Venkataraman cover


A graduate and valedictorian of Wooster High School, Bina Venkataraman is a journalist, teacher, and former White House advisor, and she draws on her wealth of experience for her first book, The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age (Riverhead Books, 2019)

In it, Bina presents the question, why do we struggle to develop long-term solutions when we really do need them? As an optimist and problem solver, Bina takes her readers on a tour of different ways others have approached long-term problem solving and sifts through what we can learn from their decisions.

We live in a time where many of us are worrying about a future of more and more complex problems needing our attention—the housing crisis, the opioid crisis, climate change, and ballooning debt, to name just a few.

Bina reassures us that it's normal to feel paralyzed in the face of problems where we cannot see a clear way forward. She encourages us to see that the first step is to imagine scenarios where the future looks even just a little bit better, and use that vision to create the detailed steps that must be taken to get there.

Planning for the future requires a mix of idealism and practicality and a mix of measurable and unmeasurable objectives. Since every situation is unique, The Optimist's Telescope contains a number of real-world scenarios and weaves in science, history, and Bina's own contemporary reporting.

Successful planners include NBA coaches who have started strategically sitting out star players, giving them a chance to rest, and reaping big victories later. Hospitals have managed the over-prescription of antibiotics by requiring doctors to get approval from administrators removed from on-the-ground pressure to deliver "quick" cures.

We are also given glimpses of colossal failures to prepare for the future, including the reckless investments that yielded short-term gains but eventually delivered a housing market collapse and the great recession. Bina describes how difficult it was for an investor to resist the pressure to make those short-term investments, demonstrating how a focus on short-term gains can steer many people in the wrong direction and really cost us in the long run.

Bina gains wisdom from forward-thinkers including Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, who is trying to develop perennial versions of annual crops to help reduce soil erosion and nutrient depletion. If successful, the potential profitability is immense.

She has the opportunity to ask Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis why warriors would bother to read history if all wars are so different. Mattis points out that the lack of an end game was as devastating for the war in Iraq as it was for Vietnam. So, even though the future is unpredictable, the past has plenty to teach us.

Bina delivers a consistently positive message that understanding our short-sightedness is a great first step and presents a variety of solutions that can help lead us to a more prosperous future: look beyond short-term rewards, stoke the imagination, and design our institutions around long-term goals.

Her inspirational conclusion is that building long-term solutions starts with the desire to benefit our future generations.

Because we are always talking about the future, and very often we are worrying about it, The Optimist's Telescope provides both hope and a number of practical approaches that can help us deliver a better future for ourselves, our communities, and our future generations.


Published in The Daily Record (Wooster) on October 27, 2019

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