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Cities and Ambition (paulgraham.com)
156 points by mqt on May 27, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 306 comments

I think the biggest shift in deciding where to live is happening "online" rather than "offline". I am an online nomad.

I never lived and never will live in MySpace. I do not like the MySpacians message (Hey lets try to see who has more friends and hookups).

I sometimes spend time at Facebook. I lived there for a little while until I realized I am not so much into keeping in touch and I had no friends in the few hours I spent in college. When they open their borders, that's when I found that I do not like the Facebookies message (You should throw more pies and send more kisses)

I vacationed at Twitter, but it is not really my cup of tea. I still dont get their message (Life is a popularity contest).

So Where do I live? Well, I live mostly in HN. Although I sometimes get into arguments with the habitants, I have yet to find another city that beats the intelligence, vibe, energy and support I witness here. I take a daily ride to Techcrunch City and NYT, but I make sure I come back home to HN and mingle with the people who live here.

"I make sure I come back home to HN and mingle with the people who live here"

Me too.

Nice observation, the virtual city. The result of choice, not circumstance.

"The result of choice, not circumstance."

There seems to be this popular belief that admitting you are influenced by your environment is a sign of weakness. I just gave a presentation for my ethics class was on why the "trolley problem" is a logical fallacy. My argument was that you could create a system to flip the switch that completely circumvented the individual as a moral agent. For example, you could create a system whereby the individuals on the track could bid ebay-style on which direction the switch should be flipped. Or, alternatively, you could create a system whereby the direction of the switch was determined by a dice, with a 5/6 chance of the single individual being killed and a 1/6 chance of the other five individuals being killed. I then argued that A) social systems, not only individuals, should be considered to be moral agents and B) the morality of a system should be judged based on the behaviors it promotes via its extrinsic rewards. So, for example, the ebay-style system would be a universe that encouraged its inhabitants to create things of value for others so that they could bid their way out their predicament, whereas the dice-toss universe would be completely amoral as it would neither encourage nor discourage any set of behaviors. To me the lesson of the Milgram experiments, the Asch conformity tests, the Stanford Prison Experiment, etc. is that moral decisions are the result of both the individual's intrinsic nature and their external environment (inc. extrinsic rewards). So the trolley problem has always struck me as a false dichotomy because it assumes that the only two options are for a single individual to flip the switch either left or right, which implies that morality is completely intrinsic within the individual and the external environment plays no role, even though this is completely counter to what social psych teaches us.

Anyway, this was sort of a very long was of saying that I like the idea that people should consciously choose their environment because they realize that their environment does have a very real effect on their actions.

I agree. I think pg's essay is spot-on. However, I don't believe that choosing where you live is as simple as saying, e.g., "I want to be an academic" and thus you move to Cambridge.

What if, say, your spouse is really into acting and loves the Los Angeles area... it might be very hard for them to find the same happiness in Cambridge, just as you might be harder-pressed to be as academic as you want to be in L.A.

I think a fair question is, if, for whatever reason, you can't move to an area that would well-support your ambitions, what can you do to improve your environment? Surely the best answer isn't "nothing, just resign yourself to live your life in obscurity and failure"...

It is good, but still low-bandwidth. Perhaps the reason for compulsively refreshing the homepage is that we just can't get enough.

Any suggestions about how to make better online environments for people who care about similar things?

I think this site is a good way to link people with similar interests. it's an online software for sharing time lines about basically anything (you make them yourself). www.dipity.com I just made an account, and I think that shring time lines is really a good way to talk and exchange a lot. I truly think people will meet through these things. it's a social network that's surely more meaninful than myspace or facebook, cause it's made to exacge information (in a pretty user friendly way). it's sharing information instead or pure fame or coolness (or throwing pies and presents).

add me I'm "smoothboom" and I just started a time line about memetics if you're interested.

No, I don't think this helps. Yes, you get more bandwidth, but the signal-to-noise ratio drops.


You sound like a bitter Bostonian who was priced out of New York because you couldn't afford to pay rent on your studio in Alphabet City.

And as a Bostonian, I'd expect you to have enough cerebral instinct to be less transparent with your intuitive writing style. But alas, you all to easily portray your hometown's sad trace of pragmatism by holding ideology over realistic execution, hence why you were probably priced out of NY to begin with.

Another down year on Wall St., yet my bonus alone still affords the Cambridge flat you so wish you could afford to purchase. Hope you grow up some day, and find yourself, cities aside pal.

HN? Ah, Hacker News. I am a noob here and at first glance, I thought you lived at HN: http://homelessnation.org/

PG fails to mention that Cambridge (and Sommerville, the emerging hipster/cheaper alternative) is like an island in the middle of a puritan city.

Boston, in large, give the message of "old money rules". Where you were born, where is your summer house (Martha Vineyard, Cape Cod, or Maine?), seems to the most important thing. And coorporates rule, so you have to play by their game: meaning you have to be one of them, in the boys club, have some gray hair, be decent at golf (or pretend to like it), in order to be considered good at busniness.

Boston/Cambridge is great if you are in academia, or doing research, but doing anything practical, or startup it is not that place to be.

Young ambitious people move somewhere else, the rest is stuck in academia, or living the 9-5 life clinging to the coorporate life, maybe they will manage up in the ladder (or rat race).

Adding, I also have met very smart people in Cambridge, but talk is cheap, and there is a lot of it in there. Everybody has an opinion about everything, but when it comes to action, there isn't much.

I wish the spirit of Boston were anything so romantic as "old money rules." Actually there are hardly any of those people left. The Thurston Howells have all died, and their trustafarian kids have long since moved to Berkeley or Boulder. Except for Cambridge, Boston doesn't send any message at all that I can pick up.

+1 for using 'trustafarian'.

Boston says, "Ride the T, don't buy liquor on Sunday, and incorporate Dunkin' Donuts into at least two meals a day."

I totally felt the Dunkin' Donuts part of the message. I ate Dunkin' for breakfast twice while visiting. Who knew they served bagels?

The message I get from Boston is "know your history". Pretty much every block has a centuries-old story behind it, and someone there who wants you to know what that story is. I don't think it's a coincidence that the National Genealogical Society is headquartered there.

You should come to Germany. We have a lot of history if not much else in the east.

Johann Sebastian Bach lived around there.

If you are in biotech, Cambridge is at par with the bay area when it comes to startups. As a life scientist, walking around Kendall square is sheer energy

"New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you've been meaning to."

From two years ago here: http://web.archive.org/web/20070102025129/http://paulgraham.... :

"I find every ambitious town sends you a message. New York tells you "you should make more money." LA tells you "you should be better looking." Rome tells you "you should dress better." London tells you "you should be hipper." The Bay Area tells you "you should live better." And Cambridge tells you "you should read some of those books you've been meaning to.""

Yes, bits of this came from that experiment in blogging I tried with Infogami. I thought of mentioning that in one of those prefatory remarks, but mentioning it would have taken more words than the bits in question.

I don't object! It was just interesting to see the gap between an early draft and a finished copy.

I found it cool as well, and appreciate you linking to that. It's somewhat inspiring to see how someone begins to think about a topic; leads me to stop rejecting my early ideas so ruthlessly.

It's ok to riff on themes. Bach did it all the time.

I wrote this four months ago in an email to a friend of mine:

"San Francisco is definitely a great area, and you should at least visit some day. There's a vibe there that's completely different from anywhere else I've ever been. It is hard to explain. You just go there and you feel it. Things seem possible out there that would be laughed at here. That's the best way I can put it.

Every city that I've been to has a certain feel to it. New York is rude and busy. Portland is relaxed and thoughtful. San Francisco is ambitious and free-spirited. Atlanta is comfortable and complacent. Atlanta's feel was good for growing up, and it is one that's good for growing old if you're willing to play it conservatively and live a life of moderate wealth and complacency. But if you're not, you should go to a city that has a better feel for what your goals are at that stage in your life.

Does that make sense? I'm by no means trying to convince you to go to San Francisco, but for me it was important that I travelled around and discovered the city that had the right feel for me. Portland was very close, and San Francisco is nearly spot on. I have no doubt you'll be somewhat different. Give it a try though, eh?"

Its like PG read my email and decided to write an essay on it.

"New York is rude and busy."

New York is just busy -- if you are as busy as everyone else, wasting time with "Please" and "Thank you" would strike you as rude.

Not everyone is just busy. The place turns some people into monsters.

Since we're on the subject of the politeness of New Yorker's and the attitude that everything has its price, in New York, a simple "thank you" might be considered a costly acknowledgment.

Here's a dismal example by hacking standards, but it's still indicative of the attitude. Someone from a financial firm, known for its rating system and price indexes, had a data conversion problem. They were using Matlab--a dismal language with a bastard semantics. One of the functions they were using was Datenum(), which converts dates and times to the number of days since the year zero, in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.

The specification of this function should have been to return a floating point number equal to 1+1/86,400 (in units of days) for a date argument equal to one second after year zero. And in fact, the open source equivalent function in Octave does exactly that. However, Matlab's function differs from this in the 11th decimal place. Their technical support has been silent on the issue.

When I informed the person at the financial firm about this discrepancy, they thanked me for "my comments." In the next sentence, I was informed that that they were redoing their calculations using another method. It was stated as if the decision to do this was an entirely independent judgment, not at all informed by my observations, and completely unrelated to any problems they might have encountered using the previous method. They simply decided to change the way they were doing things, without explanation.

Finding a numerical bug that could complicate the analysis of code that depends on it is not earthshaking. But not stating what informed a decision to avoid the problem altogether is a typical New York attitude. Or perhaps the reluctance to credit others is typically corporate. Correct me if I am mistaken.

I have to agree with Paul Graham's essay on the relative lifelessness of employees: if I were an employee, I simply would have accepted the decision as a completely independent judgment, internalized it and defended it.

Just typically corporate, in my experience. That kind of person uses "I" when "we" would be the correct pronoun, and "we" when "you" would be. When "I" would actually be correct, it'll be capitalized, or attention drawn to it some other way.

The values of New York come from Wall Street, which sets the tone for the rest of industry there. The attitude that everything has its price is responsible for the bad reputation that New York and New Yorkers have in the rest of the country.

If you live in New York, in some sense you aren't a citizen of the United States: your residency means that you have a passport to enter the "real" United States.

