When Hard Choices are Easy

Sometimes, things we call “hard choices” are easy…If you look at them the right way.

So much is made about hard choices.

I’ve had it posed to me by a few people as I made the decision–with the encouragement of a couple of close colleagues–to set off on new adventures over the past year:

“Wow, that must have been a really hard choice to make.”


Well, okay, it came with some anguish because I had fallen in love with the people and mission of the organization that I worked within and had at least partly helped to build and lead…

…but it wasn’t a really hard choice.

The truth is, the segment of society that I live within only faces really hard choices intermittently.

Sometimes, easy choices are lauded too much.

Within the past week or so, a couple of good examples come up.

Example 1:  When moral choices are viewed as “hard.”

Last week, David Boren, former U.S. Senator and current President of the University of Oklahoma, made a decision to shutter the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter at the university and to expel a couple of its members after an almost unbelievable display of racist ignorance was caught on tape and revealed.  Students were filmed chanting a little ditty that invoked not only racist exclusion, but also imagery of lynching.

It was as disgusting as it was unbelievable, and I write this as a middle-aged guy who grew up in the deep south of the U.S.

Boren acted quickly, and correctly.

Reactions were interesting on this one.  People have been impressed with how quickly Boren acted.  Here’s one example (and I emphasize, example… no endorsement or disparagement implied):

Now, this tweet is an honest expression that arises no doubt out of many kinds of frustration with prior examples of foot dragging in the face of such decisions. However, look at the words:  Awe, moral, steadfast.   Wow. David Boren had the easiest moral decision to make.  He threw a couple of ignoramuses who just might be racists off the campus of a university, and he shuttered a student organization that had clearly propagated the chant and the mindset to deliver it with impunity. We are in awe at the morality of his decision because it’s unusual, but shouldn’t confuse that with hard. 

Example 2:  When personal resource tradeoffs are viewed as “hard.” 

Also last week, Google’s CFO, Patrick Pichette, announced his resignation with a candid and interesting memo.  The gist?  It’s time to spend time with family. I get that. I also applaud the tone of the memo. But, it has been, once again, interesting to see some of the reactions to the announcement.

The language:  Honest, refreshing, and heartwarming.

Let’s be clear, the choice to leave a high profile leadership position at one of the world’s “great” companies to spend time with one’s family may be a tough one for a given individual.  But, what we are seeing is simply a guy making a different choice in life.

He has made a fortune as an executive, has watched his kids leave the house, and has had an epiphany that he just might need to allocate his resources (read that: time) differently before it’s too late.


Perhaps, unusually.

But this isn’t a “hard choice.”

We hold up people making “unusual” choices as if they are heroes, and confuse “unusual” with “hard.”

Perhaps these are roads less traveled, but they aren’t “hard” choices in the traditional sense of the word.

What hard choices really are

Hard choices are more like:

– Do I make payroll or pay the bank?

– Should I send my last $20 to the power company or the water company?

– Do I quit my job to take care of my sick relative?

– Do I leave this abusive marriage?

– Do I blow the whistle on corporate or executive malfeasance, or just leave?

– Do I really need to go to the doctor to get this back pain and cough figured out?

– Should I opt for treatment, or for quality of life?

Those are hard choices.

See what I did there? Hard choices are about choosing between two different forms of pain.  There is no clear outcome.  Hard choices come where there isn’t enough to go around, or there isn’t a clear moral, ethical, or [insert standard of judgment here] win.

Choosing between two different forms of pleasure or choosing to do the patently right thing may sometimes be difficult, but it’s not a “hard” or “moral” choice as the implications tend to get noted.

Let’s not confuse the notion of opportunity cost with the notion of making really hard choices.

I write this because I have personally failed in making this distinction too many times.

How this applies to the world of business leadership and this blog…

Somebody reading this is facing a dilemma, and they are posing it as a “hard” choice to themselves.  It might be the dilemma of leaving a toxic culture or relationship, or taking a personal risk to make a big strategic move on behalf of the themselves or a company.

I encourage that person to reflect on the choice in, perhaps, a different way:  Is the choice hard because there is no morally or painfully clear outcome, or is it hard because doing the morally clear thing is simply difficult?  What happens if you don’t make the choice?

It’s important that we avoid confusing clear but painful decisions with truly ambiguous “hard” choices.

This matters in business, and it matters in life.

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