On Optimism

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

I was 16 when I came to New York for the first time. It was July 2004, steamy and sticky in that specific, New York summer way. I know it well now, but I was totally dazed by it then... Dazed by the heat, dazed by everything: the dizzying array of 24-hour delis, the faded squalor of the subway, the sultry, dangerous energy of the city after sunset, and especially by the frenetic streets of downtown Manhattan, where I headed everyday to intern at a magazine called TRACE.

Located on the second floor of 476 Broome Street, TRACE was a publication about ‘transcultural styles and ideas’. It was helmed, then and now, by Claude Grunitzky: a Togolese journalist who had grown up between Lomé, Washington, D.C. and Paris; launched the magazine out of the original DAZED office in London; and then transferred its HQ (and himself) to New York. At a time before every other creative professional was a self-proclaimed ‘global citizen’, Claude really did live that reality, and his worldview could be seen everywhere from the covers of TRACE's iconic ‘Black Girls Rule’ issues, to its articles charting subcultures in Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, and LA.

Even in post-9/11 New York, Planet TRACE was a vibrant and colourful place to be. But then, pre-social media New York was a vibrant hub for the creative world in general: a city that, despite its recent trauma, was still viscerally charged with ‘optimistic views of the future’  - to quote the title of 2004 TRACE essay collection that captured the prevailing mood. During the three years that I've lived here full-time, I've often wondered if my initial impressions of New York were just the naive byproduct of my teenage starry-eyedness. But then I look at the cultural artifacts of the era - kaleidoscopic Neptunes beats, candy-hued BAPEstas, and a rainbow of emerging brands, parties, and scene kids - and feel affirmed that things really did look bright.

15 years later, "optimistic views of the future" are harder to find here, or anywhere. Even if TRACE's cultural vision still feels relevant - if not prescient - its sunny mood seems a poignant relic from a long-lost time. These days, anxiety is its own economy, and the publishing industry has long abandoned any attempt to sugarcoat our predicament with directives on positive thinking. Instead, we've seen the cultural renaissance of Stoicism - the 'grin and bear it' branch of ancient philosophy - while caustic self-help books like Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck sell in record numbers.

"Fuck positivity," says Manson. "Let’s be honest, shit is fucked and we have to live with it." Indeed we do. But like many people (and especially my fellow quiet optimists) I still look around incessantly for indicators of when this collective dark cloud might lift. Inevitably, I return to words - my personal comfort blanket - to look for promising insights and secret clues.

For example: The fact that optimism - hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something - and creativity - the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships to create meaningful new ideas - have synergistic definitions makes total sense to me: I’ve written before about my belief in the correlation between good art, and feeling good. So if we can no longer feel optimistic about creativity - as both an industry and a pursuit - perhaps it's time to get creative with our optimism? To stretch the capacity of our imaginations, and challenge ourselves to act “as if” we working towards a future that still feels bright?

Maybe that's wishful thinking. Maybe wishful thinking is exactly what we need.


Transculturalism: How The World is Coming Together, Claude Grunitzky + TRACE Magazine Contributors Better World Books

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck, Mark Manson MarkManson.Net

Feel Better Now? The Rise and Rise of the Anxiety Economy, Eva Wiseman The Observer

The Optimism Bias, Tali Sharot TED