In Defense of Relentless Optimism

This week, the TED Conference convened for the first time in Vancouver. As most people know, these conferences have become a global phenomenon, known for offering unique, uplifting talks from people who are actively engaged in trying to solve the most pressing of the world’s problems. With TED’s success, there has also been some inevitable TED backlash: glib ideas, form over substance, elite.

TED, however, is not really vulnerable to such critiques because its brand of visionary optimism simply speaks to too many people at a basic level. It is to the cup-half-full crowd what prophets in the wilderness warning of the end of days are to the cup half empty. The question for all of us, ultimately, is which crowd do we walk with?

The rise of TED has not exactly been linear. Thirty years ago, an eclectic eccentric named Richard Saul Wurman convened a small conference call “Technology, Education Design” or TED for short. It was a quirky gathering of scientists, designers, mathematicians, artists, writers, and of course others.

The conference lost money and wasn’t held again until 1990, and it became an annual fixture in Monterey, Calif. for the world’s creative and techno-elite. In 2001, Wurman sold TED to Chris Anderson, who took what had been a selective event and helped turn it into a global phenomenon largely by curating highly-produced short talks and then posting them on-line, to the point where the most successful recent TED talk has generated more than 16 million views.

That’s a lot of views, though to be fair, it pales in comparison to YouTube hits of Gagnam Style or Justin Bieber. But still, this is a mass elite phenomenon, curious and hungry but not of the size of pop music and movies, to be sure.

The criticisms also come from within the very circles that celebrate TED. The Onion has done a series of pitch-perfect spoofs of a TED talk, full of wide-eyed earnest optimism and mixing ideas and metaphors with a smorgasbord disdain for what ends up on the plate.

Yet with all respect to the Onion, you can only get so far with snark and cynicism. The parody is funny, but in the case of relentless optimism, only if that being parodied is fundamentally powerful. Little of worth is constructed on a foundation of end-of-days or unremitting cynicism, save perhaps for a well-stocked bunker, an omnipresent security state, or a late night show.

TED is clearly tapping into a growing hunger for stories of solving problems and, for lack of a better phrase, making the world a better place. Said one speaker, an odd, deeply engaging singer songwriter named Jason Webley, “the world is magic.” Maybe that is why interspersed with scientists unlocking the nature of the universe, doctors tackling disease, entrepreneurs building, thinkers thinking, there are so many magicians and conjurors at TED as well.

And it isn’t just TED. There is – drumroll for a word du jour – an epiphenomenon of optimism, not exactly mainstream but gathering steam. The drumbeat of looming crisis continues loud on Wall Street, Main Street and K Street. Yet juxtaposed to that is the sudden surge of the web site Upworthy, which recently passed 45 million users a month and is almost certainly larger than that as you read this. Upworthy describes itself as “a mission-driven media company. We're not a newspaper — we'd rather speak truth than appear unbiased. And we're not a political campaign — we're more interested in the powerless versus the powerful than in Democrats versus Republicans.” While the stories do not sing one amen chorus, there is a deliberate tone of constructive criticism and stories that inspire rather than depress. Their target audience? “People who care about what's going on in the world but don't want to be boring about it.”

Two potent examples do not a trend make of course. But there are other hints that these are not isolated. In the noise of endless survey data, it appears that the emerging generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings (the Millennials) are simultaneously less trusting of the world around them and more upbeat about their future. According to a recent Pew survey of nearly 2000 in this age cohort, this group is more optimistic about the future than their Boomer parents were in the 1970s. A significant majority believes that the economic future is bright. Yet they are also distrustful of other people and believe that government guarantees such as Social Security are unlikely to be there for them when they reach retirement.

These attitudes are manifest in TED and Upworthy. It may, of course, be true that these pockets of optimism are just elite bubbles that belie that challenges of the many. But then what? Are we left with the black swan hunting of Wall Street today, and the grim cynicism of Washington? What future can be possibly be constructed from those communities of despair?

