Bina Venkataraman: Heirlooms – The Optimist’s Telescope
What can you learn from a former Obama White House staffer currently teaching at MIT? A series of mental models to help you move beyond the daily deluge of “texts, tasks, and to-dos,” so you can more effectively think ahead. Bina Venkataraman presents living “heirlooms” (ideas, concepts, or output) as a tool to create lasting, enduring work that complements your day-to-day.
“No matter what you do—if you’re an accountant, an activist, a doctor—think of what could be an enduring heirloom of the work you do, and bring that into your life to complement what you’re doing for today.”
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Bina V.: I dropped out of law school when I was in my early twenties. I went to law school very quickly after undergraduate, and not a lot of people know that I dropped out of Stanford Law School two months after going. And part of the reason that I left law school is because I realized that I was looking at it as merely a means to an end, that I was thinking I would get this law degree, and then I would have more interesting legal cases to write about as a writer, because I felt compelled to be writing. But law school has a lot to do with training you for being a lawyer, and I realized that doing things that are purely means to ends, might be rewarding for some people, but it wasn’t incredibly rewarding for me.
Manisha Thakor: Hello, and welcome to the true WELLth Podcast, where we seek to address the deep and meaty issues of money, meaning, and purpose in a surprisingly fun and upbeat manner, from a wide range of angles. My guest today is being a Bina Venkataraman. Bina is the director of Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, and teaches in the department of Science, technology and society at MIT. She’s also a fellow at New America. A former journalist for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, Bina previously served as a senior advisor for Climate Change Innovation in the Obama White House. Bina graduated from Brown University and the Harvard Kennedy School, so when she uses the term “dropout,” to describe her brave decision to move on from Stanford Law School, to find even more meaning in her professional life, let’s be clear that this is a “dropout” in the Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates sense of the term.
Manisha Thakor: And not only does Bina have a mighty impressive background, but she’s about to teach us all something about looking forward, by sharing core concepts from her new book, The Optimist’s Telescope. But before we speak with Bina, I’d like to give you a short piece of homework. Remember the word association exercises that are so often used in comprehensive skill tests like the SAT? Well, I’d like you to think about the word optimism. Now, ask yourself, what is the first related word that pops into your mind? Do you have it? Okay, good. Make a mental note, as we’ll be coming back to it. For now, let’s talk with Bina.
Manisha Thakor: So Bina, what inspired you to write your new book, The Optimist’s Telescope?
Bina V.: The drive to write this book started at first with a frustration, and later turned more to inspiration, and hope. But at the beginning, I was working in the White House several years ago, and my job was to help business leaders and businesses use science, use predictions about future climate risks like droughts and wildfires and floods, to make decisions- business decisions. And I found myself often feeling frustrated, because I would present some scientific findings that could be used in a certain way, or I would meet with a group of business leaders, and find that they would ask me, “Well, what do you know about what’s going to happen in the next couple months, or in that quarter?” And that it was really hard for business leaders to think ahead past the quarter, to the kinds of opportunities or threats that were going to emerge in the future.
Manisha Thakor: I have to jump in here. It’s not just business leaders who have this issue, everyday investors have it too. Time and again, I’ve seen really smart individuals agonizing over their personal portfolios, wondering what’s going to happen in the markets over the next month or the next quarter. And because they are so focused on this, they miss the really important questions, that truly drive long-term results such as, “Am I using the right investment philosophy? Am I saving at a rate that will enable me to meet my goals? Do I have an appropriately-sized capital preservation bucket, so I can weather inevitable periods of market downturn?” You hear my point. Okay, let’s get back to Bina.
Bina V.: I started to ask myself … and I had this moment of realization that I was asking these business leaders to do something that I wasn’t very good at myself, which is to say, “Think ahead, and really chart the future.” And there was something that I needed to learn myself about what could help people think ahead, that might help me do more in my work, and be more successful in trying to help the world prepare for the impacts of climate change. There would also be lessons that could be useful in my own life, in the lives of others, and in communities that I take part in. So it started with that, and then I looked at things happening in my life. And one thing that was happening on a parallel track to my work in the White House, is that I had a Lyme disease infection that I didn’t know about, because I was bitten by a tick, and the tick didn’t leave the telltale bullseye, but I’d had a rash, and I just ignored it, and didn’t go to the doctor.
Bina V.: And I ignored the early warning signs, and I just thought, “What a funny irony. Here I am trying to get these business leaders and community leaders around the country, around the world, to think about the early warning signs of climate change and act now, and I’m the kind of person that can ignore an early warning sign.” So it really got me thinking about what is it in human nature, what is it in our culture, what is it in our society, that makes it so hard to listen to early warning signs, and to think ahead? And what do we know about that, and is there a way to change it? Is it really inevitable? Is it a curse of human nature, or is it something that we can change?
