When the Future Seems Overwhelming, Do This
December 19, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
How can we better prepare for the future? Or should we just give up and focus on the present? What’s in our control, and what isn’t? These are just some of the existential (yet practical) questions that writer Bina Venkataraman tackles in her new book, a deeply researched examination of human decision-making titled The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Restless Age. Now the editor of the editorial page at the Boston Globe, Venkataraman was previously a science journalist at The New York Times and has taught at MIT. She also worked at the White House as a senior advisor to President Barack Obama on climate change innovation. Here, she talks about concrete tactics for thinking ahead, how to deal with uncertainty, and why it’s served her to make major career leaps without a plan.
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WHEN I WORKED AT THE WHITE HOUSE, it was my job to get people to think more about the future—particularly climate change and what we could do about it. But at the same time, I found it hard to think about the future in my own life, amid all my deadlines and the onslaught of information and social media updates. It was difficult to look past the dashboard in front of my eyes and see the road ahead. The future tends to be daunting—especially doomsday projections about rising seas and the melting arctic—and it’s tough for individual people to feel like they have any kind of power to influence the course of these big predictions. Of course, you can’t prevent all problems, but there are actions you can take to make them better, both for yourself and for the greater community. I think it’s important to focus on the things that we can do, if for no other reason than to be able to contemplate the future at all.
WHEN PEOPLE THINK THE WORLD’S GOING TO HELL, or they don’t have any power to influence it, they tend to focus their attention on the immediate. This is well documented, and it’s a natural, understandable, human impulse when we’re overwhelmed. But the problem is that your fears can become self-fulfilling when you don’t feel like you have any power to prepare for them. We won’t vote with that future at the top of our minds. We won’t invest our 401(k)s or save money or make smart health choices if we think the future is too daunting. So how do we change that?
NOW, A TECHNIQUE I USE TO THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE is to imagine future outcomes as if they’ve already happened. This is sometimes called “perspective hindsight.” For example, I’ll think about a dinner party I’m going to have or I’ll think about a chapter I’m going to write, and I’ll try to imagine that it’s happened and it’s gone really well. Then, I’ll also try to imagine that it’s been catastrophic and walk myself back and ask why. And I’ll come up with all the potential reasons for why the dinner party was fantastic, or why it was a disaster. I don’t need to fixate on the weather forecast, because I can’t control that, but I might want to focus on what kind of conversation I want to cue up at this party. Or I might realize that, if I write this chapter at the last minute, it’s not going to be very good, so I need to carve out some time this weekend to work on it. This practice helps me to focus on what’s important, because it can illuminate the key, pivotal choices that I have right now to influence better future outcomes.
I GREW UP IN A SMALL TOWN IN OHIO. My parents immigrated to the United States from India before I was born, and at a very young age, I learned to adapt to different kinds of communities and groups of kids. It made me very nimble, and to this day, I feel pretty good talking to anyone. Part of it was that I stuck out. I looked different from a lot of my classmates, and my survival strategy was just to embrace that I was unique and different and be disarmingly friendly and curious about everyone else so that the curiosity could flow both ways.
ANOTHER BIG PART OF MY CHILDHOOD WAS A CONNECTION TO NATURE. My parents went through a divorce when I was six years old, and my place of refuge was climbing the trees in the backyard or biking out to a cornfield or a lake. There was a woodland park in my town, and I used to hike the trails a lot. When I was in high school, about 16 or 17 years old, there was a proposal to drill for oil in that woodland park where I loved to hike. So I organized with my fellow students and community members and started writing op-eds and letters to the editor in the local newspaper, raising attention to how the drilling would disrupt the woods. Eventually, the city council voted against the proposal, but it took a lot of heavy lifting to influence people’s opinions. And for me, that was the first time I recognized the power that we have as individuals to change the course of events.
I’VE ALWAYS LOVED WRITING. I devoured books when I was young and read a lot of newspapers and magazines. Being a journalist really appealed to me, because I liked talking to people, I loved writing, and I was attracted to the sense that there was a public service of truth-telling.
MY PARENTS, BEING IMMIGRANTS OF A CERTAIN ERA, would look at me like I had three heads when I told them I wanted to be a writer. They liked the poems I wrote and were proud of me for winning essay contests in school, but being a writer just wasn’t a profession they could understand. So I was encouraged to get some other job and to write on the side. As a result, I went to Stanford Law School a year out of undergrad. I had a scholarship and everything. But then, two months into it, I realized I didn’t want to think like a lawyer. I just felt like a fish out of water. It wasn’t a passion of mine to finish law school and then start writing. I’d rather just be writing. So I dropped out.