About six months ago, I was at a conference in Detroit. It’s hard to imagine a more benighted city. It is as desolate in places as any slum in the world, bleeding population, unable to even replace the bulbs in streetlights. Detroit, in short, has failed as city. But there are still hundreds of thousands of people there, and the hundreds of the conference exuded not despair but determination. Inertia and inaction had a certain outcome: collapse. Even with creativity and passion and the dedication of business such as Quicken Loans and Twitter and young entrepreneurs taking advantage of cheap housing and office space, collapse is a distinct possibility. Absent those efforts, however, it is a certainty. The optimism evident there was anything but rose-tinted. It was born of awareness that it was the only possible way forward.

TED represents passionate solutions to problems. At one of the more compelling presentations, Hugh Herr discussed his work on bionics, the next generation of prostheses. Herr has been innovating in this area for decades, after he lost his own legs in a mountain climbing accident. He and his team recently spent 200 days constructing a bionic limb that allows a woman who lost her leg in the Boston marathon bombing to continue her career as a dancer. As the end of his talk, he brought her on stage where she performed briefly with her partner. It was profoundly moving to see.

Given a choice between the numbing cynicism and pessimism that greets us daily and that animates so many of us, I’ll take the relentless optimism – excesses and all – Hugh Herr and bionic innovation that makes it possible for a woman to dance again any day, any time.


