Friday, August 10, 2007

Why live in a major city?

where i choose to live is something that i've been thinking about a lot lately. Happiness is a complicated subject, and it's pretty clear that people aren't always good at making decisions that will make them happy in the long run. i'm from a boring suburb 40 miles away from chicago, and i went to college pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so when I graduated I was dead set on living in a city no matter the cost. I moved to the bay area for a job in Mountain View but always intending to live in SF, and I drove down to work 5 days a week for 2 years before there even was a shuttle (uphill both ways in the snow, of course).

But lately I've found myself daydreaming about living in a small town. Which is so weird! I'm 25! Small towns are for married people with kids who are looking for good schools and low crime rates. I want culture and wine bars.

But at what price? SF is sort of a hard city to live in. I live in this super trendy neighborhood which gets written up in the nytimes, but gangs run rampant and someone was shot 2 blocks from my house. Compared to anywhere but Manhattan, my rent is off the charts. My local bus line (the 14/49) is full of more crazies than an insane asylum, and I'm pretty much guaranteed to get harassed walking to the bus stop (in multiple languages). All these things are little balls of stress that add up and make me less happy.

It's interesting to examine the assumption that living in a larger city is automatically better if you're young. I'm not going to talk about people who have children or are married and want to live a quieter lifestyle -- that's not me and I think there's something to think about even for young people who want to go out a lot. There are just so many people I know who see the major cities as the center of the world, and feel that living anywhere else would be inconceivable. I think people underestimate the costs they're really paying and overestimate the benefits that they get.

There are other cities besides LA, New York, and San Francisco

And almost all of them have bars, wine, opera, symphonies, parties, young people, books, fashion, a tech community, public transportation, and parks. And often times the rent and crime rate is a lot lower.

You don't need the best

I think this is something that I have a hard time admitting to myself. I don't need to live in the city with the most Michelin stars. I've never even been to the French Laundry. I don't need the city with the tallest skyscrapers or the trendiest new bars. Guess what: you're not Donald Trump, or a member of the Astor family. You are not going to own a pied-de-terre overlooking Central Park. You are not going to sleep with models every night. Which brings me to another point...

Sometimes you can do better without the best people

This applies in two different ways. I think the recent article in the nytimes about working millionaires shows one of the great problems with figuring out what makes you happy: sometimes it's beating your peers. If you make your peers the richest, most beautiful people in the world you're probably going to get very depressed.

But this also makes sense career-wise, as well. People talk about the concentration of highly intelligent people, venture capital, and entrepreneurs in the bay area, and I totally get that. But guess what? There are startups in smaller cities too. There are tech communities in Seattle, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Austin, Orlando, Madison, Burlington, Hanover, and all sorts of other crazy places. And they do great stuff! I think there are a lot of people who instead of thriving off of the tech community in the bay area, get discouraged and might not pursue something because they feel like they're not as good as their peers. Being surrounded by brilliant people, and knowing that you're not in the same league, can occasionally be a downer. If you've got an idea in the bay area, you've got to compete with all the other entrepreneurs out here vying for talent, attention, and venture capital. Granted, if you're in Pittsburgh, there's a smaller pool of all three. But there's also fewer startups -- and I think the benefit of that outweighs the reduced resources.

People need space

I lived in New York for 2 months in 2004. I actually had a really nice apartment in a great neighborhood, and I was still going nuts at the end of it wanting to see a tree. I think living in high density areas without reprieve can be really bad for people, though this totally varies from person to person. My parents' house in Barrington Hills is at least 30 minutes away from ANYTHING. But I can't describe how relaxed I am when I visit, even though I drive more. The last 15 minutes on the way home is through these narrow, wooded roads that pass through meadows with horse farms. It's beautiful. And even though everything else is packed with strip malls, it's all clean and new and I can *park*. Never underestimate the mental benefits of free parking.