Another thing about New York: it clearly isn't known for science. The Science Museum in Oakland California would be impossibly out of place in New York. The two main categories of industry in New York are finance and media, broadly conceived (including the arts, television, publishing, fashion, advertising and so on).

I've never been to the Science Museum in Oakland, but New York has some pretty good science museums.

And I can't really say that Science and Oakland go together all that way in my mind either.

As I recall, the Oakland Science Museum is focused on technology. The American Museum of Natural History is a better museum in many ways, but its focus is entirely different. The Hall of Science seems like a leftover from the World's Fair--I'm probably completely mistaken.

I associate the Hall of Science with cranky aging amateur radio operators on account of the annual hamfests they hold in the vicinity. Those hams seem as if their wives ordered them not to come home until they sell off their old equipment. That's the impression of science and technology you get from the Hall of Science. That impression might be a little hard to convey, so try comparing the discussions on eHam with those on hacker news.

Columbia, NYU, and Cooper Union are excellent schools. If they were located anywhere but in the center of the world's media and financial system, they would define that place as an unparalleled academic center.

I don't know about unparalleled. Harvard + MIT + Tufts + BU + BC + Northeastern + ... would probably still win.

They used to have the most selective school ever, leading to the best Noble Prize winning streak ever (http://www.lagriffedulion.f2s.com/iq.htm).

"I don't know about unparalleled." That means, "compared with CUNY."

The problem is that Columbia is situated so far away from the other two, and from the "heart" of the city, that the university simply cannot have the same overarching influence on society that other schools that are better integrated with their surroundings do (like Harvard and MIT with Cambridge). In addition, it's a matter of pure density- Cambridge and Boston, to a lesser extent, is seen as a college town because of the density of college students living in that area. In New York, college students compose such a tiny percentage of the overall population, and exert such a small influence on everyone else, that they are hardly given a second thought when determining the dominant themes in a city's ideology.

I live in Tokyo right now. Everyone is very busy, yet it's obligatory to be polite at all times and with all people (at work). Don't know how it compares to NY though, never been there.

Have you been to Austin? I am very interested in going there and would like your take on it.

Austin tells you 'you should be weird'.

It also tells you to have a beer, tube the river, and then join a band.

I don't know Austin, why is it?

I live there. I think the message is:

You should be younger and hipper and enjoy indie music.

Actually, you're picking up the last bit wrong..."and join a band" is actually the way the last bit of the message goes. But close enough.

In personals ads in Austin, "musician" is code for "unemployed", because everybody is a musician. You only mention it if you don't have anything better to say about your career.

Nope. I keep meaning to attend an SXSW, but can never find the time/money.

I live in Columbus, OH and as I read PG's essay I was wondering what Columbus tells you. And seriously, I just kept thinking about one thing: "You should play college football."

College football is king in the Bus, and the players and coaches are our royalty.

It's kind of a scary thought, but I'm as big a Buckeye fan as anyone else, so I'm partly to blame. But I also admit that I don't want to live in a place where this is the best thing we have to offer.

The truth is, I love Columbus for all many reasons: close friends, a great job, the Wexner Center, and of course, Buckeye football. It's a scary thought to pick up and move to SV. I often think about Spielberg, Lucas, Kaufman, and Coppola all hanging out together in the 70s. I desperately want to be a part of a group like that, but for startups.

Being an OSU student, I have to agree with you, but to be fair, I think Columbus also has some more interesting things to say, depending on where you live.

Brewery district: You should drink better beer.

Short north: You should be more artistic (in terms of both art and "sophisticated" things like wine-tasting).

Anywhere near High Street: You should hear more live music.

Honestly, Columbus has a thriving music, art, and gay community, and I think that makes it kind of a cool city. There's this very strange dynamic of party-going OSU students, diverse foreign-exchange OSU students, sports-crazy Ohioans, business-minded corporate-types, and aesthetic art aficionados.

Maybe, most of all, the message of Columbus is that diversity is good.

Diversity is never good, though. That's such a lame stereotype of our time. Diverse cultures are dying cultures. But I agree, that's totally the message of Columbus. It's trying so hard to be the most "diverse" and "gay-friendly" place in the Midwest. But the gayness is tired and such a stereotype. It's like, "Enough already!" You'd never see straights behaving like that, or parading around so obsessively. It's gross. I shouldn't be required to like, accept, or tolerate it -- because I don't.

That is a much better message, I think you're probably right. Really, I love Columbus, and I'm disappointed whenever someone says that there is nothing to do. There are always a ton of events and cultural experiences to enjoy, you just have to make the effort to look.

Perhaps Columbus could find it's own specific niche within high-tech? I've been impressed by the Tech Columbus initiative.

If you've never lived anywhere else, you owe it to yourself to move on. I grew up in Columbus, and while it was a nice place to be a kid, I could never live there today. Too sheltered.

And trust me...the valley isn't scary. It's nothing but a gigantic suburb, punctuated with office parks. Sure, the housing is hideously expensive, and there are freakishly rich people everywhere, but otherwise, the place won't present a challenge to you. San Francisco, on the other hand, is a different world....

I actually grew up in the burbs of Raleigh and then Dallas, I didn't come to Columbus until college.

The thought of moving to SV is scary exactly because of the expense, especially when I have a decent paying job here that I love. It would be foolish to abandon that, right? (I guess this illustrates the differences again between the two areas: Columbus would answer "Yes!" and SV would answer "No!")

I should mention that Columbus does have industries other than Buckeye Football. If you're passionate about insurance, this is the place to be. Of course, who is really passionate about insurance?

As far as deciding a city's worth based on personal experiences, it's always going to be just that: personal. But I can't deny the influences of cities on my individual life.

I lived in Columbus, and I concur. Columbus says: "watch Ohio State football."

Duuude, Mister Graham, I've never even heard of this Cambridge, and I seriously doubt it is the intellectual capital of the world. And you know what - you are not qualified to judge. You've not been to Urumuqi, Jenin, Port Harcourt or Bahia, how can you make a judgement based on having been in two cities?

And furthermore, I take offense at the suggestion that American universities produce the best students. In general, the American engineers I have met have been less skilled than their German counterparts.

American universities produce people with ambition, but that probably has to do more with the American culture than any particular school policy.

Cities do not mould people. People of a certain sort hear about the reputation of a city and they flock there. It's like people hear of china town and go there for chinese food, and pretty soon lots of people are selling chinese food there, because it is where people go for chinese food.

A city influences people, but in a very complex manner. It's an animal ecosystem, and there are hundreds of factors at work that modify and regulate pull and push of a city.

You are seeing cambridge from your peculiar focus. That's not the real cambridge. Imagine some black bum you drive by, imagine how he sees cambridge. For him its not a place of ideas. There is no push towards reading.

What you term the 'city' is the social circle you are in. That's not the city, the city is much more diverse than that. There are crackheads and hos, bums and pimps, bus drivers and lower class korean immigrants. Its not an idea place for those people, it's just home.

A city can gain a reputation, and this reputation can cause a crust of a certain type of person to form in the city, but beneath this layer, every city is made up of normal people.

Sooner or later, the trend will change and the flavour of the crust will change, but beneath it all, life and death of these normal people will continue.

You are mistaking the icing for the cake.

Imagine some black bum you drive by, imagine how he sees cambridge. For him its not a place of ideas. There is no push towards reading.

I'm not sure why you felt the need to bring the hypothetical bum's race into it, but I disagree. A bum on the street in Cambridge sits around resenting the fact that all the successful people around him are better educated than he is. A bum on the street in Hollywood, on the other hand, sits around resenting the fact that all the successful people around him are better-looking than he is.

An MIT student made a documentary a few years back about bums on the street of Cambridge. While the evidence is clearly anecdotal, none gave off the aura you describe. They were completely disconnected from the MIT/Harvard community. Instead, they were entirely engrossed in their own world (and in some cases, how they got there).

Unless you are in or have been in a similar situation, I don't think either of you are qualified to make an assessment of what the views are of the "bums" in either city. Not everyone has the same goals or expectations in life (not claiming they aspire to be homeless) but making the assumption that individuals become bitter and resent those who either more successful (which is subjective) or better looking (also subjective) is quite a pretentious statement. This attitude perpetuates throughout our society and fuels many of the problems we face today. Maybe that "bum" is simply happy to have survived a childhood surrounded by drug addict parents or none at all, or maybe he is one of your praised intellectuals who went off the deep end with mental illness or was left behind by society. While you corrected the parent for making an ignorant statement for calling the "bum" black, you went on a few sentences later to make an equally ignorant statement by making the assumption he envies those surrounding him.

The bums in Cambridge are almost always white.

There is a disproportionate number of white bums, but there are certainly a lot of black bums too. So I would not say they are almost always white.

my favorite is that black guy that hangs before Au Bon Pain that uses flatery to get money: "Young lady", "Big guy", "Pretty lady", could you spare some change?

SF bums are not that pleasant.

The same is true of a lot of Boston beggars. I find people in the Boston area generally well-spoken. Education is emphasized a lot, not just in Cambridge.

What would be the proportionate number of white bums?

I don't know exactly, but I've been to a lot of cities, and Cambridge is off the average.

So just to make this a little more precise, which is your candidate for intellectual capital, Urumuqi, Jenin, Port Harcourt or Bahia?

I think you are missing his point, as he said " beneath this layer, every city is made up of normal people". The judgments you are making on those particular areas are relative to the individuals you are associating with.

yes, that's very nice but does nothing to refute Cambridge as the intellectual capital of the world.

It does because the parents entire message was that for the most part, every city is made up of the same ingredients and you cannot dub the city the intellectual capital of the world based on a small subset of experiences with a select group of people. If your entire experience with the city of Cambridge is surrounded with individuals involved in academia, then it would be easy to come to such a conclusion. Having a friend that attends a well known Cambridge institution, I would never title an area based on or around the experiences I had with those individuals while visiting because that would be entirely inaccurate. If that were the case, I could call Cambridge the pseudointellectual and back patting capital of the world (not that those were my experiences, but no less accurate than any of the previous statements).

OK -- you are saying that things are much more complicated than being able to dub a city the intellectual capital of the world.

It is nearly impossible because humanity is more complex than being reduced to the experiences of one person, but if someone was holding a gun to your head and saying you had to name the world's intellectual capital, what would you name it? There really doesn't seem to be a better one than Cambridge.

