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A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

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Transcript

Question: Do you have a personal philosophy?

Larry Summers:

I think the lens through which I see things is analytic. It is evidence-based. It is based on a need for internal consistency.

And I think the discipline that thinks about questions relating to the flow of capital and the distribution of income, in those ways, is the discipline that we call economics.

But those habits of thought are important if you want to think about the future of relations between the United States and China. Or if you want to think about how resources should be allocated to different parts of research and the life sciences. Or if you want to fight crime effectively.

I do try to consistently bring to bear a focus on data, on thinking about incentives, on thinking about outcomes, and thinking about how systems can be modified to produce better outcomes, and thinking systematically in that way can drive better outcomes. I don’t think thinking about my relationship with my children, or my thinking about the play I enjoyed a couple of weeks ago, that’s not about taking an analytic perspective. That’s about something--things that are very different.

But in the professional spheres that I’ve chosen, I think that being resolutely analytic is the way to get the best thinking. I’m proud of identity as Jewish, and took great pride in my children’s bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs. But in thinking about the kinds of questions we have been discussing, the supernatural or faith do not play an important role in my thinking; though clearly in thinking about some aspects of the very important role that faith plays in other spines is something one has to very fully recognize.

You know, I don’t know that that’s something I have been called on, issues I’ve been interested in or involved in, to take on particularly. But I think that you have to try as best you can to understand the world, the world view of others.

So when I was at World Bank, perhaps the most dramatic thing I did when I was there was do a substantial body of research that made the case – that I think has stood up rather well – that sending girls to primary school was probably the highest social return investment you can make in the developing world. Well I decided the place to present that work was in Pakistan, which stood out at that time for the fact that there were only 90 living women for every 100 men, in sharp contrast to what was true in the rest of the world. But in order to make that a presentation that would connect not just with my concerns, but with my audience’s concerns, with the aid of others who were far more knowledgeable than I, I reflected on some of those parts of the Koran that extol the importance of fair treatment of girls and of women. Because I thought it was important to try to see that issue not just through a kind of narrow-minded prism of what would reduce mortality rates and the like, but through the prism through which others were more likely to see it. And I think that that kind of effort to understand others is almost always availing.

Question: What is the measure of a good life? 

Larry Summers:

I probably, to this point, have been sufficiently busy living my life that I probably haven’t focused a lot on measuring my life. But I hope that I made the world a better place, and I think everyone can think about whether they made the world a better place for their children, for their families, made the world a better place more broadly. That, I think is the ultimate test for me.

 

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