Relationships are more important than opportunities

Another thing I didn't realize when I graduated. I never understood the people who go to college in the same state they went to high school, or the ones who come back and live in the same city where they grew up. Living in different cities and breaking out of what you know is such a cool experience. And there's a part of me that still wants to live in Berlin and New Delhi. But I know now that regularly seeing people who love you is more important than your job or how much money you make. You can't put a dollar value on distance from your family. Hard lesson to learn.

So the result of all this? I don't know. I'm questioning whether this city is really worth it.


  1. Being a little more transient, I can say that there are definitely advantages / disadvantages with anywhere you live, that's obvious.

    Finding myself now in Columbus, GA after a good stint in Europe is a bit of a culture shock. I still haven't decided if things are more alien here than being in a country where I didn't understand the primary language.

    I think in order to be happy with where one lives, it has more to do with the person's ability to adjust to their surroundings versus being able to pick an ideal location for themselves. Plus, we all go through phases in life. Neha, not to imply you're getting 'older' because you might want a little quiet now, but our abilities to adjust will change with age as well. I mean, I remember really wanting to live in a city too as a fresh undergrad. But, I wouldn't want to raise a family in New York.

    I did like what you said in your last paragraph about relationships. Living far away in new places is an adventure, but of course there's a cost. The lives of people you cared about when you left will continue to go on, and when you get back there will be things, changes, events that you've missed. I know some of my friends will always welcome me and they would never say that our trust and friendship have changed since I've been away. But, there is a rift there, we haven't grown older together.

    I don't regret it, but it never occurred to me to think that before I moved away. I took it for granted that they and I wouldn't change, and I would be welcomed back to open arms. In any case, I always found it amusing this little blurb out of an Army pamphlet talking about returning home from deployment. It was referring to children mostly, but I think it's universally applicable, "Don't think that your children will belive the deployment was harder for you than for them."

    When you're the one leaving, most people tend to think about themselves. But, whether it's a compliment or whatever, the truth is you leave a void, and people will fill it back up with something. It's just natural.

    Anyway, good luck with everything.

  2. I don't have a useful comment, but I love your blog neha! You better not start right about how great that harridan Hillary is though! :)

  3. ugh, i can't spell or think for crap right now. i meant "writing", not "right". So stupid.

  4. Oh oh, I also wanted to say that you're right that there are other great cities. The two that spring to my mind in terms of having a critical mass of culture and fun stuff to do are Seattle and Pittsburgh PA. I think a lot of other people have mistaken or anachronistic views of what life is like in these places

  5. Living far away in new places is an adventure, but of course there's a cost. The lives of people you cared about when you left will continue to go on, and when you get back there will be things, changes, events that you've missed.

    Vince, I think you of all people would know this best -- you totally went off on your own after high school and forged a new path. I'm actually really impressed with how well you kept in touch.

    It's so true that out of sight is out of mind for most people. All the more reason to visit a lot and keep emailing and calling :)

  6. Vijay,

    heh. you doubled the number of comments on my blog right there. don't worry i don't have any hillary-loving posts planned right now but i can't guarantee there won't be any!

  7. Take Omar and move to North Carolina---you got the big city talent in the Chapel Hill Area, and if you want small town but high culture, Asheville NC has become the new San Francisco but without the gangs.

  8. I totally agree with eveyrthing you said. Very insightful and I've recently come to the same conclusions, which is why I'm enjoying Atlanta vs. my former residence NYC.

    Funny that the last post is about Asheville. I was going to tell you to check it out. There is a lot of greenery, art and culture and it's a small town. On the outskirts some of the thinking is REALLY backwards. (I can say that because I'm from there.) Have you looked into Minneapolis? If you are from the Midwest and want to be closer to family that might be a good fit. Atlanta is great for me because it combines the Southern sensibilty with which I was raised with the forward thinking, art, culture and diversity that you don't get normally get in a small town. It's the perfect mix of small town and city. And also- I moved here in June and, honestly, I haven't met ONE person I didn't like. That's amazing. Really. Atlanta is a good fit for me and frankly, I didn't expect it to be this great. (NY snobbery.) I hope you have the success I did in finding a city that fits your every need. It can happen! Good luck!