No I wouldn't name Cambridge because "When you walk through Palo Alto in the evening, you see nothing but the blue glow of TVs. In Cambridge you see shelves full of promising-looking books". If intellect was based off of the number of books in ones bookshelf, a few of my friends would be gods amongst men. If the main criteria everyone is using to evaluate whether a city is the intellectual capital is a) how prestigious the cities institutions are and b) how condensed those universities are to each other, then I agree, Cambridge is that location. Any other basis for a decision is entirely subjective and a futile conversation to continue.

It's lovely how you dissect and dismiss the statement on the basis of being a subjective determination without questioning for a second just what the hell "intellectual capital of the world" means.

I daresay your reading comprehension skills are subpar if you're troubled to detect a subjective declaration in a subjective essay about subjective experience.

Ok, So apparently an ad hominem argument without any valid justification or reasoning is acceptable. I at least tried to support with some sort of criteria or justification for a title. Not from PG, but from all of the commenter's who support the claim.

"I daresay your reading comprehension skills are subpar if you're troubled to detect a subjective declaration in a subjective essay about subjective experience."

Well sadly your reading comprehension skills are subpar because I have been responding to the thread, not the content of the essay. The use of the quote from the essay was used to make the point that the individuals here seem to so easily accept Cambridge as the capital without any mention or rebuttal with criteria or evidence to support.

There seems to be blind support to these claims and no defense for them. Why is it wrong for me to reject a claim but alright for you all to accept it? I seem to be the only one that is attempting to dissect the criteria or claim subjectivity while you give none.

Rather than downmod me and tell me I am wrong, propose reasons why your argument is valid.

What argument? Your complaint is that it's subjective -- I'm saying yes, it is, and everybody else knows that. It's just that nobody cares because the very crowning phrase "intellectual capital of the world" is subjective.

It's like saying "Chicago is the best city in the world to get a hot dog" -- it may not be backed by objective criteria but that does not render it meaningless, and you can find plenty of people ready to make or agree with that claim without a formal argument.

The burden is on you to explain why it makes a difference in the context of the essay, as it's unclear how you distinguish between it and people in the comments agreeing with it -- in neither case is it presented as an objective determination, and yet you're treating it as if it is. (see also:"tilting at windmills")

black bums, lower class korean immigrants... I appreciate German attitudes of precision but with that mentality no wonder you lack immigrant capital.

I use race for dramatic effect. It underscores the societal and cultural differences between the one group of people and the other. I'm sorry to not conform to your American way of never mentioning anything related to race or ethnicity.

Joke of the day: What do you call an european with no sense of humor.....



In other news, an immigrant will always feel as second class citizen in most of europe, and Germany has a bad reputation about it. In some parts of East germany there is some Neo-Nazi resurrection, and there is lots of xenophobia.

The states it is a total different thing. It depends where you are. In SF i just don't feel foreign at all, as most people I meet actually speak at home another language, or have traveled a lot. There is no visible discrimination, and I feel I could be an american one day.

Living in the south, it is a total different thing. You feel foreign, no matter how good your english skills are, BUT, you can actually score points with girls thou (if you are white, of course), as there are not that many europeans around.

In germany, they give you this thing called the blue card, so you could slave working on some company, then they kick you out when the time is up, with no path to citizenship. Hmmmm.... No thanks, I just don't feel being used as a disposable thing.

As another anecdote, here in Austria, which for many things has similar laws to Germany, you can't have dual citizenship, and being born here doesn't confer citizenship on you, as it does in places like the US, or Italy. So our daughter will be Italian and American, despite being born in Austria (not that we would have wanted it otherwise, but still...).

I met a German guy in the states, who was born and raised there, considered himself German, but didn't get citizenship until 18 or 19 because his parents were from Turkey.

You can find a list of countries that deny citizenship to people born in that country of parents who are not of the "right" blood, yet have lived in the country for many years. It is one of the strongest indicators of institutional racism I can think of that is still in practice in many modern nations.


I agree with what you say, but that list seems mostly to be about countries that grant citizenship to people of a given "ethnicity"/stock that weren't born in the country itself (for instance, if you have an Italian grandparent, you can get Italian citizenship, even if your parents are, say, Brazilian). That's in contrast to countries that deny citizenship to those who are born in the country in question, which is what strikes me as too exclusive.

This is probably the first time I've ever seen anyone reference my birth-city in a blog post or comment (Urumqi). And I can confirm it's not a startup or intellectual hub, but the Uyghur lamb-kabobs are killer.

I've been to Urumuqi. Nice place. The Urumuqi men have a reputation for selling marijuana together with their meat though.


First, the fact that cities beneath everything else are all comprised of ordinary people means nothing. It has always been the top that detemines the direction everyone else goes. It doesn't change anything PG wrote. How many in Padua, or say, Florence, were anything else but ordinary when the Renaissance unfolded? It has always been the top that makes history and changes things for everyone else.

Your comment is a little like saying there is no difference between Honda and Ford, since they are both composed largely of steel and aluminum and plastic. And this is the reason there is an enormous distance between Germany and America. In Germany there is no top, just droids coming and going. In America there is very decidely a top. About everyone else, PG was not making any remark.

America has a serious Middle Education problem, but American Universities are indeed, second to none.

Also, don't talk ecosystem. It means so much to so many people these days, it has come to have no meaning.

You are also incorrect in stating that most any city has the circle someone would want to belong to, that someone just needs to look for it. This is far from the truth. There are many cities in which you could not find certain circles in which to exchange ideas, if your life depended on it.

Jenin - you should build more bombs.

You are mistaken in concluding that "normal" people shape a city. The traits that make a city unique are the result of the actions of a minority of its inhabitants.

If your "logic" were accurate, Los Angeles would be no different than Tijuana, for example, considering that most of the "normal" people there are lower class Mexican immigrants.

Allow me to inform you of something essential about PG's essays: they require intelligence to truly understand, to the point that his core arguments will simply sail over the heads of those who lack it. Evidence of not having the required intelligence includes attempting to refute the core arguments with a myriad of minor points that appear to point out logical flaws, when they only manage to address comparatively minor items of negligible consequence.

Mr. Graham's essays are valuable owing to their QUALITATIVE aspects, not to their total QUANTITATIVE sum . . .

I'm not the cleverest guy in this room. I once took an online IQ test and only got 115. To be fair, lots of questions were things like "What of this has no relationship with Kansas". But I digress...

If a person trying to communicate cannot make his point understood by any but the most intelligent, then he has failed in communicating.

It depends on the point and the audience. If the point is complex enough, then you have to give up on conveying it to certain people. If the audience is smart enough, you reach past the lowest common denominator.

Indeed, the best way to write something that lasts for ages is to write something that ordinary people reject, bright people don't really understand, and the smart fall head over heels in love with. That's what keeps Plato in business. No one knows what he was saying exactly, but the really smart guys running the universe can't help but be charmed by it.

I wonder if 'the point is complex enough, then you have to give up on conveying it to certain people' is true.

That Feynman could explain fairly abstract physical concepts such that laypeople could understand them may imply that one needs to understand the 'complex point' better before trying to explain it.

Wittgenstein started one public lecture with a disclaimer to the effect, "This will not be one of those popular science lectures where you come out of the talk thinking you understand a topic that you understand nothing about."

With all due respect to Feynman, if at the end of his lectures lay people couldn't do the math behind the physics he described, they didn't really "understand" it. They understood a simplified picture of it that captured most of the important details in a really vivid way. But they were still missing something important.

That said, you're right. In the general case, we shouldn't allow ourselves the "out" of "oh, this is soooo complex that I can't speak clearly" without some pretty damn strong motivation. It's just that in this particular case, I didn't think the essay was especially jargon laden, so the OP's comment seemed misplaced. How much more simply can one explain that cities affect how you think?

Ooooohh - cute downmodding . . . I think this is the last time I post to this board, the modding fascism is MUCH too High School for me.

I've realized now why I always liked living in Los Angeles so much (apart from my family being nearby): 'Los Angeles' was really 'Pasadena', and 'Pasadena' was 'Caltech'. Living in Pasadena near Caltech was like living in Cambridge, only the weather was good and most of the books on people's bookshelves required calculus to understand them fully. (I've also lived in Cambridge, and while I loved all the high-IQ neighbors, there's also a lot of pseudo-intellectual pretension there. Not all books need mathematics, of course, but math is a convenient pin for pricking inflated egos.)

A weird thing: the Borders in Pasadena is about the same size as any other yet it unfailingly has the books I want to read. Followed by Westwood, Santa Monica and Hollywood.

Interestingly, Moleskine (which is totally "stuff white people like") recently created a Los Angeles City Notebook including a map of "selected" parts of LA. Metropolitan LA is 4,850 square miles, so one wonders where they selected. Answer: http://www.flickr.com/photos/atwatervillage/2444508587/

I know what you mean about Cambridge. Hanging around Diesel Cafe (okay, Somerville) I saw a lot people hacking on web apps, but also a lot of copies of Derrida and Bhabha carefully positioned on the table so that people would notice them. cringe.

I used to live one block away from Caltech, when I had the good fortune to work there. The eavesdropping there was the best I ever heard.

I've noticed messages as well:

Gary, IN: Lock the doors. Do not stop.

Macon, GA: You know, Atlanta is just up the road, right?

Elko, NV: The only winners are the house and the mine owners.

Milwaukee, WI: Fourth place is just fine, given enough beer.

Clearly, I need to hang out in better cities.

Garberville, CA: Hey, man, you should give to the community and help me get some weed.

Wolfeboro, NH (smalltown New England summer resort): You should pretend it's 1962 like all the retirees do.

Waltham, MA (Brandeis University): Go back to NYC when you graduate.

Cambridge, MA: You should be more educated.

I chose "educated" over "intelligent" largely because I lived closer to Harvard. When I go to the MIT side of Cambridge I would switch the two. In and around Harvard you see a strong vein of people who aim for the prestige of higher education over the knowledge it brings.

The middle-aged people dream of sitting in a musky study debating high-falutin mish-mash over a nice port. The college-aged kids dream of sitting in a coffee shop debating their PHIL101 papers. They seek _established_ education.

I know this doesn't speak for every aspect of Cambridge, which I did love living in for a few years, but the too-strong emphasis on the appearance of education as opposed to the knowledge you gain helped me move to take a job in San Mateo (shameless plug: RockYou.com).

Disclaimer: I am not your average anything. My move to San Mateo from Cambridge is via Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. I speak Mandarin but I'm English/German. Take what I said with a healthy grain of wacky salt.

