Together

Together
By Vivek H. Murthy, MD
HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 2020

You can die of loneliness.  It’s not just poetic sentiment, it’s a medical fact.  Research shows that lack of social connection is just as hazardous to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Humans are social beings.  We are hard-wired for connection, and when we don’t get enough of it, our bodies send a signal as strong as thirst or hunger, a signal we call loneliness.

Yet in today’s hectic, individualistic world, we face an epidemic of loneliness and a yearning for connection.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy learned about this epidemic when he served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States.  Shortly after his appointment in December 2014, Dr. Murthy went on a listening tour to find out what health issues Americans were most concerned about, and how his office could help. He heard about well-known problems like opioid addiction, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

But he also discovered an unexpected theme running through many of these problems: loneliness.

This finding led to years of research and interviews and ultimately to his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

Together is divided into two parts.  The first part looks at the physical and cultural origins of loneliness and how it manifests itself in problems such as anxiety and depression.  The second part is about building greater social connection into our lives and teaching our children how to build connection into theirs.  Along the way, Murthy introduces us to a host of individuals, researchers and practitioners who have either struggled with loneliness themselves or tried to help others deal with it.

A few themes stood out for me.

First of all, loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of.  Most of us experience it at various points in our lives.  For me, loneliness was most pronounced during and shortly after my years in college.  In fact, we all need connection: it’s baked into our DNA.  As a species, human survival depended on our ability to connect in groups, to share knowledge, stories and emotions.  Becoming separated, or exiled, from your tribe was usually a death sentence.  Loneliness is a physical signal, like hunger, that tells us to attend to our need for social connection.  And when we do connect, we feel it physically too, as relaxation and a reduction in stress.

Cultures differ in the degree of connection that is expected and provided.  Some cultures, Murthy says, are like tall, narrow bowls in which individuals are tightly packed together, constantly in contact and rubbing up against each other.  Other cultures are more like wide shallow bowls in which individuals can spread out and have fewer, less frequent interactions.  These days the bowls are becoming wider: we’re experiencing a growing culture of independence.

“I think many of us feel pushed by modern society to be more independent, even as, deep down, we crave the interconnectedness that our ancestors depended on.” [p. 61]

On the other hand, extremist religious or political groups often impose connection through suspicion, rejection and hatred of outsiders or “others.”  These are pathological cases where community is enforced to the point of oppression, allowing no room for debate or dissent.

Murthy also looks at social media which can be both a cause and a potential cure of loneliness.  It allows us to maintain connection with more people than ever before, but are those connections real or superficial?  And how do our kids navigate the pressures and temptations of social media while still learning how to build real-world friendships that, hopefully, last many years.  (I wrote a post on this topic called We Don’t Say Goodbye Anymore a couple of years ago.)

Murthy makes an eloquent case for the critical value of friendship in our lives, beginning with this quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

“With every true friendship, we build more firmly the foundations on which the peace of the world rests.”

Friendships bring us out of ourselves and allow us to both support and be supported by others.

“When our friends support us, they remind us that we are worthy of love, which makes us feel better about ourselves.” [p. 217]

And,

“… a profound side-effect of friendship is gratitude.  Gratitude for the opportunity to show vulnerability and still be loved. For the forgiveness of our flawed lives. For the shared trust and time together and the feeling of belonging, which is the ultimate glue that holds friends together.” [p. 218]

Together book cover

Unsolicited Feedback

Together is a heartfelt call to build connection and community in our lives.  I think Murthy does a fine job tracing the origins and the impacts of loneliness. I worry that our society, especially here in the US, has become so fragmented, even atomized, that Murthy’s suggestions for building greater connection will be overwhelmed by political and social forces.  Still the effort is worth it.

My one complaint about the book is that there are too many stories.  It’s great to bring dry research to life by telling stories about the lived experiences of real people.  But Together contains so many of these that they started to blur together for me, and I found myself glossing over them.

Together was published before the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. Yet the pandemic highlights many of the themes Murthy writes about.  Most of us around the world have experienced some form of lockdown or social isolation.  It’s a shared experience that illustrates Murthy’s claim that humanity is a “family of families.”  This experience has also shown us that we can’t take connection for granted, that we have to make a deliberate effort to reach out to family and friends.  That we need to reach out to family and friends.  I hope we take these lessons to heart as we bring the virus under control and figure out how to restart and rebuild our world.