  9. Let me preface my comment by saying I don't know anyone associated with this blog. I just stumbled on it while reading a WSJ forum on the same topic. Now to my point- I have been thinking a lot about this lately. I am 25 and I live in Orlando. I have a good education and a great job with a reputable firm. All of my friends went to private colleges and moved from there to big cities. I, on the other hand, returned home to Orlando. Partly because I have family there and partly because I couldn't decide on another city. It has turned out great professionally. In fact, I have made incredible progress in my career in the first two years. I've gotten noticed by my bosses and have a great reputation at the firm. However- and I know this sounds haughty, but it's true- I feel like a big fish in a small pond. Of course I can do well in my career here- everyone else in my office has a household to run and family to raise. Long story short, I feel like I need more a challenge. One that I feel a "real" city like NYC or Atlanta could bring.
    Also, more recently, I have been going through a panic I can attribute to my lack of ability to meet new people in my current city (or the string of suburbs that Orlando is). It has never been a problem for me to meet people before. More importantly, I worry that I won't be able to find a significant other. I'm not sure if I should leave behind what I have here and move on in search of something better or sit tight and make the best out of what I have. I want to avoid reaching a state of quiet desperation having wasted my 20s in the wrong place. It's disheartening to think that something as simple as your geographical location has such a powerful impact on your entire life. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  10. Anonymous,

    Wow. What you're saying probably rings true for a lot of people -- I'm sure almost everyone in their 20s is wondering, is this it? Is this where I settle? Is this what I settle for? That's a really hard decision to make. Lots of people end up getting married and having a kid and just ending up wherever they are, but I think it's cool that you're actually thinking about it.

    I was in Orlando last month for a conference, though I have to admit that I never left the wasteland that is Disney World and its affiliated hotels. I'm sure there's more interesting stuff than that! It's wonderful that you have your family close by, but maybe it is time for a change. Does your company have offices in other cities? Perhaps you could work something out where you work remotely for a few months to half a year to try a new place out. If you rise to a position of more seniority, would your job entail more travel? Traveling and visiting other cities (my company is in a bazillion different places) is amazing because of the different places I get exposed to. It's what made me realize I don't want to live in New York, and it made me appreciate the good parts of San Francisco.

    Moving somewhere completely new where you don't know anyone is HARD, but whether or not you thrive really depends on your taste for adventure. I know I'd be really unhappy if I moved to a new city where I didn't know anyone, because I need at least a few people I know to get comfortable. This is going to sound corny, but I'd recommend the workbook for What Color Is Your Parachute? It's for more than career hunting. I think it can help you figure out what you value as well, and there's a section in there on figuring out where you'd be happy living.

    Finally, you're 25. This is the time for risks, you know? No family, nothing to tie you down. If there's something out there you want to try, you should go for it. Just try to remove the hype from the equation, and figure out what will make YOU happy.

  11. Hello everyone, like anonymous said I would like to highlight that i am not intimate to anyone in this blog i just came across from a url at 37signals blog. Well I live in an entirely world from you but problems and solutions in our days are the same. I live in Greece and like most of you I am 25 years old and I left a small town called Sparta to study and work for a bigger one, for the capital, Athens. Well the difference of magnitude between Sparta and Athens is huge. Sparta has around 18,000 people in contrast to almost 5m of Athens. I have spent significant time in other European countries I really love to travel as far as Bolivia and India.

    Like most of you I am in the tech industry but in a country that is at least 15 years back from USA or any other really developed european country.

    I just know one thing about my life. I want to be independent, i do not want a boss, a schedule, a daily routine. But I also do not want to waste my time telecommuting, breathing fumes, be stressed, eating junk. Well that 's the reality of Athens, a city hostile to its residents but so charming during nights. But i just want fresh air, mountain biking everyday and so on. Using the internet you can replace, if you become a successful freelancer and moving to hometown maybe ideal where you have your connections but sometimes it feels and it is too small specially if you are used to the virtually unlimited choises of a big metropolis when it comes to business and entertainment and search of the other half. In my county there is a saying "better to be first in the village than second in the city". What do you think ?