The only place I've had that feeling that "education" was more important than knowledge in Cambridge was actually directly on the Harvard campus. But I completely agree.

There are two strains of culture in Cambridge, "you should be smarter" which is why I love living here. And "you should have two PHDs" -- which is very different and unfortunate message. It's almost the opposite of the Valley, which speaks so reverently of the Harvard drop-out.

The best thing that those of us who live in Cambridge could do is keep the culture focused on ideas and less on diplomas.

Okay, me too.

Columbia SC: Uh, the culture is pretty much centered around it's mid-tier University of South Carolina, which is a party-hardy Frat/Sorority vibe. So, I guess it says "YEEE-HAAAAW! More beer, Bo!"

Hartford, CT: Unless you can calculate the death of a 55 year old smoker with no major medical history within a margin of error, the city says "There's NY below and Boston above, take your pick, pay your toll, and have a nice day."

Raleigh-Durham, NC: Duke University, UNC, Wake Forrest, North Carolina State, Shaw, and various other colleges all within around 20 interstate exits of each other. I guess it would say "study hard, and find job at IBM, Sony-Ericsson, or Cisco." Not too much entreprenurial spirit here, I guess because the tech giants gobble them up with nice offers right out of college.

My friends live in West Columbia, and I think they're trying to build a hip scene out there, but it's hard going.

I live in Honolulu. It's a miracle that I make it out of bed in the afternoon.

Wow, SC people hang out here? Sweet.

Columbia, SC doesn't really send any strong messages. Only the young people in the area have anything to do with USC, normally, so not even the frattiness comes across that strong.

College football tailgating, however, is a state-wide sport.

aston, are you from SC? I'm from Greenville (which sends the message, "How can we be more like Atlanta?", or at least it did when I last lived there 14 years ago). Small world.

The message in Charleston definitely has something about aristocracy and the value of old money, while the message in the rest of the coastal towns generally involves fishing. Except Myrtle Beach, where the message is, "Y'all come on down for a visit, and leave your money when you head back up north."

Went to Furman, agreed.

Visited Bob Jones as a kid -- "You know you're going to hell, right?"

Weird. I lived three blocks from Furman. It was my playground, growing up. We played video games in the student center using change fished out of the fountain beside it, flirted embarrassingly with the college girls, skateboarded and biked all over, and regularly got kicked out after the campus closed for the day (for those unfamiliar with small Southern Baptist liberal arts schools, or at least Furman, they close all of the gates except the main gate at 10PM and only allow students in).

Speaking of Bob Jones, no one ever believes me when I explain that it has a "date room", wherein couples sit together in a chaperoned room, with a Bible-width space in between. Which explains why Bob Jones girls are such a terror when they do manage to escape the watchful eyes of the school.

Clemson SC: Aren't we all glad we don't live in Columbia! More beer, Bo!

"your best best is probably to try living in several places when you're young"

I have, and here's what they've said to me:

Pittsburgh: You should be nice.

New Jersey: You should be in New York.

Los Angeles: You should go outside.

Phoenix: You should go inside.

Detroit: You should be glad you have a good job.

Tampa: You should buy a new pair of flip flops for dinner Saturday night.

"Pittsburgh: You should be nice."

Being a native Western Pennsylvania, and living more of my adult life in Pittsburgh than anywhere else, I'll take that as a compliment :).

I moved to NYC with my wife right after we were married, and loved every minute of it. But decided to return here to raise our kids after they were born.

An interesting thing about Pittsburgh is the number of large non-profits of every kind, especially considering the reduced population. The major industrial titans that made their fortunes here in decades past (Carnegie, Mellon, Heinz, etc.) have left behind many cultural institutions like libraries, museums, universities, parks, hospitals, etc. that are still well funded and high quality.

You'll find some of that in NYC (even from some of the same benefactors) but Pittsburgh I think has a higher cultural dollars/resident ratio. This is a wonderful thing in terms of raising children. My kids think hanging out at the zoo, library, conservatory, kids' museum, etc. is a perfectly common thing to do. I think in NYC (and other cities?) you could find many of the same things, but it would not be possible to enjoy them in a leisurely manner, or afford family yearly membership passes.

I lived in Pgh. for 6 years (7th-12th grade), and my family still lives there. That's a very good point about the cultural institutions -- though in my experience, they're woefully underattended. It's possible to hang out at the zoo, conservatory, science museum, etc. ...but my family was thought to be a bit odd for actually doing so. (Of course, we lived in the wealthy suburban soccer mom part, not the university-intellectual part, so that's probably why. Neighborhoods have messages, too.)

Heh, that's the advantage of our boys still being young (4 and 6 now, 2 and 4 when we first moved here). They don't know any better than to think those activities are perfectly normal. We have successfully brainwashed them so far, and by the time they hit teenage peer pressure, it might be too late to undo the "damage" of a cultured mind :).

The "under attended" part isn't all bad. Our boys can run around a little bit in Phipps Conservatory, for example, without many negative glances.

We do live in a city neighborhood, so that might account for some of the difference.

I've met nice people everywhere I've lived. Somehow, and I'm not sure why, it seems just a little bit easier to meet nice people in Pittsburgh. Whether it's the checkout line in a supermarket, in a restaurant or bar, or just hanging out, people generally seem friendly and engaging.

(The day after a Steeler's loss, of course, all bets are off.)

Agreed. After ~9 years in Pittsburgh, I can definitely confirm the 'nice' factor ;)

Perhaps it's even more noticeable because I live in SF now, especially in the Marina filled with mostly pretentious folks.

And our biggest employer and company is a non-profit! The hulking University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Places I've lived:

Sydney: You should spend more money on real estate.

Melbourne: You should spend more money on clothes.

London: You should have been here 150 years ago.

Davis, CA: You should leave Davis, CA.

my list:

brooklyn: you should be hipper

cambridge: you should be smarter

berkeley: you should only eat organically grown vegetables

tokyo: you should be japanese

san francisco: you should become as crazy as most everyone else, but not quite as crazy as the homeless people

Tokyo, Japan: Doing nothing, even for a minute, is a sin.

Having spent some time in Tokyo, I must say that the most striking thing for me was that at any moment of the day, the streets are flooded with people going too and fro. It was amazing. -m

Sydney is real estate, through and through.

London: "You should have been here 150 years ago" is essentially "you should be more aristocratic". I think that signal is strong in London. I have been at dinner with friends who started arguing about how far they had to commute on the tube (as a proxy for social class.) The English pretend to the world that it doesn't matter but it seems to matter deeply to them. This seems to be an English hidden rule; that is how the discussion started.

Places I've lived:

Mountain View, CA: We're not the Barrio (any more).

Toledo, OH: We're close to Detroit.

Bowling Green, OH: Attend a real university with your real high school friends!

Columbus, OH: Love Ohio State football (and basketball, if the season's wrong).

Cleveland, OH: You gotta be tough.

My sister, who drives a car worth about $100, had her car window smashed picked clean of her collection of burned CDs in downtown Cleveland.

Moscow: You should be rich, or Russian. Preferably both.

Wrong. If we were to choose one message for Moscow it should be: "you must be powerfull."

If you are merely rich, your money can be easily taken from you by more powerful person in Moscow.

And if you didn't know, Russian is a second class citizen in Russia.

All in all, one message per city is insufficient. It all depends on the people around you.

You hit the nail on the head: This whole essay is based on a false premise (which nonetheless is strongly believed by PG). Cambridge only seems to be a "smart" town if your social group consists of people associated with MIT, and you're only likely to end up in that social group if you were part of the middle class when you moved there.

Why exactly is Moscow expensive? I've never figured this out. Is there a shortage of land, or is it really, really inaccessible from land, or what?

"... Melbourne: You should spend more money on clothes ..."

No it's more like...

Melbourne: You live in the sports capital of a sports crazed country. You should go to the footy, the cricket, tennis and don't forget some new duds on cup day.

You forgot to mention the obligatory beers at each event.

Tel Aviv: You should be moving faster. A lot faster. Dublin: Be wittier then smart. Melbourne: I agree. Its a confused message that definitely has to do with sports not clothes.

Eugene, Oregon: Hey man, just, you know, hang out and get mellow.

Portland, Oregon: Be alternative just like everyone else.

San Francisco: We're so hip and important.

Padova, Italy: That was a long, hard work week, let's have a drink in the piazza and get a pizza afterwards.

Innsbruck, Austria: ... something in the Tirolean dialect that I completely failed to grasp, involving skiing ...

I've been to different places in the world but the same ideas popped into my head:

Barcelona: Party naked but watch your backpack.

Toronto: Buy land north of here.

Amsterdam: There's no work done here at all.

London: Next time, bring more money.

I must admit the descriptions you give for Amsterdam, London, Barcelona sound off to me. I think you have to live or spend a lot of time somewhere before you can understand it's 'message', if it has one

Um, I was actually picking cities I've lived in or spent a lot of time in. Yes I was being flippant, I don't think I was being completely ignorant.

What would you say those cities' messages are? (I'm especially interested in Amsterdam because I'm thinking about moving there.)

I lived in Amsterdam for half a year ten years ago. It's very walkable and beautiful. You walk the streets and people smile at you. It's a happy place. I think the message is something like, "Be happy."

Also, I believe it's the only country in Europe except for the UK where everyone speaks good English. In most big cities in Europe you will eventually find someone who speaks English, but in Amsterdam the odds that it will be the first person you approach are no worse than in London or California.

"be happy" eh? there is no correlation between legal pot and happy smiling people. none whatsoever.

> Also, I believe it's the only country in Europe except for the UK where everyone speaks good English. In most big cities in Europe you will eventually find someone who speaks English, but in Amsterdam the odds that it will be the first person you approach are no worse than in London or California.

Stockholm is similar -- most people speak good English.

Amsterdam is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Europe, no wonder about the quality of their English (although this applies to the whole of Netherlands, not just Amsterdam).

I hear the Danes speak excellent English too, but I haven't been to Denmark myself.

As I understand it, the reason the Dutch speak English so well is that a lot of American television is shown there...still in English, but with Dutch subtitles. So kids grow up essentially in a semi-immersion program of English as a second language, which gets reinforced later in life due to tourism and English being the current effectively most common language.

I remember dialing a wrong number in Amsterdam a number of years ago, and the woman responded, in nearly perfect English, without missing a beat. I was impressed.

on a serious note, I would say Amsterdam's message is 'be more creative' (or 'be creative').

london "bring more money" - is spot on - damm that city is pricey.

