What message is your city telling you?Paul Graham wrote a great essay a while back called "Cities and Ambition" that I've been meaning to blog on for quite a while. His basic theme is that each city has its own subtle message it's sending you about what's important and how you should direct your ambition.
Here are some of his examples:
- New York: "You should make more money."
- Boston/Cambridge: "You should be smarter." (or at least better read)
- Silicon Valley: "You should be more powerful." (i.e. change the world)
"Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups."
- SF/Berkeley: "You should live better." (more conscientious, more civilized, better 'quality of life')
- LA: "You should be more beautiful and famous."
- DC: "You should know more important people."
- Paris: "You should do things with more style."
- London: "You should be more aristocratic." (higher class - although he says this signal is weaker than it used to be)
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you'd be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.Eventually, he gets to his list:
...No matter how determined you are, it's hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It's not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.
...Because ambitions are to some extent incompatible and admiration is a zero-sum game, each city tends to focus on one type of ambition. The reason Cambridge is the intellectual capital is not just that there's a concentration of smart people there, but that there's nothing else people there care about more. Professors in New York and the Bay area are second class citizens—till they start hedge funds or startups respectively.
So far the complete list of messages I've picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life.He didn't mention any Texas cities, so, starting with that list, I thought I'd take my own shot:
- Dallas: a tough one, but I think some combination of wealth, style, and social class. (see a discussion on Dallas here - hat tip to John)
- Austin: an easy one, quality of life (i.e. "You should live better.")
- Houston: so what about our little town of hard working engineers and entrepreneurs? The city of Canion, Cooley, DeBakey, and a gaggle of energy and real estate mavericks? Well, I think we can rule out style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life. Wealth, maybe a bit, but I think the primary one is economic power - "You should be a bigger player in business." (even the business of medicine) We don't seem to care too much whether you're an entrepreneur, developer, or top executive - just so long as you're a big shot. And if you're not a big shot, the message is to become one by whatever path necessary - whether on your own or through a large organization.
UPDATE 4/3/15: Interesting conversation with a friend - maybe "industriousness" is a better ambition message for Houston rather than "economic power", because it's more inclusive of people working hard in all sorts of endeavors, including nonprofits. Credit to Anne Snyder for the insight.
UPDATE 8/13/15: The growing iconic status of the "Be Someone" bridge graffiti downtown is the perfect exemplifier of our message.