Jan 05, 2015

    Make the right choices this new year

    THE annual ritual of the New Year's resolution - I'll lose 10kg, get my finances in order, be more patient with my family, feel more grateful - misses the point.

    We try to steel our wills to do what we know we should be doing. Kick-in-the-pants reminders, however stern, are missed opportunities for genuine self-renewal.

    The turning over of a new year is an opportunity to create ourselves anew. How? The key, I suggest, is in changing our understanding of the choices we make.

    For many people, the most important choices in life are sources of agony, dread, paralysis - even depression or suicide. It doesn't have to be like this.

    A hypothetical example: Eve works as a textbook editor at a Boston publishing house and was approached by a small but prestigious imprint on the West Coast that was looking for a fiction editor. The job would mean a big promotion with a significant raise, and Eve had always wanted to work in fiction.

    But she is in crisis. Should she move her husband and young daughter from their cosy life in Boston, her home of 15 years, to the wilds of California? If she stays, will she be forsaking the opportunity of a lifetime?

    Many people are like Eve and see their choices as, in essence, problems of computation.

    But choosing between jobs is not like computing the distance between Memphis and Mumbai. The view of choice as a matter of calculating maximal value is assumed in cost-benefit analysis, government policymaking and much of economic theory.

    At the heart of this model is an assumption: What you should choose is always determined by facts in the world about which option has more value - facts that, if only you were smart enough to discover, would make decision-making relatively easy.

    But the assumption is false. When we compute distances, there are only three possibilities: one distance is more than, less than or equal to another.

    Similarly, when we compute value, there are only three possibilities: one thing is better than, worse than or just as good as another. But we shouldn't assume that goodness is like distance.

    Options can be "on a par" - different in value while being in the same overall neighbourhood. If your alternatives are on a par, you can't make a mistake of reason in choosing one instead of the other.

    When alternatives are on a par, when the world doesn't determine a single right thing to do, that doesn't mean that value writ large has been exhausted.

    Instead of looking outwards to find the value that determines what you should do, you can look inwards to what you can stand behind, commit to, resolve to throw yourself behind. By committing to an option, you can confer value on it.

    Of course, this isn't to say that you should commit to being a first-class jerk, paedophile or murderer. That's because being a jerk is not on a par with being a good person.

    When we choose between options that are on a par, we make ourselves the authors of our own lives. In those cases, we can create value for ourselves by committing to an option.

    By doing so, we not only create value for ourselves, but we also (re)create ourselves. Eve might resolve to make her life in Boston. Someone else, in her shoes, might resolve to start a new life in California. There is no error here, only different resolutions that create different sorts of people.

    So Eve, faced with her choice, should reflect on what kind of person she can be. Can she be someone who abandons a contented life for a new adventure?

    A choice between alternatives that are on a par is a precious opportunity to create the sort of person she can commit to being, by committing to being that sort of person.

    Many of the choices we face in the new year will be between alternatives that are on a par. Our task, then, is to reflect on what kind of person we can commit to being when making those choices.

    So, in this new year, let's not do the same old, same old. Let's not resolve to work harder at being the selves that we already are. Instead, let's resolve to make ourselves the selves that we can commit to being.