Choices, not abilities…

I think no one has put this as brilliantly and as succinctly as Albus Dumbledore –

“It is our choices, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

~ J. K. Rowling

And that exactly is the point of this article. In case you need to refresh your memory, you can watch how Dumbledore explains this to Harry Potter.

Choices, not abilities...
Choices, not abilities… (PC: Pinterest)

This single insight can be the most empowering belief that you can carry with you. We see these examples everywhere – people choose to devote their time and efforts to something and then develop exceptional abilities; often by spending 10,000 hours or even more as Malcolm Gladwell suggested in his book Outliers. On the other hand, there are people with inherent talent but they just blow it away by their life choices. At almost every crucial crossroads in our career or life, we are faced with many options, and essentially, what we choose in such situations reveals more about us and what we value.

As a simple anecdotal example, we can choose to eat healthy and develop a healthier body or we can choose to eat junk-food and mess up our healthy body.

Of course in many challenging, real-life cases choosing is not easy – and that is what I am going to discuss next, all those really difficult choices.

I have a friend working in a corporate job that she doesn’t enjoy much. She really loves writing but cannot take it up full-time as she must continue her current job due to financial constraints. As we discussed this at length, I could help her understand that she can still choose to write along with her current work. She is now pursuing an interesting online creative writing course and whatever I have read of her writing so far,  it is quite impressive. She is doing few more helpful things that she didn’t do earlier, but now she is consciously choosing to do them – for her own good.

It doesn’t really matter much what you have or being dumped into; what you choose to do with it is far more important. And trust me, you always have a choice. Moreover, not choosing is a choice as well!

Ruth Chang is an American professor of philosophy at Rutgers University known for her research on hard choices and decision-making. When she graduated from college, she was presented with a choice: Pursuing a career in philosophy, or a career in law. Soon after finishing Harvard Law School and experiencing the legal world, she regretted her decision and switched paths. She went off to Oxford University to study philosophy and has been a philosopher studying choice, freedom, value and action ever since.

In this talk she discusses her own experiences and what makes it difficult for us to choose in situations that she refers as ‘hard choices’.

What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall. You agonize over whether to stay in your current job in the city or uproot your life for more challenging work in the country, because staying is better in some ways, moving is better in others, and neither is better than the other overall.

Chang narrates her own dilemma while choosing philosophy over law and how she had drifted earlier. She makes a strong case for situations when there is no clear winner – no such thing as a clearly better option. She argues that such option are ‘on a par’. She goes further and says that in such cases, we actually put ourselves behind the choices we make, it is more about who we are, not so much about outside factors. When there are no obvious external reasons to mark one option better than others, then we must create our own reasons.

This is how she puts it wonderfully in her TED talk –

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am, I am for banking. I am for chocolate donuts.
So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

Do watch her entire talk here –

Maybe, Dumbledore always knew this! 🙂

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