Too much data, too little imagination: Why it’s hard to achieve long-term goals

Matthew Hutson

THE WASHINGTON POST – We’re swimming in data, and we can’t help but use it. Likes on Facebook measure our social standing, financial indicators slice up company growth, standardised tests track student progress, and smartwatches count our every step.

Measurement generally allows for prudent planning, but sometimes it focusses our attention on mere proxies for what we care about. We optimise short-term metrics – teaching to the test, worshipping the watch – at the expense of long-term goals, from corporate to corporal health.

That’s one of the takeaways from The Optimist’s Telescope by Bina Venkataraman, a former journalist and senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Obama White House.

The book, wise but not wonkish, is an argument for foresight, by which Venkataraman means not the ability to look into the future but the willingness to do so.

A number of social, psychological and structural forces deflect our gaze, and the book offers ways to retrain our sight toward the horizon, citing scientific experiments, historical events, business case studies and personal anecdotes.

What’s wrong with wearable fitness trackers? If you want to put holes in your walking shoes, nothing. But consider Venkataraman’s friend who took long strolls to boost her step count – past a bakery near her office. In the end, she gained weight. More gravely, Venkataraman explores the role of myopic metrics that fueled a microlending surge in India.

Microlenders saw high repayment rates as signs that their business model was solid, when in fact many borrowers were using the loans not to start businesses and repay the lenders with their profits, but rather to buy food; the borrowers then took out more loans to pay off their existing ones.

The bubble collapsed in 2010, and shame-filled borrowers killed themselves by the hundreds. At a minimum, Venkataraman recommends guiding behaviour by the light of several metrics at once for a fuller picture of progress.

Another takeaway is the need to align immediate incentives with distant aims. Most executives at American public companies admit to prioritising quarterly earnings targets over sustainable profit. That’s in part because they receive bonuses based on such short-term metrics, an arrangement at odds with the more patient of the investors they supposedly serve.

One solution is to reward execs with company stock that they must hold for several years. In medicine, many doctors – pressured by patients who want immediate results – overprescribe antibiotics and painkillers. Health-care systems in which doctors must receive prior approval for such prescriptions, or must justify them in medical notes, limit such temptation.

Beyond removing rewards for immediate exploitation or concession, Venkataraman suggests adding new short-term incentives that align with long-term goals.

A farmer at the Land Institute encouraged other farmers to grow perennial crops – which preserve the land – by engineering them to produce more food and by arranging buyers. Credit unions have encouraged customers to increase savings by entering depositors in lotteries. In Venkataraman’s ideal world, homeowners everywhere would receive tax rebates for disaster preparation. Campaign finance reform would offer public money to wean politicians off donors who seek near-term advantage. Venkataraman wrote that Citizens United – a Supreme Court case that opened the doors to greater corporate influence in elections – “has brought us an era of American leadership and decision making more geared for recklessness than ever.”

Why do we require immediate inducements to act in our own long-term interest – like a child receiving a lollipop for visiting the doctor?

In part because we see distant rewards as benefitting someone else: We treat our future selves as strangers. “In my experience, it is easier to contemplate death by shark attack than it is to envision myself with fake teeth,” Venkataraman wrote. One psychologist has developed a solution: When participants faced artificially aged versions of themselves in virtual reality, they expressed greater interest in saving for retirement.

Another researcher has placed people in body suits that simulate the limitations of old age. These tricks make the future three-dimensional. According to Venkataraman, “Prediction is not that helpful for heeding future threats, unless it is paired with imagination.”

There are also low-tech ways to engage imagery. You can write a letter to your future self or a hypothetical grandchild addressing the effects of your decisions today. Or consider what you will be remembered for in an obituary. There’s also a simple trick called an implementation intention, or an if-then plan: If I see a diet-busting dessert, then I eat an apple. You picture possible obstacles in life – such as a tasty temptation – and how you’ll react.

Another telescopic tactic: Many organisations use gamelike scenarios in which they role-play responses to enemy attacks or natural disasters or business disruptions. “We feel, not just think, when we play a game,” Venkataraman wrote.

Threats become more real, and participants feel more empowered. By bringing tales from basketball, an Ebola epidemic, poker, classroom discipline and nuclear power plants, as well as literary depictions of her travels to Mexico, Japan, India and South Carolina, Venkataraman vividly depicts what happens when we don’t plan ahead and what we can do about it, on our own and together. Despite the high-seeming bar suggested by the book’s title, there’s no need to be an optimist or to have a special future-telling telescope. Whether you’re trying to lose a few pounds or avert climate catastrophe, all that’s needed is to be a realist with an imagination.