Related Links

We Don’t Have To Fight Lonliness Alone
Episode of the WorkLife podcast hosted by Adam Grant featuring Vivek Murthy

A Social Prescription: Why Human Connection Is Crucial To Our Health
Episode of the Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam featuring Vivek Murthy

The Epidemic of Lonliness
Aspen Ideas Festival 2017

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Solar power is becoming insanely cheap

The cost of solar power has fallen by a factor of 5 since 2010, and it will keep falling for decades to come.  That’s the gist of a May 14, 2020 blog post titled Solar’s Future Is Insanely Cheap (2020) from energy analyst Ramez Naam.

aerial photography of blue solar panels

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

I’ll get to the highlights of the post shortly, but first let me take a moment to explain how solar energy prices are calculated.  Feel free to skip to the highlights if you’re familiar with this.

National, state or local utilities buy electricity from energy producers on behalf of their customers – you and me.  They sign contracts called power purchase agreements (PPA) lasting anywhere from 15 to 30 years for a certain amount of electricity usually measured in megawatt hours (MWh).

Wait! What’s a Watt hour?  Well it’s the way we measure the amount of power used by an appliance such as a fridge, hair dryer or laptop computer.  A typical laptop, for example, would use about 1000 Watt hours or 1 kilowatt hour (kWh) if you ran it continuously for a whole day.  A megawatt hour is one million Watt hours, but it’s a bit more convenient to talk about kilowatt hours.

If you take a look at your electricity bill, you’ll notice you’re being charged for the number of kWh you use each month. Here in the US, you probably pay between 10 and 15 cents per kWh.

Utilities pay a whole lot less since they’re buying huge amounts of electricity directly from the producers. Recent reports, like this one from Portugal, show solar electricity costs coming in under 2 cents per kWh.

It’s important to note that these wholesale prices refer to the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) which includes the cost to build and operate the solar energy farm over the life of the PPA.  This presentation from the US Department of Energy explains in detail how LCOE is calculated.

backlit bruno scramgnon fotografia dawn dusk

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon on Pexels.com

OK, with that background, here are some highlights from Ramez Naam’s post:

  • The cost of solar-generated electricity (I’ll just call it “solar” from now on) has dropped by a factor of 5 since 2010. Solar costs have been falling way faster than forecast.  In fact, falling costs have beaten some forecasts by decades.
  • Solar prices have been falling so quickly because of a roughly 30% learning rate. As we build more solar capacity, we get better at it.  This follows a pattern known as Wright’s Law.  For each doubling in total installed solar capacity, costs fall by about 30%.  This rate of decline will likely continue for many years,
  • Solar is now competitive with the cost of new fossil fuel generating plants. It’s cheaper to build a new solar farm than to build a new coal or natural gas generating plant in many parts of the world.  Again, “cheaper” here refers to the LCOE, which for coal is 5 to 6 cents/kWh.
  • By 2030 or 2035, solar will be cheaper than the operating costs of fossil fuel plants, as you can see from the graph below. It will cost less to build an entirely new solar farm than to continue running an existing fossil fuel plant.  This is “insanely, world-changingly cheap” clean energy.
Future-Solar-Cost-Projections-by-Year-to-2050-Naam-2020-1-800x487

Source: rameznaam.com

In most parts of the world today, there’s little reason to build a new fossil fuel plant.  In about a decade there will be no excuse to even operate existing fossil plants.

As Naam points out, solar isn’t a panacea.  The sun doesn’t shine at night.  In colder parts of the world, demand for electricity is highest in winter, but it’s sunnier in summer.  We’re going to need continued advances in utility-scale energy storage to tackle challenges like this.

But the stunning drop in the price of solar is a clear sign we can decarbonize electricity generation.  It also means electricity should be cheaper for everyone.

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The Storm Before the Calm

The Storm Before the Calm
By George Friedman
Penguin Random House, New York, 2020

I can’t decide whether George Friedman is a genius or a crackpot.

Friedman has made a career of geopolitical forecasting.  He’s founded a couple of consulting companies that specialize in the field.  He’s the author of several bestselling books including the The Next Decade and The Next 100 Years.

In his latest book, The Storm Before the Calm:  American Discord, The Coming Crisis of the 2020s, And the Triumph Beyond, Friedman presents a model of American history and then uses his model to make some very specific predictions about the next decade and beyond.  If you agree with the model, then his predictions will seem like a natural progression.  If you’re like me and you don’t buy the model … well you still might find his predictions hard to dismiss.

