The Cities We Live In

A city can be thought of as a living thing.

Each city has its own unique message, characteristics, and ambitions, and these make up its “personality.” Cities’ personalities should matter to us because they influence our behavior, shape who we are, and impact what we accomplish.

Take New York, for example.

When you go to New York, you can feel the energy and buzz of the city. People walk around with a distinct ambition and as if they are always late. The grit, the hustle, and the idea that anything is possible are ever present. This energy is contagious, and you subconsciously begin to mirror it after spending a few hours in New York. This is one reason why people move to there to make their fortunes.

Let’s compare this to Maui. The subtle message you get from spending time in Maui is relaxed, casual, and slow-paced, which is mirrored in its energy. Someone who desires peace would feel at home in Maui but out of place in New York.

The cities we live in matter.

What Makes a City?

When we think of the great cities of the world, what we are really thinking about are people. Cities are dense, messy, uncontrolled, and cosmopolitan gatherings of people. They are the collective personalities, ambitions, and values of the inhabitants who give each city its unique energy.

The great cities of the world have energies that are self-reinforcing. The energy and personality of each city are signals. These signals resonate with some people, who end up moving to these cities, but repel others, who find the energy unattractive. This strengthens the signals over time.

Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, highlights this beautifully by comparing Cambridge (Boston) to Berkley:

“I’d always imagined Berkeley would be the ideal place—that it would basically be Cambridge with good weather. But when I finally tried living there a couple years ago, it turned out not to be. The message Berkeley sends is: you should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized. It’s probably the place in America where someone from Northern Europe would feel most at home. But it’s not humming with ambition.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been surprising that a place so pleasant would attract people interested above all in quality of life. Cambridge with good weather, it turns out, is not Cambridge. The people you find in Cambridge are not there by accident. You have to make sacrifices to live there. It’s expensive and somewhat grubby, and the weather’s often bad. So the kind of people you find in Cambridge are the kind of people who want to live where the smartest people are, even if that means living in an expensive, grubby place with bad weather.

The notion of sacrifice is what makes a city’s energy self-reinforcing. By choosing to live in Cambridge, you are choosing education, access to world-class universities (MIT and Harvard are a stone’s throw away from each other), and learning over warm and sunny weather, sandy beaches, and a laid-back lifestyle. The odds are that the people who already live in Cambridge also share this value system, and if you’re deeply interested in moving to Cambridge, it’s because this message resonates with you.

Cities and What We Accomplish

How important is the city you live in with regard to achieving your goals, desires, and ambitions?

Our ability to transcend our environment through our own character and strength of mind is limited. Most people who accomplished great things were grouped in select cities over specific periods.

Let’s look at fifteenth-century Florence as an example.

Something was happening in Florence that was unique to the city. During this time, its inhabitants included Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Verrocchio, and numerous other genius contributors to the Italian Renaissance.

The success and achievements of these Renaissance men are no longer happening now, so they couldn’t have been due to heredity. There are roughly 1,000 times more people alive in the United States right now compared to the number living in Florence during the fifteenth century. If DNA ruled, we would be witnessing thousands of Leonardos and Michelangelos walking among us. But we aren’t, and the reason is that you need more than innate talent—you need fifteenth-century Florence.

A community of talented people working together is incredibly powerful; genes count for little by comparison. Musician and theorist Brian Eno has a specific name for this: scenius. Scenius is defined as the intelligence and creativity of a community that are required to bring out individual genius. Eno describes it as follows: “If genius is the creative intelligence of an individual, scenius is the creative intelligence of a group.”

History is filled with numerous examples of scenius at work.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien frequently met at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, where they created three of the five best-selling fantasy novels of all time (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings). A musical scenius was formed in eighteenth-century Vienna, where Mozart and Beethoven produced masterpiece after masterpiece. The most notable modern scenius is San Francisco/Silicon Valley, where ambitious people gather hoping to create the next billion-dollar company.

City–Ambition Fit

The concept of scenius highlights that creative genius requires being in the right city with the right people at the right time. But what does this mean for everyday people like me? I am clearly not a genius, but what can I take away from the concept of scenius?

It’s clear that no matter how determined I am, the city I’m in will impact my outcomes. Each city will provide me with a different set of people to interact with and unique opportunities to capitalize on. Accomplishing my ambitions will be easier if they are aligned with the ambitions of the city you live in.

Consider if you had an idea for a crazy start-up like Airbnb. While it is commonly accepted now, inviting strangers into your home was initially off-putting for people. What city would be best to help you accomplish this seemingly ridiculous idea? Obviously, San Francisco.

The inhabitants of San Francisco have learned (sometimes the hard way by passing on crazy ideas) that ambitions people with big ideas can create billion-dollar companies. So, they are more likely to help you out—make a key introduction, write a cheque, or provide some much-needed encouragement. If you value working on your crazy ideas over everything else, you move to San Francisco and deal with the numerous drawbacks of the city.

The same idea applies to other great cities. If I told people in Vancouver that I wanted to start a hedge fund, I’d get funny looks. In New York, I might get a few LPs.

Finding Your City

Paul Graham thinks that you don’t need to be in a great city your whole life to benefit from it. It is in the early and middle stages of your career that you get the most value from a city. This is when you need similar-minded peers and encouragement the most. He highlights that the great Impressionist painters followed this typical pattern: “They were born all over France (Pissarro was born in the Caribbean) and died all over France, but what defined them were the years they spent together in Paris.”

Where do I want to be?

This is a question I wrestle with often. Especially as I weigh my ambition in one hand and quality of life and family responsibilities in the other. I suspect that others in my demographic—career-focused city dwellers—do as well.

I don’t have an answer for where I want to be in the long term. But for now, I am in the early stages of my career and looking for my version of Paris.

 Notes, Inspirations & Additional Readings:

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