LEAVING LAW SCHOOL WAS THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE I’D QUIT ANYTHING. I was an overachieving high school student—I played guitar, soccer, and lacrosse; I did debate, was the president of the honors society, and was the president of my class. So when I quit law school, everyone in my life was shocked. My parents were shocked. I could tell that they were scared. But I had never felt so sure about something.
I STARTED OUT WRITING A LOT OF DIFFERENT THINGS. I wrote about environmental issues. Then I went to Vietnam, and I became a grant writer for an HIV/AIDS project. That also gave me some time to reflect on my trajectory and say, “I really want to be a journalist. Why am I not one?”
ONE OF THE FIRST MAJOR NEWS PUBLICATIONS I EVER WROTE FOR was the Boston Globe, which is where I’ve returned to recently. I wrote a travel piece about Vietnam, which was at that time just entering the World Trade Organization and becoming a tourist destination for Americans again. It was thrilling to see that published. So I cold-called a bunch of newspapers to ask if I could come work as a summer intern before I went to grad school at Harvard [at the Kennedy School] that fall. One editor took my call and said, “Sure, you can come work at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont and write about whatever you want.” So I went and wrote about climate change and maple syrup drying out, and Lyme disease, and other local issues intersecting with science. Then I went to grad school, and while I was there, I started working at the Boston Globe metro desk on Friday and Saturday nights. Eventually, I went to the science desk at The New York Times after grad school, and then back to The Globe again for a while, where I worked on the editorial board.
WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA GOT ELECTED, I happened to meet the scientist who chaired his Science Advisory Council. That led to me getting an opportunity to work on climate change policy at the White House. I had been covering climate change as a reporter, and I studied policy in grad school, so that job brought those two things together. At that point, I started to set my sights on writing a book. I had ambitions around a larger writing project and challenge. In some ways, I think it helped my writing career that I went to the White House, because it gave me experiences that I could write about and interweave into my science reporting.
THROUGHOUT MY CAREER, I’VE NEVER KNOWN WHAT THE NEXT STEP WOULD BE. I have always fallen into things because they seemed like an interesting exit off the highway. I know in my soul and DNA that I’m a writer. But I think part of being a writer is being an experience addict, open to the richness of life and new communities of people and ideas. And if you get off an exit that isn’t the perfect fit, you can always get back onto the main highway and keep charging ahead. For me, that’s a good compass for making decisions like going to work at the White House. This was back in 2010 or 2011, when I didn’t have the tools of imagining ahead. I just thought, ”What do I want to be doing right now?” If I were making that decision today, I would ask myself, “What can I imagine happening after I make this decision, and in which directions could it go? Which opens more doors?”
I THINK OF MYSELF AS AN INTELLECTUAL FLÂNEUSE. I have a wide range of interests, and I’m willing to wander into a lot of different areas. The latest iteration of this is that I’ve become the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe, and I didn’t anticipate that at all. I had no thought that I would return to a newsroom, but it also feels exactly right. I can bring to it the experiences I have in journalism as well as having written a book and worked on policy and collaborated with the private sector.
I ALWAYS WANTED TO OPEN DOORS AS OPPOSED TO CLOSING THEM OFF. But as I approached 40, it also became clear to me that taking risks requires you to close some doors in your career and in your life, like committing five years to write a book. That’s a lot of time that I couldn’t spend on policy in Washington, for example. But my book is about playing the long game, and I really believe in that.
WE TEND TO BELIEVE THAT THERE’S AN EXPIRATION DATE ON EXPLORING. But I’ve constantly reinvented myself at every stage. Almost every career move I’ve made has been wildly different than the last one. The only constraint I feel is a self-imposed one, which is that I want to continue to hone my craft as a writer, and there are more books in me. I had to learn that lesson by meandering through some other fields where I wasn’t writing so much.
I’VE ALWAYS STOOD OUT—often I’m the only woman in the room, or the youngest. I have dark skin and dark hair. So when it comes to dressing, I decide to own that and think of it almost as my body armor. I wear bright colors and big jewelry. I don’t feel like I should be hiding who I am in a room. If I’m going to stand out anyway, why not stand out a lot, and in the way I want to?
Photos by Anna Bauer.
Styling by Nyjerah Cunningham.