The Calm Before the Storm - Cover

Model

Okay, let’s start with the model.  Friedman’s model of American history consists of two overlapping cycles; an eighty-year institutional cycle and a fifty-year socioeconomic cycle.  The reason the 2020’s will be so tumultuous, Friedman says, is because both cycles are ending within the same decade.

The Institutional Cycle is about major changes in the structure of America’s political institutions. Friedman argues that this cycle is primarily driven by war. The US was founded in war and has been fighting in wars great and small for most of its existence.  He says America’s wars in the Middle East are what ends our current cycle.

There have been three of these institutional cycles so far:

  1. 1787 – 1865: From the drafting of the US Constitution in 1787 to the end of the Civil War and the constitutional amendments of 1885, the first institutional cycle was about establishing America’s national political institutions.
  2. 1865 – 1945: The second institutional cycle, culminating at the end of World War II, established the indivisibility of the union and the authority of the federal government over the states. But the federal government did not play a significant role in the economic and social life of the country during this time. In fact, the prevailing laissez faire ideology meant that national institutions were not equipped to meet the challenge of the Great Depression.
  3. 1945 – 2025: The third cycle started at the end of WWII and will end in about five years, or so Friedman tells us. This cycle has been about the relationship of the federal government and the American people.  During this time, we’ve seen massive growth in the involvement of the federal government in the economy and society.  This started with the industrial and military mobilization needed to end the Great Depression and win WWII.  It continued with social programs, mortgage loan programs, student loan programs and the like. It will end due to pressures brought about by the eighteen-year long war against the Jihadists.

Friedman predicts that the fourth institutional cycle, starting in 2025, will be about the relationship of the federal government to itself.  He argues that the federal government no longer functions well, it has become too entangled with itself, too diffuse and too distant from the needs of the people.

The Calm Before the Storm - Cycles

The Socioeconomic Cycles run at a slightly faster clip; every 50 years.  I won’t go through them in detail, but here they are:

  1. 1873 – 1828 (George Washington to John Quincy Adams).
  2. 1828 – 1876 (Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant)
  3. 1876 – 1929 (Rutherford B. Hayes to Herbert Hoover)
  4. 1932 – 1980 (Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter)
  5. 1980 – 2028 (Ronald Reagan to whomever is elected President in 2028)

At the end of each cycle, policies that have worked for the last 50 years stop being effective and even cause harm.

“When the crisis matures, it concludes with someone who will be regarded as a failed president and with the emergence of a new president who does not create the new cycle but rather permits it to take place.  Over the following decade or so, the United States reshapes itself, and the new era emerges.” [p. 116]

Severe social and economic crises are the driving factors of each cycle, even though they are named for the presidents who bracket them.  These crises create political turmoil and force change on the political system, but,

“The cycle is working itself out in the murky depths.”  [p. 117]

Let’s take a look at the murky depths of our current cycle, the Reagan cycle, which Friedman says is nearing its end.  This cycle began by implementing tax cuts and encouraging investment in order to reignite the US economy following the oil price shocks and high inflation of the 1970’s.  Those policies, combined with incredible technological advances, especially in computers and software, have led to significant GDP growth over the last 50 years.  However, the distribution of wealth has shifted dramatically toward people whom Friedman calls “technocrats” – university educated professionals with highly specialized expertise and a pragmatic focus on efficiency.  Left behind are the industrial workers who prospered during the post-war growth years.  Real income for middle and lower-middle class families has been stagnant since the mid-1970’s.

Rising animosity and contempt between these two groups fuels the political tensions tearing at the country today, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump.  Friedman says the current crisis has not fully matured and that it will be up to the winner of the 2028 presidential election to usher in the beginning of a new cycle.  He’s very specific about this.

Friedman finishes the book by confidently predicting some of the essential characteristics and challenges that will emerge in the 2030’s and beyond as new institutional and socioeconomic cycles get underway.

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Large parts of this book seem no better than astrology to me.  I’m not disputing that the US has gone through difficult times, through crisis and war, nor that it has changed its institutional and socioeconomic structures along the way.  But the idea of American history running like clockwork on predetermined cycles is absurd.