San Jose, Costa Rica: Spend more time with family

Minneapolis: You should be nice

Providence, RI: You will eat well.

LA: You should look better or be more famous, preferably both.

Chicago: You went to the wrong fraternity

Sofia, BG: You should be involved in some kind of shady dealings.

It is a very clear signal indeed, thank you for summarizing it well.

That's the origin of power and wealth in bg - very, very sad!

I think Seattle is telling me "Get some tattoos and piercings and start smoking", but so far I have resisted.

Seattle: You should be unique.

Logan, UT: You should be one of us.

Denver, CO: You should be healthier.

Provo, UT: You're still single?

Chicago: There's nothing wrong with second place.

Stockholm, Sweden: You're not clean enough!

I'll play the game, too, but with only two observations:

Orlando, FL: Subprime.

Space Coast, FL: God's Waiting Room

Austin, TX: You should be having more fun on the weekends.

Rio Grande Valley, TX: Play your cards right and some day you could be middle class!

Bloomington, IL: Don't be afraid of medocrity

Terre Haute, IN: South side of Chicago, without the rest of it.

Cincinnati, OH: Learn an instrument.

San Antonio, TX: To the newly minted soldiers/airmen/sailors/marines- welcome back to the real world!

Las Vegas, NV: Be at least 21 and on vacation.

All of the city messages in the essay should be qualified with to the most ambitious people within that city or even more narrowly to this particular community of ambitious people. Put another way, within a given community of the most ambitions people in a given city, what is their metric for success?

I went to MIT for undergrad and grad, and then lived around there for several years thereafter. I do not think that Cambridge tells all its’ residents that they should be smarter. But it does send that message the average person within the MIT (and presumably Harvard, which I know less about) community.

My first company was in educational software and I interacted some with the Cambridge public school system. Some schools were pretty connected to the ambitious community, and others were almost completely separate. In other words, there are pockets of people, perhaps a majority, that are not in the ambitious community and do not perceive the ambitious community message. I would bet that in these pockets, there are sub-pockets, each with their own messages.

Now Cambridge is a weird place with an unusually concentrated group of the same type of people, and I agree that I haven’t at least found any place else like it. But it is just a pocket of Boston, albeit a bigger pocket than some of the other ambitious communities in other cities. And as Paul pointed out, Cambridge is not Boston. So he is really not talking about cities.

Again, he is talking about specific communities within cities. There are probably even other ambitious communities in Boston (in its financial district, for example), where the message is not you should be smarter, but something more along the lines of you should be richer. And I’m pretty sure there is another, separate, local politics community, where the message is more like the DC message described (on a smaller scale). (My wife worked in a state agency, and we have friends who were in the legal community there. I myself was the treasurer of a city council campaign.)

So, in sum, I agree there are messages within communities. But I wouldn’t generalize to entire cities. The reason I think people get confused is because particular types of these communities only exist in certain cities, and in sometimes just one. The messages Paul describes are in the communities he is more likely to happen upon given his network and interests, within those cities. Yet there are certainly other communities within those cities with other messages. These other communities, in the aggregate, probably account for the vast majority of people in a given city.

I grew up in DC, now I live in NYC. DC has a couple of messages "You should be a lawyer" is the one I felt the most, that seemed to be the thing to aspire to, most politicians and lobbyists are lawyers.

As a programmer I heard "you should get a security clearance" many times. The amount of people aspiring to government sloth in DC is astounding. DC is not a place to be if you want to build things.

I guess in New York I feel "You should be an investment banker". It is still amazing to me that lawyers aren't all that impressive in New York, they are also rans compared to financial workers.

Yes the finance industry is huge in New York, but so is media. Media people are mostly young and paid very little. I think I read that the average starting salary for someone with a college degree in New York is $36,000.

Cambridge it is in fact a city of at least 100,000 people, not a community within Boston. I do agree that he is describing just part of a city, not the whole, since Cambridge is diverse and has many communities within it.

Great article. I think that those messages apply not only to cities, they apply to whole countries in a certain periods of time. I live in Russia and I can hear the message very clearly: "you have to win". And it works: soccer, hockey, music -- we've won several competitions in a very short time frame. Hope you'll hear about us on the web startup front in a near future too :)

I never thought before about the importance of place where you live and work. After this article I see that St. Petersbourg is a far better place to start something new than Moscow. Startups are "second class citizens" here just like in New York. I thought about moving before, now I have made a decision. Thank you, Paul.

Why not Novosibirsk? With the Siberian climate the message is clearly "you should stay indoors and work"


My experience as a native resident of San Francisco(22 years, but the last few mostly spent out of town for college/work) is that most of the people residing there are _tourists_.

That is, people who come there(and many different people do, the turnover is high) also tote along some baggage of what they think the city is about. Vision meets and gradually becomes reality as the newcomers act out their desires, to varying degrees of success. So there is a sort of flow at work. Realization of all the various lifestyles present is a multi-decade process. Plus it changes quickly and incrementally, so as to become nearly unrecognizable. I'm still nowhere near a full comprehension of my hometown.

The broad strokes pg paints in this essay seem more reminiscent of college lifestyle than the character of entire cities. A four-year college is able to concentrate those kinds of ambitions precisely: everyone is at roughly the same few stages of life and so can quickly find common ground.

But in a city, things quickly collide.

SF was created during the madness of Gold Rush, and it changed over nite. Then it got raised twice to the ground, and got rebuild again.

The Japanese got kicked out, and the Chinese and African Americans moved in.... etc. etc. Than the 60s and the hippes came, then the 90s and the dot commers came.

SF has always been a city in a huge flux, as a place of great opportunities, and attracted many people with the "gold rush' mentality

Your grandparents propably were some of these people that came to SF for these opporunities.

Indeed, I moved to San Francisco last year, planning to leave in a few months after completing a contract job, to go on to a Ph.D. That is, I intended to be a tourist. But I loved the city so much, I deferred my admission one year.

"You should live better." Hmm, I have to think about that. Indeed, my time in SF has been the best living I have ever done. The city has "spoken" to me, and it has resonated.

Now I'm deciding if I really want to leave for a Ph.D., or just spend the rest of my life drinking up this wonderful San Francisco vibe.

"Oxford and Cambridge (England) feel like Ithaca or Hanover: the message is there, but not as strong."

There seems to be a lot of ambition in Ithaca, but the focus is on the collective rather than the individual. The messages that Ithaca sends are "make the community a better place, help the less fortunate, buy local food from the farmers market and co-ops, support local artists and musicians, attend community festivals and events, bond with your neighbors, and support the local schools and public transportation. Also, distrust authority."

This is reflected by the fact that the two most popular bumper stickers are Coexist (spelled out of religious symbols) and "Ithaca, NY: Ten square miles surrounded by reality."[1] And despite the fact that if you drive ten miles in any direction (except along the lake) you'll run into people living in trailer parks, the town itself is actually a surprisingly nice place to live.

The town support individuality, but only to the extent that your individuality helps bring out the individuality in others. The message seems to be that you can start a startup and we'll support your efforts to become successful, but not so successful that you drown out the voice of the rest of us.

[1] http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Coexist-bumpersticke...

I don't think that sounds like "ambition" at all.

If a collective cannot be ambitious, then it follows that a corporation or a web community cannot be ambitious. And yet that does not seem quite right. Or are you saying rather that a town could be ambitious, but that Ithaca does not seem to fit the mold?

Raised by an academic and musician/programmer in Palo Alto, I wanted to start a salad dressing business when I was 13 before Whole Foods had already taken over the country. I would have, but didn't realize I could by olive oil wholesale and buying retail wasn't profitable. It wasn't until I moved to Manhattan that I started my first business at 22. Now, I'm about to get going with something online and am most likely going to move (temporarily) to Israel . Smart, ambitious, talented people and a much lower cost of living than in America. Sometimes being an outsider can be motivating.

We'll see how it goes. I'm psyched.

"...you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do."

This has discouraged me for years here in my small part of Ohio. It became so discouraging that when I learned I'd be moving to Boston for YC and, hopefully, never live here again in my life I essentially cut all my ties overnight. These were people I'd spent the last 7 years of my life with; mostly friends from high school. I don't know what we had in common 5 years ago that made us such great friends, but we certainly don't have it in common anymore.

It was both a very difficult and very liberating experience. I'm 23 and feel like I'm about to live for the first time. I hadn't realized until recently how important it is to me to be around people who care about the things I do; who are as motivated to gain knowledge and be successful, but it's... everything.

Your characterization of New York is very much that of a visitor, as it should be. "You should be richer" is not the defining characteristic of New York, it's "you're a minority." For anyone who has lived here for a year or more, the fact that everyone is a minority on some level is what makes New York breathtaking.

The New York you're talking about is also a minority. From the outside, Wall Street and Madison Avenue may seem to dominate. From the inside, they're barely noticeable unless you're in that world. Wall Street and Madison Avenue are swept up in the endless current of people just like the gay Puerto Rican teens who hang out above Pier 40 on Friday nights in the summer.

The depth and breadth of "New York" is what makes it truly great. New York has so many worlds swirling around you that you'll never fully understand -- it's humbling and exhilarating to the core. New York's "ambition" is the endless hope of all of those minorities from countless directions -- the ambition you're talking about is much more one dimensional.

your post made me smile. i lived in the city for 14 years. there were the uptown kids, boring upper east-side parties, divorcee moms of the upper west, faux-hipster of avenue a, drug kings of Avenue d, pretentious bowery gays, i-bankers who poked at plebeian lawyers, hedge funders who poked at i-bankers and took home their madison ave. girfriends of west village, little chitaly, 2nd tier murray hill post grads who couldn't afford turtle bay, turtle bay types who only used their apartments for sleep, pretentious chelsea boys vs. the "matured" hell's kitchen gays, soho of old, new soho (new jersey), the area of south midtown of low 30's and upper 20's that to this day still has no identity, battery park city's isolation to the rest of the island, forgetting there's a world past 11th avenue.

there really is no one new york when you live in manhattan. if i didn't have a family who loves living out west right by the beach, i would be back in a heartbeat.

