The Thrive Questionnaire//

The Thrive Questionnaire With Bina Venkataraman

The author and former adviser in the Obama administration opens up about the daily ritual she started after leaving the White House, her go-to email hack, and her unconventional view on bed-making.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.


Bina Venkataraman teaches in the program on science, technology, and society at MIT and serves as the Director of Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard & MIT.  She is a fellow at New America and a former journalist for The New York Times and The Boston Globe.  Bina previously served as Senior Advisor for Climate Change Innovation in the Obama White House.

In her Thrive Questionnaire, she opens up about the daily ritual she started after leaving the White House, her go-to email hack, and her unconventional view on bed-making.

TG: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed? 

BV: I meditate for 20 minutes, a ritual I started after I left the White House, in early 2015.  

TG: What gives you energy? 

BV: Unconventional ideas, being with great people, jumping in the ocean, and — in the indelible words of Agent Cooper — a damn good cup of coffee.

TG: What’s your secret life hack? 

I don’t ever make my bed; it’s unnecessary. I also keep extra elastic hair bands in my wallet because it’s clear that tiny conniving creatures steal them when I’m not looking.

TG: Name a book that changed your life. 

BV: Reading Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red in college expanded my view of what language and literature can accomplish. And recently Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain changed my life in that it became the adhesive among a group of friends who now call ourselves The Magic Mountain Dinner Club.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you? 

BV: Not since after the 2016 election. I leave it in a different room unless I’m on the road and need an alarm.

TG: How do you deal with email?  

I let emails percolate before responding so that I can reduce the number and frequency of exchanges. I also take daylong breaks and answer in rapid-fire batches: the best-case scenario is doing this after – not before — I’ve done my deepest work of the day.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it? 

BV: Go for a walk outside, take a little dive into the dark underworld of my inbox, or call my mom.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why? 

I was really burned out after I left my post working on climate change in the Obama administration a few years ago, and I was sick. I put the planet ahead of everything rather than putting on my own oxygen mask first.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 

BV: I think I failed in a negotiation I navigated not long ago. I’ve tried not to focus on the result – to instead just put that energy into learning for next time. And I committed to not judging myself too harshly, to laughing at the fact that I’m comically imperfect just like everyone else.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

BV: I open my new book, The Optimist’s Telescope, with this fortifying quote from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It clarifies the path out of despair, and demands that I have the courage to see and tell the truths I know.

Preorder Bina Venkataraman’s debut book, The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.

And listen to her TED Talk here.

Bina Venkataraman speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 – 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED
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