Friedman gives no explanation for why these cycles should last 80 years or 50 years.  In fact, he says,

“The roughly eighty-year periods between the American Revolution and the Civil War, and between the Civil War and World War II, are possibly accidental.  Still, that number is real and I think too odd to be a coincidence.”  [p. 96]

“Too odd to be a coincidence” is a flimsy foundation for such a grand theory of history.

Some of the events that define these cycles seem problematic too.  World War II and the Gulf War did not originate in America.  If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, or terrorists not struck on 9/11 would the institutional cycles still have ended when they did?

It seems just as likely to me that Friedman has fallen victim to the Narrative Fallacy.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes this common error in The Black Swan (review).  Humans like stories.  We like them so much that we often impose a story line on random events in order to make sense of them. “Bad news comes in threes,” is great example.  We hear two items of bad news, so we start looking around for a third event to complete the pattern.  Hmm, let’s see … we’ve had two periods of American history lasting about eighty years, both culminating in a war.  Is there a war that happened about eighty years after the last cycle ended?  Why yes, there’s the war against the Jihadists in the Middle East.  Well, it’s several wars actually. And none of them were as intense or as destructive as the Civil War or World War II.  Still, it’s the only war that fits the eighty-year pattern, so it’ll have to do.

I think there are some other problems with the book too.  Friedman largely ignores the demographic shifts that are rapidly changing the racial makeup of American society, especially the growing Hispanic and Asian communities.  He essentially pleads ignorance on the problem of climate change.  He does highlight the importance of computer technology in the current socioeconomic cycle, but it doesn’t seem to occur to him that technological change might also impact the very nature of these cycles.  Maybe they’re getting faster.

Another gripe: the book (at least the Kindle edition that I read) has no bibliography, no footnotes or endnotes, and no index.  I admit this is a pet peeve of mine, but books like this don’t just spring full-grown from the author’s brain.

And yet …

Friedman’s diagnosis of the disfunction of the US government is indisputable.  It has become too cumbersome and too unresponsive to the needs of the people.  The post-war systems built by technocrats, founded on globalization and technology, have failed to benefit large segments of the US population.  And the cartel of elite universities that educate and certify new generations of technocrats has become an insanely expensive barrier to class mobility.  Even though I would call myself a technocrat, it’s clear our ecomony is out of balance.  So I’m intrigued by his prediction that the descendants of today’s white working class families could form an unlikely political alliance with African Americans who have been even more poorly served.

His discussion of the impact of declining birth rates and longer life expectancy on our values around gender, marriage, family and community are also insightful.  I was especially struck by the passages dealing with loneliness and our need for authentic connection.

“Loneliness is one of the most powerful forces in the world. People get sick, and I know who will take care of me if I do … Living a long life without anyone needing you, no one really caring if you live or die, is liberation, but the terrible implications of liberation emerge with time.”  [p. 219]

And that leads me to one final observation:  The Storm Before the Calm was published just before the Coronavirus pandemic struck the world.  I think the pandemic illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of this book.  The pathetic failure of the US government to deal with the pandemic in an organized and united fashion tragically confirms Friedman’s diagnosis of institutional disfunction.  Yet the occurrence of a pandemic also illustrates the futility and the hubris of making highly specific predictions about the future.

But who knows?  Maybe Friedman will have the last laugh.  He says that wars punctuate many of our cycles because they leave existing societies in ruins and make room for new ones to emerge.  Perhaps COVID-19 is the real “war” that brings the present cycle to an end.

* * *

Thanks to What’s Nonfiction for blogging about the upcoming publication of this book last year in this list of new nonfiction books for 2020.

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Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom

We watched Strictly Ballroom last night.  Again.  Hadn’t seen it in years.

I first saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award.  A few months later, when it was released in theaters, I organized a big group of friends to go see it.  I bought the DVD.  Now it’s on Netflix.

Strictly Ballroom is an off-beat romantic comedy about competitive ballroom dancing.  Scott Hastings (played by Paul Mercurio) is dumped by his long-time dance partner for doing his own choreography – it’s not “strictly ballroom.”  He has to train a new, inexperienced partner in time for the big competition.

But that’s all surface stuff.  The movie is really about self-expression, challenging the establishment, and breaking free of repression.

It’s about not living our lives in fear.

The costumes are amazing.  The music and dancing are terrific. It’ll put a big happy smile on your face.

Strictly wonderful.

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Six Word Story

Cherry blossoms spring with irrepressible hope.