While I would agree with your observation that everyone in New York is some sort of minority, and that the city has overall ambitions that are much more varied and interesting than simply "you should make more money," I do think that sentiment is a pretty strong undercurrent in Manhattan. I recently began taking night classes at an art school there, hoping to get away from the obsession with earning more that I felt surrounded by, but on the first night of class, I was bitterly disappointed. The instructor spends his day working for Morgan Stanley, and talks about it often; the general population of the class immediately lost all interest in me when they learned that I'm not currently employed.

Overall, I would say that New York has an abundance of different ambitions, but most of them are permeated by a vaguely corporate insistence on caring about getting richer.

I think Paul's right here, but there is one point that always irks me when he's talking about location: It comes off as assuming that the singular goal of your life is to start a successful startup and that having a successful startup makes you a great person.

While we're throwing out city memes, here's what I'd peg my beloved Berlin: Break the rules.

What rules do they break in Berlin that are not broken elsewhere?

That's the wrong question. This is about culture, not tallying. Berlin is special because it's a chaotic city in a country of orderliness.

I started writing a list, but it doesn't do it any justice. Just like listing 10 big companies won't circumscribe the feel of Silicon Valley, a list of goofiness won't peg Berlin. But hang out in Kreuzberg for a weekend and you'll get it. :-)

Berlin is still living on the energy from the wall coming down almost 20 years ago. The west side was long a quirky occupied island hundreds of kilometers behind the iron curtain and the east was the first place where people rebelled and started down the path that reunited the city.

(Note: I've visited 28 countries and lived in 8 cities, so this isn't just cheering for the home team.)

Wouldn't breaking the rules, if it were truly that general, result in something more substantial than goofiness? And if it's just goofiness, perhaps a better way to put it would be "break the social conventions".

It might seem like I'm being contentious just for its own sake, but I'm not. It's precisely the thing that most irks me about Western Europe: the attitude of "don't break the rules". Europeans seem to like to break rules that are obsolete or largely inconsequential (e.g. about drugs and sexuality). And they're very proud of that. But the big and important rules, like those of business and broad social order, are universally accepted to the point where they are seen as morals.

Maybe it's different in Berlin?

It's a mix here. There's definitely a bohemian atmosphere (in many, not all parts of the city), but reducing that to sex and drugs isn't really fair. It extends to arts, street culture, work environments, etc. I think I see what you're getting at though, so I'll give a few specific examples of rules that are broken here:

- "Living in a big cultural center is expensive." It's cheap here. I don't know of any other western cultural center where that's true. 3.5 million people and there's a housing surplus. This has a huge effect on the city.

- "You need a lot of money." A side-effect of the above, there's a real de-emphasis on having cash here.

- "You should have a normal job." For good and bad, there's not much big industry in Berlin. Most of my friends either work independently or in relatively small companies. Most of those companies aren't startups in the sense that we use the word here, but small businesses that do well enough.

- "You need to grow up." You can still go out here when you're 30. Or 40. And it's not weird. And it doesn't mean you're not professional. Similarly, there doesn't seem to be the taboo against founding a startup over 30 (I'm 27 and one of the younger guys at the meetups I've been going to.).

Interesting! How did the housing surplus come about?

A lot of people left West Berlin when the city was divided and a lot of people left East Berlin right after reunification. The massive housing surplus that resulted caused housing costs to sink and cheap housing made the city a mecca for alternative culture. Cost of living probably doesn't even hit a quarter of Paris or London.

Here's an article from 6 years ago that's somewhat dated, but still gives you a feel for things good and bad:


Berlin is really something to consider if you start in Europe... ;)

we are running a music-related startup out of berlin (soundcloud.com) and it's really great in terms of costs & quality of life. If you're in Berlin, make sure you have business elsewhere, because the city in itself is quite poor. It's almost like outsourcing to east Europe, but you have a lot of credibility in the west still...

I tend to agree with those who believe that your immediate community of associates to have a much larger effect on your personal outlook than the defining characteristic of the your city of residence as a whole (although certainly each major city has one).

For example, I went to college at the University of Virginia, where the career prospects of most graduates reside in DC. As a programmer destined for DC, the message was loud and clear: "Be a defense contractor." For my friends who were not in engineering, the message was equally clear to them: "Be a lawyer."

But personally I never really cared much for success as defined through local conventions, mostly because I got bored too easily, so I spent half my college years as a cartoonist. Around the drawing board, the message I got was : "Be funny." Granted, our school is mostly known for successful lawyers and politicians, but we do have Tina Fey as well.

When I did hang out with the CS kids, it was almost exclusively with the computer graphics guys, and from them the message was: "Make photorealistic real-time applications." (As opposed to "Be a defense contractor.")

After graduation I moved to New York as a software engineer at a very large financial firm, and again I mostly managed to avoid the "Get rich" attitude prevalent in NYC by working with a small group of engaged CS folks some of whom were also start-up founders.

In none of the above situations was my local sub-group larger than a dozen individuals tops. Majority ambition can rarely ever suffocate sub-communities. The real danger is that a small community is vulnerable from disintegrating at any time. For example, all the previously mentioned clusters eventually dispersed, from graduation and corporate turnover and they are never immediately replaceable. In a place like Cambridge or Palo Alto, I suspect this would not be such a major risk.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: if your city's message as listed by pg is incompatible with what you want in life, don't freak out.

"What happened to the Milanese Leonardo?" Just for the sake of argument, I can think of some counterexamples: Archimede living in Syracuse (not exactly the mathematics and engineering capital of the ancient world), Einstein in Bern, Bobby Fischer in NY (and not Moscow). I'm sure you can find many many more.

Syracuse was in fact probably the richest and most sophisticated city in the West at the time.

What happened to the other Syracuse geniuses, then? Now it gets more complicated. I think that the article's argument apply more to some fields (e.g. painting, cinema) than others. IT is probably one of these other fields (Guido van Rossum comes to mind here).

"A friend who moved to Silicon Valley in the late 90s said the worst thing about living there was the low quality of the eavesdropping."

I can totally relate to that, as an acquaintance of mine from Boston and I echoed very similar sentiments about where I live (Atlanta). There are some great universities and brilliant people here, but you really have to actively seek them out. I'm still amazed how drastically the average quality of my interactions with people dropped when I first moved off campus. It seems to be almost a win or lose situation in regards to motivation: seeing other people involved in their projects, even if they are not in the same field, helps me to stay focused, but if I find myself surrounded by vapid conversation all day long, it actually has a negative effect.

They say the difference between an Oxford man and a Cambridge man is that when an Oxford man walks into a room, he looks as though he owns the place, and when a Cambridge man walks into a room, he looks as though he couldn't care less who owns it.

I think that should tell you quite a bit about the nature of ambition (and lack thereof) at both those Universities.

Paul, what specific activities do you recommend for listening to a city? You mentioned general eavesdropping and walking around residential areas in the evenings; any others?

One thing that seems missing is the notion of cities within cities. Los Angeles and Silicon Valley (which I'm familiar with) cannot be treated as monoliths. Instead you have districts in which one subculture dominates others.

In Orange County you may have areas that are dominated by unemployed housewives with lots of money. But you may have areas around a University that have a completely different flavor. Comparing Westwood (UCLA) to Boyle Heights (Ghetto) is a pretty stark contrast.

But I understand your meaning - similar to what Richard Florida and others are saying about self selecting societies.

At least people like me who live in the middle west can a) put themselves near an academic setting and b) can feed as much off of digital connectedness as possible to offset the effect.

Did it really have to be said that he was considering cities in the aggregate, and specifically the things that distinguish them as opposed to the things they have in common?

I'm picking on you, but several people have made similar points. I think we all know that any given city has different communities within it with different values, levels of affluence or lack thereof, etc. Did it really need to be made explicit?

Anyone offer thoughts on Asian cities?

I lived in Japan for a year, and mostly agree with shiro's summary. I guess I would only add that Japan's identity is far more tied up in Tokyo (and vice versa) than any one U.S. city is indicative of the U.S. as a whole. Generally, when people cite Japanese culture, it is Tokyo culture they are referring to (and given the emphasis the Japanese themselves put on Tokyo, not inaccurately).

What about cities in China and India (must be some natives or expats lurking here, no)? Africa? South America? Middle East?

(Some cities from these regions have been mentioned, but very few compared to U.S. and Europe.)

I can definitely vouch for China. I lived in Shanghai and Xiamen respectively. Both cities with different attitudes in their way of life. Personally I love the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, most of my customers are in Shanghai and we all agree that it's the place where the most action is happening in Asia. Although it is not without it's bumps.

First off I naively went there hoping to get a piece of the action by introducing our web app to local companies. Result? Zilch...too much misunderstanding led to deals that either took way too long to process or have fizzled out.

What I discovered though and almost by accident, is that it's the foreign companies who operate there, became our primary customers. Which was a relief cuz I would hate to translate our web app to formal mandarin(actually people on shanghai speak a different kind of mandarin note the distinction.)

Xiamen OTOH lacked the hustle and bustle of Shanghai. It seem more laid back and the people and their customs reflect that attitude. The highlight of Xiamen is the Gulangyu University in Gulangyu island and it's deep history of producing some of China's most talend pianist and musicians.

I lived two years in suburban Japan with JET. The message I got is "You don't really understand Japanese, do you?" :/

So what does Seattle say? My first thought would be that it says you should work for Microsoft. After you join it says, you should have joined 20 years ago.

A lot about cities, but nothing about the ~10% that still don't live in them. The general message of the parts of rural America I've lived in seems to be "we're not like everyone else". (The "we" is important.)

From that, you get common worries about encroaching suburbs (the "everyone else" pushing us out). The "we" varies, from small funky communal pockets, and of course religious groups desperate to be their own thing, to the dying breed (but still generally dominant in rural life) of farmers.

New York is made of a dozen little subsections. I see no reason why a concentrated startup community could not form there, much as artist and theatre communities have thrived.