Manisha Thakor: If you are a regular listener to the show, you remember Dr. Daniel Crosby’s episode about the knowing-doing gap, where he shared the story of driving by a hospital, and seeing over a dozen doctors and nurses outside, taking a smoking break. In short, we all have things we know we should be doing, but we aren’t doing them. So Bina, what are the top three things you want people to take away?
Bina V.: The main thing that I discovered in researching this book, is that this is a choice, we have a choice to think ahead. It’s not a curse of human nature, it’s not a curse of human society. Yes, there are factors and aspects of human nature that can lead us to focus more on the immediate, or on getting instant gratification, as opposed to thinking down the road, to what might be good for us. But that really … there are a lot of ways, and a lot of tools we can use, that can help us think ahead. And the second point is that planning for the future matters, and we live in a time of such rapid change, society seems to be remade by technologies at a very rapid pace. But regardless, it’s still meaningful to plan for the future, even when we don’t know exactly what the future holds. And that’s something I hope that people will really get from this book, which is to say that, just because we don’t know precisely what’s going to happen in the future, doesn’t mean we can neglect it.
Bina V.: And the third point is that there’s hope and meaning in thinking ahead for us in our own lives. So a lot of us, I think, feel … and I feel this myself, a longing to have something be more meaningful than just the string of text messages we send every day, or the emails we’re responding to, or the treadmill of tasks that we do in our daily lives. And that embracing our role as ancestors, as descendants, as people who exist in a longer thread of time in a bigger story, is a way to feel that our lives are more meaningful, it’s a way to feel more satisfaction and purpose in one’s life.
Manisha Thakor: It’s the rare person who doesn’t want meaning in life, and yet it’s also the rare person who isn’t drowning in the tidal wave of texts, emails, and tasks that Bina referred to. When Bina referenced embracing our roles as people who exist in the context of a longer thread of time, and a story bigger than our own, I totally got it. But I, like so many others, wasn’t sure how to bridge that gap. What Bina has to say next, provides some profound food for thought.
Bina V.: I got this family heirloom, which is a rare instrument, and I received it from my grandmother. It belonged to my great-grandfather, and it’s an antique instrument called a dilruba. And I got this instrument, and suddenly felt that this object that I owned, was more powerful, and more meaningful to me than anything else I’d owned before. And I didn’t know how to play it yet, I didn’t have a sense of what I would do with it, or where I would put it in my home, but it had this kind of meaning to me and power as an object. And I really didn’t understand why at the time, but what I came to feel in having this heirloom from my great-grandfather, a man I’d never met, was that I was playing a role as a shepherd in time of this object, that the object was one thing, but it was really how it changed how I felt about myself, and my own role.
Bina V.: I was so preoccupied in my career, and I still go through phases like this, with getting as much … meeting immediate objectives, getting the memo to the president when I was in the White House, or teaching the class to my undergraduates at MIT, or getting my article submitted when I’m writing as a journalist for a publication. And all of those things, it’s not to say that they don’t have meaning, they do, but you can do these tasks, you can reply to a bunch of emails one day, or your instant messages, or you can check a lot of things off your to-do list in a day. But you might not feel that you’ve actually accomplished anything meaningful, even if you feel a sense of satisfaction that lasts for that hour, or that moment, or that evening. And there was something about having this object that made me look at myself differently, and then I came to see it more as a metaphor.
Bina V.: The object is one thing, and many of us have heirlooms of different kinds, but really the heirlooms we have are much more extensive than just the physical objects, the chairs you inherit, or the books, or the jewelry that you might get from your parents or your grandparents. People alive today are the descendants of the previous generations of humanity, and we’ve inherited the fruits of that, the knowledge, the technologies, the beautiful ancient artifacts. We have inherited civilization. We’ve also inherited the planet and its resources as we know it. So that role of being descendants, I think, also positions us to think about what we want to pass on to the future. And I do feel that that is a source of meaning that’s deeper than the immediate, and balance of also thinking about what’s meaningful in our lives, and that there are ways to cultivate a mindset that allows us to recognize, and work towards those more meaningful roles we have.
Manisha Thakor: At the heart of this podcast is the question, “What is the difference between wealth, W-E-A-L-T-H and WELLth, W-E-L-L-T-H?” Bina’s next point really brings home this potential dichotomy.