IMG_2085 - Copy

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Relationships at Work: Power, Trust and Peek-a-boo!

I’m working from home during the coronavirus shutdown and I’ve got into the habit of taking a long walk around my neighborhood at the end of each day.

One of the podcasts I listen to on my daily walks is WorkLife, hosted by Adam Grant.  He’s an author and organizational psychologist who studies “how to make work not suck.”

Worklife_Podcast

The March 29, 2020 episode features a brilliant discussion with couples therapist Esther Perel about relationships at work.  It called, strangely enough, Relationships at work with Esther Perel.

The two of them come at this topic from very different backgrounds and approaches, but that just makes for an even livelier discussion.  There were so many fascinating ideas and insights packed into this episode.  It left me feeling energized and exhilarated, like a runner’s high but without the sweat.

Adam Grant Esther Perel

Context

Adam Grant kicks of the discussion by asking if there are differences between work relationships and romantic or personal relationships.

Esther Perel answers that all relationships exist within a context — cultural, political, or socio-economic.  Actually, context is a recurring theme for her. Work relationships have a different context than romantic relationships, but they have many common elements.  All relationships come with boundaries and expectations especially around accountability, responsibility and communication.  Good relationships are built on a foundation of trust.  It’s the context that’s different.

Power

All relationships have a power element too.  That’s because relationships come with expectations, and expectations imply some level of dependency.  Dependency confers power on the other person.  But trust can neutralize that power, transform it from “power over” into “power to”.

I love this distinction: “power over” meaning domination and coercion, “power to” implying agency and tinfluence.

Power is a two-way street, it creates interdependence, Perel says.  In some ways the CEO is really the weakest person in any organization since they depend for success on the performance of everyone else in the hierarchy.  But, as Grant points out, CEOs have control over resources like salary, promotions, status, and ultimately, continued employment, so they of course have overriding power.

Trust

Grant and Perel agree that trust is intrinsic to all healthy relationships.  But what is trust?  Perel calls it a concept “swimming in vagueness.”  She quotes Rachel Botsman who defines trust as a “confident engagement with the unknown.”  (I reviewed Botsman’s book Who Can You Trust? about a year ago, here.).

Another definition, kind of poetic, is “Trust is a risk masquerading as a promise.”

This element of risk is critical.  Grant and Perel agree that trust implies a willingness to be vulnerable, and that implies taking a risk on the other person.

This leads to my favorite part of the podcast about how we develop the ability to trust in the first place.

Peek-a-boo!

You know the peek-a-boo game we all play with little children? The one where you put your hands over your eyes then quickly pull them away and call out “peek-a-boo!” The kids giggle with delight. Perel says this silly little game is played all over the world.  She calls it the universal foundation of trust.

At a certain age, around eight or nine months, children learn that objects continue to exist even when they’re out of sight.  A spoon falls off the child’s tray onto the floor. The child can’t see it.  For them, it ceases to exist until you bend down and pick it up.  Wow!  The spoon pops back into existence.  Then the child deliberately drops the spoon onto the floor and watches you pick it up.  Over and over again.  They’re not being annoying little rascals, they’re learning.  They’re learning something called “object constancy” or “object permanence”.

Peek-a-boo is object constancy for people.  It teaches children that people, especially their parents, continue to exist even when they’re out of sight.  It helps children overcome the fear of abandonment.  It is the foundation of trust.

As toddlers, children sit in your lap and then jump down into the world.  They venture a little bit away from you but frequently check back to see if you’re still there.  As they gain confidence in your continued presence they move a little farther.  Eventually, as young adults, they strike out on their own completely.  But it’s this basic trust that you’re still there, that you haven’t abandoned them, that provides the safety that enables them to confidently take risks, to learn and to grow.

Trust enables us to take risks in the workplace too, to take a new job that may or may not work out, or start a new project that may or may not succeed or to voice an opinion that may or may not be accepted.

And it all starts with peek-a-boo.

Autonomy vs. Loyalty

Perel asks the audience if they were raised for autonomy or loyalty.  Were the primary messages you received as a child telling you that you are fundamentally alone in the world, that you must be self-reliant?  Or did those messages tell you that you were never alone, that there were lots of people who could help you and likewise that you were obliged to help others?

Perel says the US is the Mecca of individualism and autonomy, but having been raised in Europe, and being the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, she herself knows that we depend on others.  We live in a communal structure.  There is no such thing as a self-made person.