There is definitely a startup scene in NYC. Lot's of groups such as http://wiki.workatjelly.com/. However, there are far fewer tech startups here than in CA. Most of the people I know work on Wall Street, advertising, real estate, law, non-profits/education or something closely related. Back in Palo Alto, I could walk into my synagogue and point to different people who've taken their companies public, in startups or worked for big tech firms. Most NYer's don't even realize SF and LA are almost as far apart as a round trip to Cambridge. Different worlds the two cities.

there is way more than a concentrated startup community in NYC, it's the third most active venture capital market in the world and will soon pass boston and be second only to Silicon Valley

Just a thought about Boston. I live in Boston and it definitely is as described, though I have heard that it (especially Cambridge) bloomed culturally more when overgentrification was prevented by rent control. To the extent that there still are some good independent cafes and lots of good bookstores, and interesting events, Boston/Cambridge is certainly the type of place you could expect to strike up a conversation about some arcane technical or cultural topic with people you don't already know. This happens on a fairly regular basis. Another thing worth mentioning though is that the Boston/Cambridge area is a lot smaller than people who have not lived here would expect. It is socially small in that you run into people you know all the time, and it doesn't have the anonymity that New York does for that reason as well. Geographically it is also very small. As pg says, MIT and Harvard are adjacent, this is true (literally a short 5-10 minute walk along the Charles River), but consider also that my typical bike ride from Jamaica Plain to Cambridge is only 15-20 minutes. And Jamaica Plain is a southern/western suburb (actually officially part of the city proper), almost as far south as you can go before hitting the shore (Dorchester is further south), while Cambridge is directly North of the heart of Boston. Similarly my western-leaning home of Jamaica Plain is 30 minute ride to the far eastern community of Charlestown. The point of bringing this is up is to note that cultural millieau of Cambridge is present in the whole area, even if strongest in Cambridge. The same kinds of events that happen in Cambridge occur all around the area, which is not surprising considering that everything is so close geographically.

San Francisco: Create something important, shoot for the moon! Once you're done, wear it on your sleeve like the politically correct asshole that you are. Oh yeah - learn a bit about wine, will you?

Portland, Oregon: Welcome to the Garden of Urban Eden. Don't tell anyone though. Just lay low and work on that novel.

Seattle: What? You thought I was hip and happening? Go inside and code something, ya bum. Buy a sea kayak for those "sun breaks" if you're feeling feisty.

Florence, Italy: Walk in the footsteps of creative genius. Just don't forget to keep on walking. Seriously, I'm just a dapper old man now, not worth more than a summer abroad.

Bologna, Italy: (just translate Portland, Oregon into Italian)

Milan: Forget about sunflowers. Get industrial, Italian style. You might want to ditch those sneakers though, capsici?

Rome: I am the the warm, blood-soaked bosom of Western history. You just might get lost and waste your entire life here. Worse things could happen, though.

Montreal: Savor the moment, live life to the fullest and create something beautiful, because Winter is coming. And it's nothing nice, yo.

Tokyo: Get to work and get moving, because we're WAY ahead of you. After work, it's totally OK to indulge your pervy self though.

Los Angeles: YOU could be so great. THIS TOWN could be so great. Where is everyone anyway? No worries, just do your own thing.

Miami: Forget about LA. I'm the real sexy deal. Unless you're looking for work, then get lost.

New York: I'm the biggest poser in the World. Deal with it.

> you should be more powerful.

The subsequent "effect you have on the world" is a far better description of the bay area than "power". I think that in terms of actual "power", as in Washington DC power, the bay area is underrepresented for the amount of money there.

Thanks for your letter to Cambridge (Boston). I grew up in Boston, raised by parents who told me two things with more regularity than anything else 1) Go outside 2)Read more. I've lived in San Francisco, New York, Burlington VT, and Nashville and could not agree more than Boston is a city that people consumed with ideas come to really appreciate - even as they shovel out their cars in March.

Interesting essay. I'm from New York, but I've lived in Sydney for the past 2 years. I think Sydney's natural beauty and physical remoteness lead it to be oblivious. After living here, I've never felt more capable of tuning out anything ugly. That worries me because I think we need to experience ugly things. But it's not just about physical beauty and remoteness because I can think of places similar in those respects that don't seem to express such brazenly blissful ignorance. I think Sydney is about being proud of being able to afford the luxury of obliviousness. Even if you bother keeping up with the world, nobody else here really seems to care, so it leads that ambition to be vestigial. Of course most Sydneysiders would bristle at such an assessment, but that's the attitude I pick up from my own eavesdropping. I think Sydney is also obsessed with youthfulness. Fundamentally, then, it's like living in an American high school. Why did I move here again?

Where is the art capital of the contemporary world? If Paris is where people appreciate art, and New York is where people buy art, is there a single city better than others where people go to make art?

Of cities I know, I think Paris might be the place to go to make it. Assuming what you want is to make good stuff rather than to create a brand, that is.

New York, too. The artists have to be in touch with what people are buying so they know what they should make.

</poorly disguised contempt>

Money and power are interchangeable, and that's what most ambitious people want. Of course, there are other benefits, like the joy of seeing something work, and the satisfaction of making a difference in the world. So most polite people will play up those benefits over the money/power angle.

Fame, hipness, insider knowledge? All either means to an end or cultural by-products. LA is run on power and money - studio execs are the most powerful, and basically run the entertainment biz, but they generally stay out of the limelight. DC runs on political power, plain and simple. Hipness is a by-product of having a very large concentration of young, single people in one place. You'll find brands of hip in every major city.

Ideas as Cambridge's main "industry" is also somewhat of a dubious distinction. Ideas are cheap. Talented people (i.e., the execution of ideas) is the bottleneck.

Money and power are interchangeable

Nearly, but not quite. For example, Linus Torvalds isn't rich by New York or Silicon Valley standards, but he's quite powerful nevertheless. And Barack Obama isn't particularly rich either, but he's on the brink of being perhaps the most powerful man in the world.

He and his wife did get much richer as he got more powerful, though. (http://blogs.usatoday.com/ondeadline/2006/09/hospital_offici...). ""She's terrific," added Michael Riordan, who was president of the hospital in March 2005, when Michelle Obama was promoted to vice president for external affairs and had her annual salary increased from $121,910 to $316,962." Hot damn! Did she get two and a half times as effective at "external affairs" over that year?

'Did she get two and a half times as effective at "external affairs" over that year?'

I imagine she did. I'm not exactly sure what "external affairs" entails, but it sounds like the kind of position that would benefit greatly from being politically well connected.

Obama is not the most powerful man in the world. If he is elected, he may be, but he won't be able to turn that power into money, thank god.

Ex-presidents make a boatload of money, though. Books, speaking engagements, etc. That's a direct result of their power.

That's what I meant. Perhaps "On the brink of becoming..." would have been clearer.

The market value of ideas is low, but the ideas are still expensive to make. Their existence is a good indicator.

Their existence is a precondition for effecting positive change, but there still must be an "industrial base" to implement them. It turns out that ideas are cheaper than talent, but since the Bay Area has a greater concentration of talent, they dominate in the implementation of ideas.

If the Boston area wants to get ahead in startups, it's going to need to attract more talent than SF. Sadly, I've seen plenty of MIT grads head to Google and Facebook...and some of those kids are going to be starting the next wave of companies...

I agree that the ideas themselves are not worth much. What I meant was this: being able to run 26 miles on foot is not especially useful, but the kind of people determined enough to do that are also the kind of people determined enough to succeed in other ventures.

Being able to choose a place to live strikes me as so American; reading the article I realized I've never considered the possibility of living anywhere else than where I was born (Paris). In fact my mother was born less than half a mile from where I was raised, and today I live less than two miles away from there, 35 years later.

I feel a little bit like a tree: if I move I'll probably die; besides, what's the point of traveling if you don't come back to your friends to tell them about what you've seen?

The "virtual city", however, changed everything; I check Reddit everyday (or more accurately, every minute! damn addiction), watch The Daily Show, read Slate; the problem is I have a hard time finding people to talk about it.

I really liked this. Most of my baseline thinking on ambition, social class and the like comes from Veblen and some assorted anthropological reading. From what I understand, it turns out that in every human society (that western anthropologists have studied & documented), there is an overt desire for (and so often competition over) social status. While wealth, power, ladies and fame are some of the most common types of social currency, they aren’t universal – in some cultures, you’re the man if you grow the biggest vegetables in town.

Each of the areas you pointed out each has its own status game rolling already. In my limited experience, San Francisco generally appreciates for “doing good”; my friends and I seem to treasure “creating value,” building things, and being constructive, but we all love our buddy who runs a nonprofit that works with inner city youth. He’s the man. My friends in NYC, on the other hand, don’t even try to justify shaving basis points with talk of serving the greater good by making markets more efficient.

One of the positive perspectives I draw from the status game is that if or when it’s incentivized correctly, things can (could?) get noble in a hurry. Lifeguards in San Diego and Hawaii get respect, as do firefighters and cops in New York and professors in Cambridge. The social esteem that these jobs convey helps to make up for the shitty hard currency they’re worth. Now we just have to translate the social currency of nobility into beachfront property for teachers.

I would offer Santa Fe, NM. It is culturally alive. It is a state capital replete with hacks, journalists, policy wonks, lawyers, and elected representatives with their hands out. It is also a town that attracts people of real accomplishment, in other words people who have tested their passions against reality and won. Judgement is a consequence of life's lessons, and is not intuitive. Santa Fe has it all: art, culture, political preeners, and people of experience and wisdom. Joe Wilson

In some places the message is "Leave". Leave this grody little town. I think it's been the message of Detroit.

Jerusalem, where I live, has a message, "Pray". The biggest industry in Jerusalem is the Israeli government (analogous to DC). The second biggest is tourism. The Arabs and the Jews actually quit fighting and cooperate in business to sell trinkets to the tourists.

So the other messages of Jerusalem are "Survive", "Fight", "Sell", and actually, "Leave". A lot of the Israelis are moving to Tel Aviv for business/employment reasons. But apartments are hard to get in Jerusalem because the religious rich keep on buying up the snazziest spots. There are a lot of very expensive apartments that are used maybe half the year. So another message is "Visit". And people do. If you're into real estate, the message is "Build Luxury". The luxury apartments are crowding out the poor.

The only ambitious people I've met in Jerusalem are the newly arrived, and some business folk. Actually, the Torah Scholars are very ambitious in a way that is about academics but also about power. They want to master their subject, but also want their religiosity to change history through a sort of Divine Intervention. That's pretty ambitious.

The reason you saw TV's was because the kids were watching. Mom and Dad were online working or studying. Were the offices of Via Web lined with dead-tree books up to the ceiling?

And the books you saw in Cambridge might have been from decades past, but the scholars in the residences might have been online. Even sociology is hard.

For much of my life, I lived in my mind, kind of autistically. I spent a lot of time figuring how to get away from people, because they wanted me to do things, and I wanted to go back to the castle in my mind. Only recently I figured out that people actually take materialism, life achievements, jobs, dress code, peer esteem, education, and so forth seriously. I had mostly figured that people were putting on a show, kind of having fun pretending to be serious about their lives. Oh the horror! -- like a bad novel -- everyone actually cares about clothes and money.