Bina V.: So there’s this great story that was told by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and he wrote about Solon, and Solon was the chief magistrate of Athens in 594 BC. But the story that Herodotus tells about Solon that most connected to my own work, is the story he tells when Solon goes to Sardis, which is modern day Turkey, and he visits this very rich king. And when Solon’s visiting the king, the king asked him to take a tour of all of his riches. So, he walks Solon around onto the places where he’s keeping all his jewels and his gold. And after the tour of his riches, the king asks Solon, “Who do you think is the happiest man in the world?” And Solon says, “It’s someone else.” He talks about this general named Tellus, who died heroically in battle, and had a meaningful life. He says that because he had grandchildren that succeeded him, and he had his heroic life, and he was remembered fondly, his life was in some, the most meaningful, and happy kind of life.
Bina V.: And the king is very upset by this because he says, “I showed you all my riches.” And Solon really makes a point of saying, “The measure of a person’s wealth at one moment in time, is really just a glimpse of that person’s potential for meaning and happiness. And it’s really at the end of our lives, that we look back, and think of the whole sum of what we’ve done, and know what’s meaningful, and what brought us the most success or the most happiness.” And unfortunately, we live in a moment, whenever we’re alive, we tend not to know exactly when we’re going to die, or when we’re going to be measuring our legacy. Especially earlier on in our lives, as I am personally, we aren’t necessarily reflecting on the sum total of our lives. And so the question is, how can we measure ourselves today in a way that better reflects the kind of meaning that we want to have over the course of a lifetime?
Bina V.: And I think it has to do with not measuring too incrementally, so not looking at what we’ve accomplished in a day, and sometimes not even looking at what we’ve accomplished in a month or a year, but to ask ourselves, “How much progress are we making towards the things that we want to accomplish in our lifetimes? How much progress are we making towards what we want to accomplish in five years or 10 years?” And to take stock of that more often, or at least as often as we’re taking stock of how big our bank accounts are today, or how many emails we’ve replied to today.
Manisha Thakor: As a writer, you choose your words very carefully. Now, I noticed you use the term heirloom instead of the phrase legacy. In your mind is there a distinction between the two?
Bina V.: Yes, I think there is, in that I think legacy has all these connotations of being something you drop on people at the end of your life, something you put in your will, or something that people say about you in their obituary, or their eulogy. And I think what I like about the idea of thinking of heirlooms, and not just our legacies, though I totally advocate thinking about one’s legacy as well, is that an heirloom is something that can be used in one’s own lifetime, an heirloom is something that can be cared for. I play the instrument that I inherited, which is my heirloom, but I’m also protecting it for the future. And that seems to me, a more apt metaphor for the resources we have on the planet, or even what we have in our lives. That we are able to enjoy them and use them for the moment, but also think about them as connected to the future. And it feels to me like more of a balance between our needs and desires, and what brings us joy today, and what we want to pass on to the future.
Manisha Thakor: Do you think of heirlooms as tangible objects, or could they also be concepts or phrases that get passed through generations?
Bina V.: I absolutely think of heirlooms as more than just physical objects. I think heirlooms include our knowledge, our technologies, our community sense of values. They include ideas. So, I think when you think about what is an heirloom. An heirloom can be your work, it can be the kind of work that you have, and thinking about it as it might endure into the future. I think for some people’s work, if they’re teachers of young people, that’ll be more obvious, but I really encourage anyone, no matter what you do, if you’re an accountant, if you’re an activist, if you’re a doctor, to think about what’s enduring of the work you do, or what could be enduring of the work you do, and to bring that into your life, and to have it compliment what you’re doing for today.
Manisha Thakor: A book on my shelf that is well worn is Eckhart Tolle’s Be Here Now. How do you juxtapose that powerful concept with your points about the importance of thinking ahead to the future?
Bina V.: I think they’re much more related. I think this idea of being here now, and being present, and finding meaning over time, or doing things that have purpose in the future, are much more related than people think. I think what’s distinct from both of those, is this constant state of pursuing immediate satisfaction or instant gratification, that feeling when you’re holding your phone, waiting for the next text message reply to come in. And that’s the state that we’re usually in. We’re on the treadmill, we’re trying to get that next project done, we’re trying to receive that next message back. We’re really in the state, not of being present, but of anticipating what’s immediately next. And so I think being present in the moment, observing what’s in your immediate surroundings, is a great way to ground oneself. But that also creates the opportunity, if you’re more present in the moment, for you to be imagining possible future, for you should be thinking about your role and your purpose as it pertains, not just to this instant, but to what’s really eternal, to what lasts over time, and what endures.
