The Roads We Take; the Choices We Make

By Dr. Ed L. Hansen

“Two Roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost



I have always been intrigued by choices and this poem has stuck with me since I first read it in high school decades back. The discussions we, students and teacher, had at the time are still vivid in my recollection. We talked about the question of whether choices matter; if they do make all the difference. Of course, I’ve made so many choices over the ensuing decades, no answer I could have given then, no opinion I could have shared carried the weight of experience an answer or opinion given today would. Today, in retrospect with the wisdom of age, I would agree with Jean-Paul Sarte, “We are the choices we make.”

The “Why” of Choices

The months of March-to-April 2020 – with the rise of the COVID-19 Challenge – have been months of hard choices; I have made some and I have watched others make them. It has been interesting in the process to consider “Why”. I have thought about “Why” I needed to make my choices. I have seen the choices of others and I have asked myself “Why” they made those choices. I have even asked myself “Why” some people haven’t really made a choice at all.


I began with this question of “Why” we are faced with choices and did a little research. It turns out there is a lot of information out there about “What” a choice is, even more about “How” to make a choice. “Why” we make choices gets short shrift. There is nothing sinister about this. I think it is just the case that we take it for granted. Making choices is something we just do. But, let’s deeply consider the “Why” for a moment. Merriam-Webster defines choice as, “The opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities; the opportunity or power to make a decision.”

William Glasser in Choice Theory says that all choices are made to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Rational choice theory suggests that we all choose whichever option will maximizes interests and provides us with the greatest utility, or benefit. I find this interesting because if we make choices to serve our interest, “Why are some choices so hard to make?”

Choices: Good, Bad, Easy, Hard; what’s the difference?

Philosopher Ruth Chang has studied choices from the “Why” perspective. She sees that some people really struggle with hard choices. She has gone so far as to ask “What makes a choice “hard”? The answers she has found stem from Bill Glasser’s notion of benefit. An “easy” choice is one where the benefit of one possibility is clearly better than the benefit of the other possibility. A “hard” choice, then isn’t necessarily a “big” decision. It is one where the differences in benefit aren’t clear. This seems simple enough, but thinking about it could make your life easier. See, your next “big” decision could be so easy you won’t need to sweat it. Look at your choices and determine which provides the most benefit. This point, of course, assumes you can define your benefit.

I know what you are thinking, “It just can’t be that easy.” The fact is a lot of choices present equal benefit. Those are the truly hard choices. Hard choices are just hard choices. Why is it so often the cases that we fail to make any choice at all. Ruth Chang argues that we have to overcome “fear” in order to make choices when benefits are on par? All of us have our own drivers of fear. Fear of Failure, Fear of Looking Foolish, Fear of the Better Alternative; Fear of Opportunity Cost, the list just goes on and on. The simple truth is, it takes courage to make the hard choices and to overcome our fears.

“The choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice points out that we are the victims of the success of our personal and societal evolutions. We have so much freedom in an affluent society. Choice is freedom and freedom is choice. What’s wrong with that? More options mean more potential for disappointment and regret. We are all just waiting to be disappointed. What if you make the wrong choice? Will you wish later that you had gone in a different direction? That freedom to choose can be a personal liability. After all, if the choice is yours, who do you have to blame if you make the wrong choice? You have no excuse for failure in the choice you make. The pressure is intense. Schwartz jokes, “The secret to success in today’s world is low expectations. The point here is, some choices will be good, and some choices will be bad. Make your choices and live with them. That’s the courage you need today.      

All Things Being Equal, Values Matter!

“At every fork in the road, you make a choice. And, it is those decisions that shape our lives.” – Mike DeWine

I said I wanted to explore the “Why” of choices. I didn’t mean to suggest that we wouldn’t come back around to the “How” of making choices. Ruth Chang provides great insight into choice-making when choices are on par. Make your decision on the basis of your values. Wait, this isn’t scientific or empirical, a weighing of Pros and Cons. This is about what we feel in our gut; this is about seeing the options in terms of the intangibles that matter most to us.

Chang shares her belief that we shouldn’t fear hard choices; we should embrace them; they give us Power. When we make a hard choice we have the opportunity to create a value-driven “reason”. We act on and for a reason created by us – from the inside out – we become the authors of our own lives.

“When you wake up every day you have two choices. You can be either positive or negative, an optimist or a pessimist. I choose to be an optimist. It is all a matter of perspective.” – Harvey Mackay  

You don’t have to wear your Personal Values on your sleeve or move into deep reflection when you consider choices. Consider this simple litmus.

  1. Does the choice you are considering appeal to your Deep Smarts? Do you want to trust yourself on this one?
  2. When looking at the choice, do you see it as expansive or restrictive? Are you thinking Abundance or Scarcity?
  3. Does the choice make you feel joyful or anxious? Do you feel light or do you feel heavy?Are you feeling it in your heart, your head or in your stomach (watch those butterflies)?
  4. Do you want to step into your choice? Are you feeling pushed or pulled into it?

These questions constitute an indicator of status. No single answer is good or bad. None the less, processing through them will tell you all you need to know about your impending choice. Trust your intuition. 

“It is not hard to make a choice when you know what you values are.” – Roy Disney

What was bothering me about some of the decisions I have seen over the past month is that the people making them seemed unsure of the validity of their choice. I observed they were acting on the choice with reluctance rather than confidence. The keys to the successful execution of a choice are confidence and commitment. To initiate and sustain action on a choice with confidence and commitment try following these steps.

  1. Get to your deepest “Why” for making this choice. Ask “Why” five times. Start with “Why am I making this choice? Then, ask “Why” again and again. By the fifth answer, you’ll be clear why this choice is the right choice, easy or hard.
  2. Imagine yourself making the choice and effecting it. See how you feel in process. If it’s good, it’s good. Plus, you’ll see yourself in your action steps. You’ll know how to get started.
  3. Don’t over process your choice. Once you’ve executed steps one and two, push forward with belief in yourself, in your ability to execute on the choice. Trust your own Deep Smarts.
  4. Move Fast not Foolish. Many Action Plans don’t fail because they are poor Action Plans. They fail because they are poorly executed. Latency (delay in executing decisions) kills. Move fast enough to create and sustain momentum, but don’t be fool-hardy. This is the “Art of Action”.
  5. Don’t Back-Pedal. Once you have committed to a choice, go all in to make it happen. “You are either swimming or you aren’t swimming. If you aren’t swimming forward (or even backward) you are drowning.” In the end, you will never know how good or bad a choice was until you get to the end of the process. If you abandon the choice mid-stream, you abandoned the choice, moving to another choice or no choice. Steps one through five will still apply to your new choice. Will you abandon that choice mid-stream? Remember, if your Action Plan isn’t producing the results you are looking for, it suggests the Action Plan needs to be reconsidered, not the choice.