Articles By This Author

The Envestnet Edge, May/June 2018 Video: Five (Investing) Rules To Live By The Envestnet Edge, March/April 2018 Video: Buy The Dips Video: No Place Like Home? Market Bias Perceptions and Realities The Envestnet Edge, February 2018 The Envestnet Edge, January 2018 Video: Raging or Aging: How Much Longer Will the Bull Last? Webinar Replay: 2018 Market Outlook The Envestnet Edge, December 2017 Video: Bitcoin, Bubbles, and the Bigger Picture The Envestnet Edge, November 2017 Video: Taxes are certain, but don't obsess about tax reform The Envestnet Edge, October 2017 Video: Time to stock up on growth or value? The Envestnet Edge, September 2017 Video: Time To Take A (Measured) Risk? The Envestnet Edge, July/August 2017 Video: Bitcoin: Buy Or Buyer Beware? The Envestnet Edge, June 2017 Video: FANG, FAAMG: Too Big a Bite of the Market? The Envestnet Edge, May 2017 Video: Invest "As If" The Envestnet Edge, April 2017 Video: What To Do In Quiet Markets The Envestnet Edge, March 2017 Video: Bull Or Bear: Should Investors Still Care? PMC Weekly Review - March 10, 2017 The Envestnet Edge, February 2017 Video: Separating markets from politics, is it really a "Trump rally"? The Envestnet Edge, January 2017 Video: Investing in Trump’s Economy? Proceed With Caution The Envestnet Edge, December 2016 Video: Have We Only Just Begun? The Envestnet Edge, November 2016 Video: Rotations, Reversals, Rising Rates: A Time to Reposition Post-Election, Will Markets and Portfolios Emerge Winners or Losers? Webinar Replay: Post-Election Winners and Losers The Envestnet Edge, October 2016 Video: In a 2-2-2 world, look for modest economic growth and expansion PMC Weekly Review - September 16, 2016 The Envestnet Edge, September 2016 Video: Diversification is working in 2016 (so far) The Envestnet Edge, July/August 2016 Video: Valuations: it's all relative Brexit: Plunging into the Unknown? The Envestnet Edge, June 2016 Video: Equity valuations and bond yields: reach no further PMC Weekly Review - June 17, 2016 The Envestnet Edge, May 2016 Video: Hitting singles: a measured approach for this investing season The Envestnet Edge, April 2016 Video: Investing with impact: increasingly a matter-of-fact Video: In this election cycle, will investors be winners or losers? The Envestnet Edge, March 2016 PMC Weekly Review - March 11, 2016 Video: In a low-growth world, less could be more The Envestnet Edge, February 2016 The Envestnet Edge, January 2016 Video: Markets are a mess, but don't jump to conclusions yet A Most Challenging Year Video: Interest Rates and Energy: The Highs and Lows of Year-End The Envestnet Edge, December 2015 The Envestnet Edge, November 2015 Video: We'll always have Paris The Envestnet Edge, October 2015 Video: Politics and the markets: déjà vu all over again? Video: China, Commodities, and Crisis: What's Next for Emerging Markets? The Envestnet Edge, September 2015 PMC Weekly Review - September 11, 2015 Is This The Big One (Financially Speaking)? Probably Not. The Envestnet Edge, August 2015 Video: In a "meh" market, look again at U.S. stocks The Envestnet Edge, July 2015 Video: Is this the Big One? What to do in a financial crisis Don't Worry About China Don’t Believe the Hype About Greece The Greek Catastrophe Is Finally Here (Unless It Isn’t) The Envestnet Edge, May/June 2015 Video: When Following the Herd is Risky, Where is the Safety? The Envestnet Edge, April 2015 Video: The End of Short-Termism is Long Overdue PMC Weekly Review - April 24, 2015 Video: Keep Your Friends Close and Your Robo-Advisor Closer The Envestnet Edge, March 2015 The Envestnet Edge, February 2015 Video: The Return of the Comeback: Is 2015 the Year for International Stocks? PMC Weekly Review - February 13, 2015 Why the Jobs Report Means Diddly Don’t Turn America Into Europe PMC Weekly Review - January 23, 2015 Video: Active and Passive: The Yin and Yang of Investing The Envestnet Edge, January 2015 Will Politics in 2015 Catch Up with the Economy? Video: Our Perspective on 2015: Maintain Yours The Envestnet Edge, December 2014 PMC Market Commentary: December 12, 2014 No, This Is NOT the '90s Economy Again PMC Market Commentary: November 14, 2014 The Envestnet Edge, November 2014 Video: 2014 U.S. Midterms: A Win for Stocks? Whose Economy Will It Be in 2016? PMC Market Commentary: October 17, 2014 Video: Special Video Commentary: Market Volatility and Fundamentals The Envestnet Edge, October 2014 Video: You Know What’s Not Sustainable? Ignoring the Opportunity in Impact Investing Don’t Panic! PMC Market Commentary: October 10, 2014 Greenberg’s Folly Naomi Klein Is Wrong PMC Market Commentary: September 26, 2014 Subprime Loans Are Back! Video: When it Comes to Interest Rates, Who Says What Comes Down Must Go Up? The Envestnet Edge, September 2014 PMC Market Commentary: September 12, 2014 Why Indie Bookstores Are on the Rise Again The Fed Is Not As Powerful As We Think PMC Market Commentary: August 22, 2014 Americans' Sour Mood on the Economy Doesn't Square with the Fact The Envestnet Edge, August 2014 Video: The World is in Crisis... the Markets are not PMC Market Commentary: August 8, 2014 PMC Market Commentary: July 25, 2014 Punitive Damages Video: Market Valuations and The Theory of Relativity The Envestnet Edge, July 2014 Don’t Kill the Export-Import Bank. Clone It. How India’s Economic Rise Could Bolster America’s Economy Video: Separating Risk from Reality PMC Market Commentary: June 27, 2014 No Sex Please, We're French PMC Market Commentary: June 13, 2014 The Envestnet Edge, June 2014 PMC Weekly Market Review, May 23, 2014 The Envestnet Edge, May 2014 Don't Bet on Rising Wages PMC Market Commentary: May 9, 2014 The Sharing Economy: Why Are So Many So Afraid? PMC Market Commentary: April 25, 2014 The Obsession with CEO Pay Won't Help the Middle Class PMC Market Commentary: April 11, 2014 Time to Face Reality: Our Unemployment Problems Are Structural PMC Market Commentary: March 28, 2014 In Defense of Relentless Optimism The "Made in China" Fallacy Forget GDP - Use Big Data