Ruth Chang: How to make hard choices


Ruth Chang is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. She is known for her research on the incommensurability of values and on practical reason and normativity.


Ruth discusses how to make hard choices – between 2 jobs or partners, or whether to have children. In an easy choice one is better than the other. In a hard choice each choice has better qualities, but neither is clearly better. We think of them as big choices, but the same dilemma can happen when choosing breakfast – do you want healthy food or tasty food? By realising that even these small choices are hard, we can make the big ones easier: if I managed to eat breakfast I should be able to choose a new job. We also shouldn’t think of ourselves as stupid for being unable to pick a best option – they may genuinely be equally good options.

When choosing between being a philosopher and a lawyer Ruth tried writing the pros and cons, agonised over her decision, wished she could see a DVD of her life after taking each option. She settled on lawyer out of fear – she didn’t think she could get a job as a philosopher, and lawyering seemed the safe route. Later she switched back, becoming a philosopher.

Looking at a hypothetical job choice between banking and artistry, you can list all the advantages of each but still be unable to choose one over the other. You can then start to imagine what it would take to make one better than the other – eg if you added an additional $500/month to the banker’s salary, is it suddenly clearly better than the artist? Not necessarily, and this may show that the 2 original options were not equal. If the original jobs were equal, then adding more salary to one should have made it clearly better.

Choices are difficult because they cannot be easily broken down into numbers. In comparing the weight of 2 suitcases, one could be heavier, lighter or equal in weight. All questions involving numbers can be broken down in this way. It is a mistake to think that these simple numerical comparisons have the same structure as the decisions between your future life. We need to make a 4th alternative – that things can be better, worse, equal, or ‘on a par’. When decisions are on a par, neither is better or worse than the other, and your lifestyle after the decision is not exactly the same, but you see both future lives as having a similar value.

We need to see hard choices as empowering. If life only consisted of easy choices, we would always pick the clearly better route. We would then be slaves to our own reason. It is the ‘on a par’ decisions where we get to create our own reasons for picking one over the other, and define who we are. We become the authors of our own lives. People who don’t exercise their own reasons on hard choices become drifters. They allow the world around them to dictate their lives – they follow the obvious rewards, punishments, and fears to define them. Ruth was drifting when she chose to be a lawyer and later regretted it.

When the ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ choices disappear, we have the power to create reasons for ourselves, and become the distinctive people we are. That is why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.

Dan Gilbert: The psychology of your future self


Dan Gilbert is a Harvard psychologist and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”


Why do people look back at decisions that they regret – that the ideas they embraced 10 years ago they would now rush to reject? Dan looks at a misconception of time – that we have turned into the person we are over time, but will stay as we are now into the future.

People change less as time goes on – the older the person is, the less they change. Dan asks people to predict how much they will change over the next decade and compare it to people of the same age who say how much they changed over the last decade. The finding was that people greatly underestimate how much they will change in the future.

This same pattern can be seen in a number of things – their best friend, favourite vacation, favourite band, their personality traits, their level of success in life. People expect their values right now will persist into the future, while in truth they will change.

Dan suggest this is because it is much easier to remember who we were, rather than imagine or predict what they will become. So because it is difficult, we assume it will not happen.

This leaves us with an illusion that right now is a special moment where we become the person we will always be. Human Beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished.

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation


Dan Pink is the author of five books about business, work, and management that have sold two million copies worldwide


Dan Pink introduces ‘The Candle Problem’ – attaching a candle to a wall with a box of thumbtacks and matches to that it doesn’t drip. 2 groups try to solve the problem – one is told they are timing to discover norms, while the other is given money if they are in the top 25%. This test consistently shows that the group being given money is 3minutes slower than the other. Other research over 40 years backs up the idea that for most tasks you can’t incentivize people to perform better with money. This is one of the most robust findings from social science, but also the most ignored. There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

Extrinsic motivators do however work well for ’20th century tasks’ – with manual work and simple solutions. The reward narrows their focus towards the answer, and pushes them to solve it quicker. But most modern professionals don’t do this kind of work, they do much more complicated tasks with no easy answer. An MIT study found a similar result – for simple mechanistic tasks a reward improved their performance, but if they required ANY kind of cognitive function the higher reward decreased performance.

Modern psychology is leaning more towards intrinsic motivators – the desire to do more for personal reasons. In the business setting it revolves around

  • autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives
  • mastery – the urge to get better, or develop skills
  • and purpose – the need to do what we do for reasons bigger than ourselves.

Dan’s talk focuses on autonomy. Management is an example that improves compliance, but decreases autonomy for most workers. Modern approaches can increase autonomy – giving people a personal project. Atlassian for example is a software company that makes engineers take a day off their normal work to develop whatever they want – as long as it is unrelated to their normal work and they deliver something by the end of the day. This approach was so successful that they adopted Google’s famous approach, which lets people allocate 20% of their time to personal projects. Around half of Google’s new products come from engineer’s personal projects.

A more extreme approach is ROWE – Results Only Work Environment. People can work whatever hours they want as long as they do the work. This increases autonomy and productivity, and decreases staff turnover.

Dan’s ultimate example was Microsoft Encarta vs Wikipedia. Encarta was build by well paid professionals and managers, incentivized with standard extrinsic motivators. Wikipedia was built by unpaid (autonomous) volunteers for fun, and because they believed in the project. In 1999 no economist would have tipped that Encarta’s model would be overtaken by Wikipedia’s, but it has.

If we get past the simplistic ‘carrots vs sticks’ ideology, and allow people to be more motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose, we can make our businesses stronger and maybe change the world.

Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend

Speakers: Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist known for her popular explanation of scientific research.


Kelly has been treating stress as a disease that makes people sick, but has now changed her tune. A study assessed people’s feelings of stress, their attitude towards stress, and correlated against public death records. The people most likely to die were more stressed, but they also believed that stress was harmful to their health. People who were highly stressed but didn’t believe it was harmful were the least likely group to die. The study shows it isn’t stress that kills people, it’s the belief that stress is harmful. By reshaping how you think about stress, you can retool your body’s response.

When stressed, your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, and you’ll break out into a sweat. Normally we’d view these as signs that you’re not coping well, but people could also be taught that your body is preparing for action. By pumping more blood and breathing more you are preparing for something difficult, and ready to take on any challenge.

The harmful part of stress is a restriction of blood vessels, which is associated with cardiovascular disease. When people learn to see stress as a positive, the blood vessels do not constrict. The body response looks more like it is full of joy.

The next time you are stressed, think about it as your body preparing you for the challenge.

Stress makes you social. Octytocin is a neural hormone that primes you to strengthen relationships, and help your friends. It is also known as ‘the cuddle hormone’. But Oxytocin is also released as a stress response – to make you want to tell someone you are struggling. Oxytocin is also received in the heart, to strengthen, heal and protect it from the effects of stress. As you release more of this hormone by being stressed or helping others, you increase your stress resilience.

Another study looked at how stressed people were, how much time they had spent helping family / friends / their community, and correlated with public death records. For the general respondants, each major stressful crisis increased the risk of dying by 30%. However, people who spent time caring for others had no increase in risk of death due to stress.

The results of stress are changed by your mindset. When you think of stress as a benefit it acts that way. When you help others, you build resilience to stress.

When given a choice between a stressful job and one that is less stressful, Kelly recommends that you follow the one that gives you the most meaning, and trust yourself to handle the stress that results.