the hard choice.

A Snippet of History: Technology, Excitement, and Fear

As the train approached, everyone in the room freaked out. Some ran out of the building.

I should clarify: a train wasn’t actually there. It was in a movie. Specifically, a short silent film called L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat [Station]).

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat

But people freaked out because it was the 19th century, film was new, and the crowd couldn’t help but feel awe (and terror) at the new technology 

That story still gets passed on today, a century later, even though historical scholars believe it is somewhat bogus folklore. It’s still noteworthy to me because it reflects one narrative about humankind’s struggle with technology — a narrative where we’re excited and curious about tech, but also sometimes fearful.

Vine Video: Short Content With Century-Old Roots

Whether we’re talking about Twitter updates in 140 characters or Vine video clips no longer than six seconds, many people are clamoring to communicate more through less.

Some critics say Twitter statuses and short Vine videos are gloomy reminders that society can no longer focus. Modernity is killing our attention span, they say. Just look at this super-short aberration!

I’m not here to argue the finer points of dwindling mental capacity. I haven’t done enough research to take a stand. But I do think it’s interesting to note that abbreviated media isn’t exactly cutting edge. It has been around a while.

A man using a kinetoscope

A publicity photo for the Edison Kinetoscope

More than a century, actually.

Quick history lesson:

At the end of the 19th century, Thomas Edison — yep, the guy who developed the electric light bulb — invented an early motion picture camera (called a Kinetograph) and a device to view the films (Kinetoscope). The films were short and sweet; Edison suspected people couldn’t endure the “flickers” for long.

The new technology was a hit.

Kinetoscope parlors started popping up around the country. People were eager to spend their hard-earned money to catch a few seconds, maybe a minute, of moving images. Continue reading