Passion

Finally, Grant and Perel talk about passion at work. These days, we’re often told that passion should be our guiding compass in work and career, that we should follow our passion and seek out jobs where we feel intensity and engagement.  Only then can we do our best work.  Only then can we be fulfilled.

Perel points out that historically, passion at work was the privilege of artists and artisans.  Nobody ever felt passion about subsistence farming or working in a factory.

But today, we expect things from work that most of us used to get from religion and community; things like belonging, purpose and meaning.

“Never have we expected more from work,” she says.

Yet ironically, never have we been more transient.  We leave one job and move to the next after just two or three years, even jobs we were once passionate about.

Coming full circle, Perel warns that the quest for passion at work needs to be taken in context. Not everyone can afford to make self-centered decisions to follow their passion, especially when they have families who depend upon them for support.  Context matters.

There are some jobs, and some relationships that we wish we had left sooner, and some that we wish we had stayed longer.  This, she says, is the story of our lives.

 

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The Optimist’s Telescope

The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age
By Bina Venkataraman
Riverhead Books, New York, 2019

black telescope under blue and blacksky

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

As I write this in late March 2020 in Seattle, the world is gripped by the coronavirus epidemic.  It feels like everything everywhere is shutting down.

I don’t know if it makes any sense to be writing book reviews right now.  Maybe it’s pointless and trivial when so many are suffering.

On the other hand, eventually we’ll get back to normal, or we’ll figure out a new normal.

Reading is a big part of my normal.  And so is writing about what I read.  So I’m going to keep doing it.  Partly to preserve some shred of normal, and partly in hope that it might help you preserve some too.  But mainly because never mind the virus, there are great books out there!

The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age by Bina Venkataraman is one of them.  It’s relevant too: it’s about learning how to make smarter, long-term decisions.

Bina+Venkataraman

Source: writerbina.com

Bina Venkataraman is an author, journalist and policy expert who served in the Obama White House as Senior Advisor for Climate Change Innovation and as an advisor on responding to the 2014 Ebola epidemic.  She is currently the Editorial Page Editor at The Boston Globe

Venkataraman thinks we need to get way better at thinking ahead.  The decisions we make today will have a huge impact on our future selves, our businesses and our communities. Whether it’s heading off a global pandemic, fighting climate change or preserving forests and fisheries, never before have our decisions been so burdened with consequence.

Decisions, she says, are a combination of information and judgement.  Without information we can’t make judgements at all.  The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii.  But the inhabitants had no clue about an impending disaster, so they did not flee.  That’s not poor judgement, it’s tragedy.

But when we have information and still make poor judgements, that’s recklessness.

Venkataraman defines foresight as the “judgement to make smart choices about the future.”  Our lack of foresight today is leading us to “an epidemic of recklessness, a colossal failure to plan ahead.”  [p. 3]

Her book, The Optimist’s Telescope, is about why we make reckless decisions and how we can develop the foresight to make better ones.  Because, she says, we have a choice, we’re not doomed. We can learn and adapt.

Optimists Telescope -cover

The book is organized into three sections that examine how individuals, businesses and communities make decisions, in particular decisions that have far-reaching consequences.

At every level, we make three common mistakes that interfere with our ability to think and act in our best long-term interests.

First, we measure the wrong things.  Whether it’s a CEO focusing on quarterly earnings and neglecting long-term investments, or fishermen trying to maximize this year’s catch while depleting overall fish stocks, the metrics we use are short term.  They cause us to direct our energies towards immediate results or immediate benefits to the detriment of our future selves.

Second, we succumb too easily to impulsive decisions. You want to save money, but those new shoes look so great you just have to buy them. After all, they’re on sale!  A doctor prescribes antibiotics for a patient without considering how that action might contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria. In countless organizations, tired and overworked people make important decisions under the pressure of ridiculous deadlines.  And here in America, our 2-year election cycle, with its crushing demands for constant fundraising, virtually guarantees short-term thinking.

We need strategies and tools and incentives to help us interrupt these impulsive behaviors, slow down and make better decisions.

Finally, and most importantly, Venkataraman says poor decision-making comes from a failure of imagination.  We fail to imagine the future.  Both the good and the bad.  We fail to imagine that terrorists would choose to fly fully loaded passenger jets into skyscrapers.  We fail to imagine that an outbreak of Ebola in Africa will become an epidemic, or that a coronavirus in China will explode into a worldwide pandemic.  We build housing developments on flood plains never imagining the consequences of rising sea levels or increasingly severe tropical storms.

