"It’s really important to be able to think ahead, and yet we're in this culture of instant gratification, where, more and more, we're focused on what is right in front of us."
It’s easy to fall prey to the immediacy of today’s world. We are bombarded by breaking news notifications, flash sales, free-next-day-shipping, inboxes that feel endlessly full, and hundreds of other things that demand our attention now. Not to mention the in-the-moment needs of babies and toddlers. We look forward, of course, but their days are so packed that immediacy overwhelms. But better decision making by sticking to far-away goals is an essential skill that, as Bina Venkataraman argues in her new book, The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, is more necessary now than ever before.
Bina Venkataraman argues that there has never been a greater need for thinking ahead than what people on the planet are facing today. As the planet warms, as antibiotics become less effective and give rise to superbugs, and as the economy grows more wobbly and benefits those at the top, everyone will have to decide whether they want to hoard resources for themselves or think ahead and bargain on a collective and more inclusive future. Through anecdotes and advice, she explains how we can all make good long-term decisions. Fatherly spoke to Venkataraman about the myth that humans aren’t good at thinking ahead and the key to making better long term decisions.
Why did you feel compelled to write this book?
Those of us alive today have a greater need to think ahead than our ancestors and our predecessors. That’s true whether you look at the fact that we’re living way longer on average than our grandparent’s generation, and it’s also true when you look at the influence and impact that we can have today on the future of the planet. We are warming up the entire planet that people in 2050 and 2100 will be inhabiting.
It’s really important to be able to think ahead, and yet we’re in this culture of instant gratification, where, more and more, we’re focused on what is right in front of us. We all feel the pressure of this, whether it’s our immediate deadlines or the deluge [of emails] in our inboxes.
I wanted to think ahead to meet these challenges of being alive in these times. I myself wanted to be a better ancestor to my nieces, to people who will come after me, and to the collective humanity that will look back on us and wonder, you know, what were we thinking?
What’s your big example of this?
In the book, I write about a lot of collective decision making that happens in businesses and in the world of investment and capital markets. I also write a lot about our politics, where we tend to be focused on immediate results, returns, and profits, and less focused on holding leaders accountable to problems like climate change, investing in biomedical research and new inventions of the future.
There are things we can do both as individuals — we can use our political power, vote, and act in communities. But also, there are ways in which we need to change the environment where decisions are made. We need to change how our organizations are managed and change policy and politics to orient more towards thinking ahead and valuing the future.
In the book, you note that the myth that human beings are impossibly reckless is largely untrue. If that’s the case, and we can be really thoughtful about our decision making in profit and politics, how come that myth persists?
I hear this all the time. People will say, “Human beings aren’t capable of thinking ahead. We’re myopic. That’s how we’re made as creatures, we’re just like hunter-gatherers on the plane.”
And that’s false?
While there is some element in our personalities and in our makeup that is certainly like that, we’re also a species that evolved to think ahead — to do things like chart the stars, plant seeds and harvest them later, build civilizations, and put human beings on the moon. So we have the capacity for foresight. Think of the classic marshmallow test, where toddlers are asked to either decide to eat the treat right in front of them or wait for an indeterminate amount of time until a second treat will be delivered to them by an adult. This classic experiment has often been invoked by people who want to say, “Look. There are just some of us who can think ahead and some of us who can’t.”
What you find, if you look at the research that followed the initial marshmallow test experiment, is that it really matters what kind of peer group the kid is when they’re given this test.
What do you mean?
If there was a cultural expectation that you wait for the marshmallows, the kids will tend to wait. That’s also true, for that matter, when it comes to trust. If the kids trust the adults who give them this experiment, they will also wait for the second marshmallow.
What we think is just unchangeable in human nature is actually very highly influenced by circumstance, cultural norms, and by environment.
So that means that, if our culture changed — if we all collectively gave more of a shit about the planet, for example — we’d be able to make better long term decisions that would benefit everyone and ourselves later on.
What we think is the curse of human nature — that we just can’t think ahead about problems like climate change — is actually a choice we’re making. We just have to look at the factors that can help us make these choices in a way that’s more oriented towards the future.
So. Is the culture changing?
Fishermen in the gulf of Mexico, at a commercial red snapper fishery, have come together and essentially become long-term shareholders in that fishery. Instead of fishing and fishing until the stock collapses, what they’ve done is create a system called ‘catch-shares,’ where each fishing business has a portion or share in that fishery that grows overtime as the fishery grows over time. Moving to this system of fishing in that region brought back what was once a fishery on the brink of extinction in 2005. Their families are thriving as a result of having managed it in this way.
In Richland County, South Carolina, several years ago, there was a proposal to build a reckless real estate development, what was being billed as a billion dollar city within a city. The land filled like a soup bowl when it rained. There was a river that was held back only by agricultural levies, and this is a risky part of the floodplain, where this was being proposed.
So here you have private, short term interests, as well as heavy lobbying of political leaders to try to build the development. Through community organizing and through community leadership and political leadership at the local level, as well as through the use of the law, laws that help protect communities when they are exercising foresight, this community was able to prevent the development from going up. I tell that story because I think it’s really important. We can often feel powerless in times like these, as individuals and communities, to resist the forces that propel to be focused on immediate profit or immediate gain.
