Making Hard Career Choices

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Ruth Chang
TED Ruth Chang

Regardless of your political persuasion, it's hard to miss that Hillary Clinton is on a national tour for her latest book Hard Choices. But if you're facing your own hard choices, be it in love, living conditions, or a career, a better source to consider might be the lesser known TED Talk by Ruth Chang similarly entitled How to Make Hard Choices. Released in May 2014, Chang's talk pre-dates Hillary's release, takes only 14-minutes to absorb from beginning to end, is free, and falls much closer to home on how we face our own hard choices in careers and other key walks of life.

"Understanding hard choices uncovers a hidden power each of us possess," Chang notes in the beginning of her talk. Using examples from her own life where she had to choose whether to be a lawyer or philosopher, she deconstructs why we agonize so much over major life decisions. The answer may surprise you, and her own choices may surprise you as well.
A child of immigrants, Chang chose to become a lawyer. Like many overachieving first-generation Americans she not only got a law degree, but has a J.D. from Harvard. She admits that she did what most people do when faced with two hard choices. She took the easy way out.

(For a different first-generation perspective, see how my mother encouraged me not to take the easy route.)

Although few would consider a law degree from Harvard an easy route, for Chang it was clearly the safer choice. Here's why: A legal career closely matched what she felt her parents would want for her. By becoming a lawyer, she was helping to achieve her parent's dreams, if not her own.

Career choices are value judgments
Career choices, Chang notes, are value judgments. There are no right or wrong choices, just individual values. One person may value being creative and become an artist, while another might value money and become a banker. Neither value is wrong – just different. And since there is no right or wrong, the choice of whether to become a doctor, coach, or any other profession, becomes hard until you define your own values.

It's not the age-old question of "What do you want to become when you grow up?" Instead, it's the new question of "Whom do you want to be now and for the rest of your own life?"

According to Chang, there's a hidden gift in hard choices. Here it is: Each hard choice allows you to better define who you are. For instance, Chang became a lawyer because it matched the reasons her parents would pick a career. Once Chang became a lawyer, she realized it wasn't the life she wanted for herself.

Today, Chang is a philosopher at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ studying how the rest of us make our own hard life choices to pursue alternate passions including careers.

In facing hard choices, Chang states: "We become the authors of our own lives." People who avoid hard choices are in contrast "drifters" -- people who let others determine whom they'll be. While many people might choose to avoid the agony that comes in deciding between hard choices, Chang suggests hard choices be viewed as "Godsends." They are, she says, "special opportunities" to become distinctive.

How the long-term unemployed can think differently
Many people, particularly the long-term unemployed might argue they have no choices so any job offer is easy, and certainly not a hard choice. Chang might challenge them to think differently.

Did they decide not to relocate, not to invest in training, pre-decide before sending in a cover letter that not having a degree was disqualification, not try an alternative career, or simply to keep hitting the same brick walls? Hitting brick walls doesn't sound easy, but for some it is easier that climbing over them and taking a peek at potential new landscapes.

What story are you writing for yourself?

Is it a political career instead of a legal career as Hillary Clinton seems to be pursuing, or a philosopher's life over a legal one as Ruth Chang has chosen? What are your hard choices, and how can they help you define whom you want to be versus whomever you were becoming before?

Remember, there are no wrong answers.
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