Bina V.: So I don’t see them as that separate, and I also will say that I’m not an advocate of just putting all of your ideas, and all of your thinking, and all of your resources into the distant future. I am an advocate of being more balanced. It’s almost like thinking about a portfolio or something. If you were putting everything into one timeframe of investment, or one kind of investments, that probably wouldn’t be very wise. And I think that’s true when it comes to our attention, when it comes to our work, when it comes to our lives, and when it comes to how we participate in democracy. And so our balance right now is out of whack, we’re way more focused on what’s immediately next, than we are on what’s going to be good for the future and future generations. And so what I’m hoping will happen, is that this book will help people see the need to recalibrate that balance, and to put more investment in the future.
Manisha Thakor: Let’s end this episode by returning to the very beginning, where I asked you to make a note of the first word that popped into your head when I said optimism. By any chance was your word happiness? If so, that’s a perfect segway into my first takeaway. Well, we live in an age where books on happiness and positive psychology are all the rage. One thing that is not discussed nearly as much, is the distinction between optimism and happiness. Going back to our SAT-based word association exercise, what I took away from Bina, is that happiness and contentment are classic synonyms, but even more importantly, that went optimism is used synonymously with meaning, major life shifts can occur. For example, I’m very happy savoring a great piece of high quality dark chocolate, or sipping a perfectly pulled cappuccino. But while that kind of delicious happiness makes me content, it doesn’t lead to meaning.
Manisha Thakor: By contrast, hosting this podcast brings me deep meaning. It feels as if I’m part of a giant collective community think tank, exploring issues around money, meaning, and purpose from all sorts of new angles. But there are some necessary pieces of behind-the-scenes work that I wouldn’t exactly say bring me great happiness. This is where Bina’s Optimists Telescope comes in. Her framework helps us stay on the path towards our own unique definitions of meaning, even during the inevitable less fun patches, so that we can pass along, in whatever form it’s meant to be, our own unique heirlooms to the next generation. My second big takeaway stem from Bina’s distinction between heirlooms and legacies. As I grow closer to my 50th birthday, I increasingly find myself thinking about what my legacy should be. Note, I said should and not could. To me, legacy feels like an obligation, and to be honest, it also feels like it’s coming from my ego, and not my heart.
Manisha Thakor: By contrast, Bina’s definition of heirlooms, which she defines as being much more expansive than mere physical objects, feels much more authentic to me. When Bina spoke of heirlooms as being anything from the work we’re doing, or the ideas we’re thinking, that we hope will serve, and endure, and help others in the future, those words “serve” and “endure,” left me with a feeling of intergenerational two-way connectivity that mere legacy did not. Lastly, I was fascinated by Bina’s argument, that it’s neither possible nor desirable to be present all the time. In today’s world, there is much discussion about the importance of being present and mindful, yet given the ever increasing volume of digital distractions, that objective can feel like a doomed mission. By contrast, Bina presents an alternative, suggesting we view our thoughts as akin to pieces of our investment portfolios. Just as a prudent person wouldn’t want 100% of their money in just one stock or just one bond, preferring a diversified mix instead, so too it goes with our attention.
Manisha Thakor: Like so many people, I feel like I spend far too much of my time in the future. Yet today, my attempts to spend all my time in the present, haven’t exactly been a success either. I suspect I’m not alone. And that’s why Bina’s point, that trying to shift all our energy to being here now, may well cause us to miss the magic that can come from having just enough white space in our minds, to allow thought for new possibilities in the future to occur. So, to bring this episode to a close, I hope we’ve left you with some potentially contrarian thoughts to mull over, about how to, well, use your optimist telescope to optimize the way you make decisions about everything from what it really means to be present, to what kind of heirlooms have meaning to you now, and which ones you may want to create or embody, to pass forward to future generations.
Manisha Thakor: Bina’s a prolific writer and speaker, so don’t forget to visit our show notes at truewellthpodcast.com, and remember we spell wellth, W-E-L-L-T-H. At truewellthpodcast.com, we’ll have a link to Bina’s new book, The Optimist’s Telescope, coming out on August 2019, as well as to Bina’s Ted Talk, and several other wonderful snippets of her work, that I think you will find fascinating. But we’ll let you see for yourself when you come visit the episode page. And finally, if you enjoyed this podcast, we’d be grateful if you’d recommend it to a friend, and or leave us a written review on iTunes. I’m Manisha Thakor, and that’s it for this episode of true WELLth.
Announcer: The true WELLth Podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones, a wealth management firm founded 20 years ago in Seattle. Today, Brighton Jones offers wealth management services that go beyond the balance sheet, to service clients and offices from coast to coast. Today’s show was produced and edited by Stan Hall, with help from Michael Stubel, Marc Asmus, Chris Sylvester, and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the team, visit truewellthpodcast.com.