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Episode #9 | Bina Venkataraman: Heirlooms – The Optimist’s Telescope

“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.”

– Bina Venkataraman

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.

About Bina Venkataraman

Bina Venkataraman true WELLth Podcast

Bina Venkataraman teaches in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and is a fellow at New America. A former journalist for The New York Times and The Boston Globe who also served as senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Obama White House, she is now director of Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. Bina is an alumna of Brown University and the Harvard Kennedy School. She grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Boston.

Show Notes

Bina and I were connected through her publisher, Penguin books. Within minutes of first meeting each other, we realized we had so much in common—from our Indian heritages to our Midwestern roots to our families’ unwavering belief in the power of education.

What I love about this episode is Bina’s unique interdisciplinary experience with big decisions, and how good ones are (or are not) made. Heirlooms are more than just physical objects. And her desire to identify what tools, techniques, and/or mindsets can help us make better decisions for the long run. Bina’s focus on “heirlooms” was not one that I expected to hear. Yet once I heard her explain that heirlooms include our knowledge, our technologies, our communities’ sense of values, our ideas, and our work, I couldn’t get the notion out of my head. I hope you find this framework for how to make better decisions as useful as I do!

Manisha’s Top Takeaways

  1. The difference between happiness and optimism
    Happiness and optimism are often used interchangeably. However, at their core, they do not have perfect overlap in terms of sentiment. Bina notes that when optimism is used synonymously with meaning, a spark happens and major life shifts can occur. It is that insight that led to what Bina calls “The Optimist’s Telescope.” It’s an inspiring framework that can help us stay on the path towards our own unique definitions of meaning, even during the inevitable “less fun” patches. [19:15]
  2. The distinction between heirlooms and legacies
    Bina describes heirlooms as being anything from the work we’re doing or the ideas we have that we hope will serve and endure and help others in the future. Those words—serve and endure—left me with the feeling of intergenerational, two-way connectivity that mere legacy did not. Turns out, that was precisely Bina’s intent with her word choice. [14:45]
  3. Bina says it is neither possible nor desirable to be present all the time.
    As an alternative to striving to be present all the time (and feeling like we’re on a doomed mission, given the many distractions around us), Bina suggests looking at our thoughts as akin to pieces of our investment portfolios. Just as a prudent person wouldn’t want 100 percent of their money in just one stock or one bond, preferring a diversified mixed instead, so too it goes with our attention. [18:00]

Other Major Topics

  • The important questions when it comes to achieving long-term success in your own personal investment portfolio [3:30]
  • Who’s the world’s happiest person? [12:00]
  • How to measure ourselves today in a way that better reflects the kind of meaning we want to have over the course of a lifetime [14:00]

Resources Cited in the Episode

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