Ruth Chang has spent her employed life exploring why choices can be so hard and how to make hard choices when they appear. However, you don’t need to be a philosopher like Chang to explore these and other difficult questions. On November 10, 2016, I interviewed Dean of Engineering at UNC Charlotte, Robert Johnson. “Dean Bob” as he is referred to by those close to him fits society’s typical picture of success as a well-traveled, academic individual. Achieving this status took effort and, yes, the making of hard choices.
To kick-start the interview, I asked Dean Bob who he is exactly and what defines him. He confessed that throughout his life, he has been defined by different things, but his love of learning is one constant in how he defines himself. This love of learning, combined with chance, resulted in Dean Bob receiving a full scholarship to Cal Tech and later becoming a professor at the University of Illinois, a top school in engineering.
His love of learning is a logical progression to the position of a faculty member at a university, but when I asked Dean Bob how he thinks he got to where he is today, he responded “accidents more than careful planning.” These “accidents” can be traced back to his acceptance into Cal Tech. This prestigious school drew him in, not because of its reputation, but because he had always wanted to go to California. Following graduation, he could have used his degree to work in industry and earn twice as much as in the field of academia. However, colleagues from Cal Tech recommended him to employers at the University of Illinois and he pursued the position. He did so, not as a part of a greater plan for his future, but because he wanted to keep his options open. By starting in academia with its lower pay, he could easily transfer to a job in industry. Going the other way around would have meant cutting back his standards of living and would therefore have been more difficult. Throughout his early life, Dean Bob made choices to purposefully leave his options open.
Ruth Chang argues in her Ted Talk “How to make hard choices” we have misunderstood hard choices. In hard choices, neither option has more benefits or drawbacks than the other. Dean Bob addresses this by keeping his options open. In this way, if a decision doesn’t make you happy, you can choose the alternative option. In the words of Dean Bob, “Keep your eyes open. Keep your options open.”