So, how does the average person start making better longer term decisions?
I went to Las Vegas and interviewed poker players in a million-and-a-half dollar tournament, which some of the pros of poker were present at. I came to understand the way that certain professional poker players resist the urge to play for the immediate [win.] To win a poker tournament, you have to be able to withstand immediate losses and not overreact or try to get too much right away. Some of these poker players thought about what was going to get them the most earnings and wins over time.
Some of that involves having a sense of what your plan is in advance. What would you do when you’re faced with different scenarios? What would you do when you’re faced with a player who you just feel a rivalry with? How do you respond in that situation?
Come up with an advanced plan — if this happens, then I will do this.
Okay, but that’s just poker. I don’t play poker.
[This is] actually something that’s been documented in Peter Gollwitzer’s research, which demonstrates these “if, then” tactics. If people can make an advanced plan for a moment when they’re faced with a lot of temptation to indulge in something immediate, and state what they will do positively in that circumstance, that has a high rate of success in helping people stick to their long term plans.
There’s another strategy that two behavioral economists, who are mothers, told me about. This involves cultivating what I think of as “imaginative empathy.” They invite people to write letters to their future children, grandchildren, or even their future selves, to be opened 50 years in the future. And the idea of writing a letter is that you take the perspective of someone — yourself or someone really close to you like your kid — living in the future, and having to inhabit a world that looks very different from the world that we live in today.
You start to empathize with that person in that situation. It starts to color in for you what that world looks like. They found this is helpful for helping people realize and act concerns. No matter how much we care about future problems, we have so much in our immediate environments and in our day to day that is reminding us and is nagging at us to pay attention to it.
We don’t have that when it comes to the future. The future is in our mind. It is a figment of our imagination itself. We need some of these tools that can help us project forward into that future, to make it more salient and vivid and colorful for us. Writing letters is one way of doing that.
You mentioned, in a sense, what we owe to each other and what we owe to the future when we engage in decision making, not just to ourselves, but also to others.
Right. I think this is really important: we have a personal stake in the future, whether we have kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, or god kids. We all have a personal stake in the future. And just leaving your kid some money in a bank account is not going to change the fact that your kid is going to have to inhabit a planet that is rapidly warming.
I really admire Greta Thunberg for the way she’s raising this to people’s attention: at some point, we’re going to be looked at as the ancestors. Do we want to be looked at as the last ancestors at the party? The ones who really screwed it up for the future? Or do we want to be remembered fondly? Do we want to be remembered with admiration?
What other ways can we make decisions better oriented for long-term decision making?
One of the things I write about in the book is the importance of heirlooms. I write about my own family heirloom that I got from my great grandfather, an instrument that I’ve been learning to play. I really felt a powerful connection to my great grandfather when I got it, and also, I felt more of a connection to my own role in time. It got me thinking more about myself as an ancestor and more of myself as a descendant.
I really treasure it and I don’t want it to get stolen. If it were to get stolen, then it would be irreplaceable, it’s so valuable to me.
We need to do this not just with our own family objects, but in communities, in society, and on the planet. There are certain irreplaceable resources that are treasured, like aquifers with clean water. Resources for a community to be able to drink and swim, our oceans, our atmospheres. They can be thought of as our irreplaceable heirlooms for our humanity. And you can think of this at the scale of a business or a community or a neighborhood or, in fact, at the scale of the planet.
It’s about being more aware.
We need to become shepherds of not just of our own personal heirlooms, but of these shared heirlooms.
I really tell people that these exercises in activating your imagination about the future should be done as you’re thinking about which candidate you’re voting for in an election. They should be done as you’re thinking about how to volunteer your time on your weekend or as you’re thinking about what’s really important for your community.
It’s important to use our political power at the personal level to create and secure these heirlooms.
Some people may just look into their child’s eyes and think: I want this world to be better for you and I am already imagining your future. One of the analogies I use in the book is talking about Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, meeting the ghost of Christmas yet-to-come.
We all need our version of the ghost. Whether that ghost is a personal object, or a person, or a letter you write to the future, we need to keep in close touch with whatever it is that brings us into imagining the future.
A lot of people feel helpless. That the problems of the future can’t be solved and the only way to help is to help ourselves and turn inward instead of thinking about everyone else in the world.
One reason to do whatever we can is that engagement, and action, are a way of hedging against despair. It’s a way of participating in community. When we act alone, that has a marginal effect, but if we act with others, then we can start to feel larger than ourselves.
A lot of the stories I tell in the book are about groups of people who managed to think long term and think ahead. By virtue of doing it with others, they start to forge a sense of optimism about the future. I think that’s really important to do.
The basis for my optimism is really seeing that we have choices and knowing that social and political change are nonlinear. People didn’t know social movements like the Civil Rights movement were going to succeed. They didn’t know, for sure, that we were going to be lifted out of the Great Depression, and we could create a society that has had incredible success in the latter part of the 20th century in the US. We have to have a little bit of humility, too, about what we know about the future and what our capacity is for change. I don’t think progress is inevitable and that the world is just going to get better and better and we can see that happening. I’m not in that camp.
But my optimism is based on the fact that we have real choices, and we can make those choices today.