We have difficulty imagining positive outcomes too, like how much healthier we’ll be if we quit smoking, or how much better our careers will be if we persevere and finish that college degree. We seem unable to imagine what it would be like to have a more equitable society, or to live in greater harmony with the natural world.

So even though recent advances in modeling and machine learning have dramatically improved our ability to make accurate predictions, we still lack the imagination to turn those predictions into action.

But we can get better at making decisions, Venkataraman tells us.  We can choose a better future.

She describes some approaches that individuals and communities have used to help them focus on the long term.  Like the fishing community in Baja, Mexico that allocates a “catch share:” to each family, managing the total catch to preserve the fishery for future generations.  Or banks that offer lottery tickets as an incentive for customers to save regularly.

“If/then” techniques can help people plan ahead by imagining temptations that might lead them to stray from important goals, and then working out in advance what they would do if those situations actually arise.  If your goal is not to check email in the morning so you can focus on project work, then you could decide to jot down reminders to talk to people in the afternoon instead of impulsively jumping on email.  It’s a simple yet powerful tool to help you stick to your goals because you’re not just anticipating future events, you’re envisioning yourself taking a desired action.

But how do we scale this over time when the choices we make “ripple across generations?”

“With the Promethean power to make decisions today that will define future generations – whether it’s creating their future climate or changing the species itself – we have unprecedented obligations.  Yet for the most part, we lack the ability to think about and plan across the spans of time in which we are implicated.”  [p. 243]

The answer, she suggests, might lie in a dilruba.

Optimists Telescope - Dilruba

Source: raganet.com

The dilruba is a stringed musical instrument from India, played with a bow.  It has a haunting, almost forlorn sound as you can hear in this video.

In the most eloquent part of the book, Venkataraman tells the story of how her great-grandfather’s dilruba was handed down to her by her grandmother.  It’s a family heirloom.  She says,

“While the instrument is in my possession today, I know that it doesn’t actually belong to me – it belongs to the generations of my family that came before, and to the ones that will come after.  It belongs to time itself.”  [p. 253]

Heirlooms like this position us as both descendants and as ancestors, she says.  Caring for a family heirloom becomes a sacred duty.

“The heirloom designates me with a purpose, to usher it along in time.”  [p. 254]

What if we were to think of the whole Earth as a shared heirloom?

It’s not such a radical idea, she says.  We already keep shared heirlooms like the Taj Mahal and the Mona Lisa, and even our national parks.  We treat them with care and reverence.  We visit them and use them, but not to the point of depletion because we know it is our duty to preserve them for future generations.

Venkataraman suggests we approach the problem of climate change in this way, looking at the atmosphere, the oceans, and diverse landscapes as heirlooms to be stewarded across generations, used but not destroyed.

To be good and caring ancestors we don’t need to solve problems for all time.  But we do need to value the next two or three generations like we value our own children and grandchildren.  We’re not dictating their future but preserving for them the resources and the freedom to make their own choices for themselves and for their descendants in turn.

Thinking like heirloom-keepers could help us shift “from recklessness to foresight.”

Unsolicited Feedback

The Optimist’s Telescope is mainly a collection of stories gathered from encounters and interviews that Bina Venkataraman has had over the years with lobster fishermen, farmers, doctors, fund managers, bankers, scientists and government officials.

The flow is a little jumpy at times, and she has clearly been frustrated by her experiences working on climate change and the Ebola outbreak during the Obama Administration.  But her message is clear.

She has written a book that tries to give us both the urgency and the agency we need to act. It’s this combination that makes the book so worthwhile.  There are countless books and articles urging us to act on climate change or other threats.  But what’s been missing, for me anyway, is how to think about problems of such magnitude on a scale that each of us can imagine, in a way that doesn’t paralyze us with fear and doubt.

That’s why I loved the idea of thinking like heirloom-keepers, of trying to be good ancestors.  It’s a compelling and elegant idea that seems designed to encourage foresight. It elevates The Optimist’s Telescope from an interesting collection of stories into a real gem.

Related Links

The Power to Think Ahead in a Reckless Age
TED Talk by Bina Venkataraman, April 2019

Why Weren’t We Better Prepared for Ebola
Boston Globe opinion essay by Bina Venkataraman, November 2014

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