I know what you mean though about cities sending a message. I used to ignore what groups of people think, for reasons of principle, because human nature doesn't scale. But then I got the naivete cauterized out of me, and so now I pay attention to these messages, even though I don't entirely like being tuned into them. I'm not sure if I go along with the messages, maybe I'm neutral or slightly against (for reasons of principle).

In any case, I think ambition is good, because the human condition can be improved. (If it couldn't then ambition would be harmful, because it would be a zero sum game.) It's too bad the word has a connotation of money, because it would otherwise be a decent word, and I don't believe in money.

Very nice article, and I thank you. A couple of brief quibbles:

1) There is a more pedestrian reason why birds of a feather flock to a particular city, and that is fungible jobs. People in high tech, for example, change jobs very often, and knowing that one can do so with impunity because there are so many others like you and therefore so many companies is a major draw all in itself, and thus the community quickly becomes entrenched and self-perpetuating in some cases for that reason alone.

2) Aubergine in L'Auberge Carmel says "jacket preferred", by which they really mean "jacket required".


That said, and in defense of your article, the yahoo sitting next to us there a couple of weeks ago would probably have been lucky to be seated right next to the kitchen or bathroom door in New York. Collar undone, searingly bright yellow tie half-knotted, and he held an unlit cigar in his hand during the entire meal as he regaled his date (90% sure from an escort service) about his racing speed boats and such. It was some tragically failed attempt to revive the ring-a-ding-ding days of Hef hip, and it was painful to watch.

Lest you get the wrong impression, I'd rather have to see that sort of thing occasionally here in Silicon Valley and chew my own arm off than live in NYC or DC.

Lastly, a city with a great vibe, IMO, is Portland Oregon. The vibe seems to be: "This is a square hole for those of you who are not round like everyone else, and are tired of beating yourself bloody trying to fit into a round hole. Come here and be yourself and we'll hang together and appreciate each other's ingenuity. First round is on me."

It is important to be staying in the right place and so is staying in a lot of places. If you put up at a lot of places you know more about yourself, you know what turns you On and what turns you Off. This might be a good thing if you are still trying to identify what you value most. I would suggest you to settle down as soon as you find the right place, that is the place where you will find like minded people and the energy that will exploit your life to the maximum.

Online world on the other hand can never be a substitute, it really doesnt matter at all, simply because the crowd there is too much for you to be able to identify yourself with anyone, and it is difficult to identify the true identity of the people there. I have spent a lot of my time on an Algorith community on Orkut and made a few friends there. A lot of the people seem to be genuinely interested in Algorithms and a lot of the people pretent they are, it is not surprising to see that these imposters vanish away when they find a job with a Google or Microsoft..

So wish you luck.. Keep searching till you find the one :-)

This is one of PG's more observant and better essays. I was just in Boulder, CO and I tried to figure out if I could move back there from Silicon Valley. Not sure.

One thing I think that PG missed is that some cities have a blend of ambitions that lean on each other. NYC differs from LA or the Bay Area in that it is a power center for many different fields (Finance, Arts, Literature, Media, Political (UN based there)) while the Bay Area is technology, LA is entertainment and Washington DC, political power. That mix leads to better eavesdropping. London is about the only other place where I get the mixed vibe. Cambridge is interesting in that MIT and Harvard shape different spectrums of thought leading to an almost NYC kind of diversity Whereas Stanford and Berkeley compete on the same spectrum of fields, but on different levels of social class.

I wonder if PG forwarded this to Joel Spolsky who is about creating a different kind of start up in a NYC mold instead of SV mold.

I enjoy your essays very much, especially the ones about "life" matters. I spent only a week in London and it was enough to get that message. That city was very inspiring but also its message's pressure was a bit threatening to me. It wasn't a comfortable ambition to me, I think that it wasn't focused on the pleasure of the work it takes to achieve your ambitions. I would've enjoyed reding more about this subject affecting european cities, I was raised and live in Spain. People not always put Spain and Ambition together, excepting Madrid, the capital, the message is "carpe diem", but in relaxed and quality-living (concerining the weather) way. I believe that Europe's economical and political system influences in people's ambitions, I find Americans and those moving there (from what I read, at least) more ambitious, less frightened about things not turning as expecteted. In Europe we depend too much on the State.

1) I have found it impossible to establish relationships with others (seemingly like myself) online. It plain does not work. I'm not sure why... it just won't go. It doesn't make any difference how much you have in common or what your accomplishments are. Try and drum up a discussion or introduce yourself cold to someone in SV or at MIT or anywhere else, on say, LinkedIn. You're a nut, an intruder. I doubt this will ever work. 2) There is an chasm separating intellectualism and ambition that is difficult to understand. When I read Bill and Dave, I was taken back by the ambition of early Stanford engineering faculty. But today? I know too many at universities with stunning intelligence, but still have that profit-is-evil and corporations-are-bad crap from the 70's. It's like some weird religion. Talk about ideas and that's fine, but AS SOON AS YOU MENTION ACTION, it gets ugly and they shut down. That's why most MIT grads still work for Harvard grads. It's too bad, but this is why Cambridge will likely never become some kind of SV. 3) The power and action in SV you describe, is cold and lifeless and without meaning. Maybe exciting like a thrill park, but meaningless. That's why startup successes leave the founders in a panic to hitch the next ride, fast. What you say about the message in SV is true, but if your ambition was to take action and do a startup because you wanted to do something with meaning, better go somewhere else because in SV meaning has no meaning. No one cares about meaning. Ideas are nothing more than pancakes - flip 'em until their brown on both sides. And so in this regard, the message in SV may very well be EXACTLY like that in New York, with the only difference being that value is attached to the means by which the wealth is gained - independently. Have you thought about that??? That in SV all they care about is money like in New York, but gaining the wealth by independent means is what matters. You could test this - offer to help someone free of charge. See how much they despise feeling indebted to someone else, however slight. It's just a theory.

I couldn't agree more, I have spent significant time in Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Austin and the feel and driving factors in each city is vastly different. It's a function of who lives in those cities, what the support network looks like, and how good the competition is. While living in Chicago I worked in futures while trying to get a band off the ground. Compared to other bands and futures workers I/we were average. The problem was that the competition for bands was so weak and the competition for futures traders was so high that when I finally got spit out of both of these I found I was above average as a a futures trader but below average as a musician. Relatively speaking you are only as good or slightly better then the competition. You have to pick the best competition to compare yourself to or you will never grow.

It is interesting to read that the article and comments are all true, but wonder how these truths affect behavior. Yes, the environment is conducive to development. This truth describes the most significant music scenes of all time, including Memphis, San Fransciso, London, Detroit, among others.

Also, reading the comments below about going outside in LA and flip flops in Tampa Bay, these are spot-on assessments of the culture of many average Joes. Knowing this, one wonders how do extraordinary things happen in average places.

New question: How big is the environment we are analyzing? Paul decided to analyze the city, but we all have many environments of many sizes.

Example: My Digital Design professor asked, "Is the world digital or analog?" His answer, "It depends how close you are to it." An alarm clock is digital from across the room, but get close, open it up, measure the voltage across the timer, and you realize it is actually analog. The environments? The circuit board, the whole clock, the room.

So the city is one measure of an environment. The corporation another. The home yet another. Personally, I am an extremely creative individual who formed an web corporation with two friends who are excellent programmers. We're developing the business in an extremely progressive fashion, in some ways very different from Silicon Valley even. What is our environment? Our day jobs are with a big, old, rust belt corporation that does many things wrong all day long. This is in Cleveland, a city which is literally dying. So where did we get our drive? From being in the environment that continually tries to teach us bad lessons. Thus, when the environmental analysis is over, we realize one can fall in line with their environment, or they can learn from it, and go in a different direction using the lessons at hand.


President of some garage group three-man web corp in MBA run Rust Belt Cleveland (Feel stuck? Nope, you’ve got the best lessons available.)

Paul Graham is one of my favorite writers. He's engaging, surprising, simple, and brief. And he writes on topics of interest to everyone. Does anyone else know good essayists that share these same qualities?

I rather like John T. Reed as well: http://johntreed.com/headline.html

This is an interesting take on cities. What do you think New Orleans says? I haven't been there post-Katrina, but it definitely has a very powerful vibe (the "show us your tits for beads" stupidity is actually just a very small section of the city, not at all characteristic of the rest of the place...)

"You should live more soulfully?"

I grew up in New Orleans, lived there for some of my adult life, still have much family there, and return frequently so I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the place. The message of this city comes through loud and clear to me: have fun.

Now that doesn't (always) mean acting like a drunken idiot in the French Quarter. It basically means enjoy yourself. If that means getting drunk, fine. But it may also mean hanging out on the porch and watching the sunset, having a fine meal with friends at your favorite restaurant, going to mass on Sunday, fishing for nothing in particular in Bayou St. John, or visiting the lakefront with your dog. But don't take anything too seriously, don't work too hard, and don't sweat the small stuff.

New Orleans tells you that by far the most important thing in life is not whether you're rich, attractive, skinny, or powerful. It's how much you enjoy the path you're on. New Orleans admires poor and happy far more than any other place I've ever lived. Rich and happy is good too, but not all that different by the standards of the place.

Hmm, maybe that's why I'm not all that rich or successful despite living in New York for the other half of my life. :-)

I would think there is no doubt that New Orleans says: You should be yourself.

I read an article about a tourist who asked "where are the oysters from" and got the reply "from the bay."

The lesson being that if you want to enjoy oysters, you're going to have to let go and accept that there's a bit or risk in any real pleasure.

To me, that's always been the message of new orleans. True pleasure requires some risk, and you have to embrace it, rather than merely tolerate it.

Shame on you Paul. You discriminate against startups because of where they setup!

Seriously. In an Internet age it's less important.

I know many people depend on others to give them ideas, encourage their thinking and drive them in whatever direction. There are other kinds of people in the world. You may not hear of them but they're there. Maslow's self actualisers, the prophet in his desert cave... Often times their thoughts and interests are so different from those around them that they are in an intellectual wilderness with no option to escape. For them Cambridge or LaLa land are pretty irrelevent, no place is going to help them.

Now in that case the net may ultimately have a real impact.

If they can get a filtered group devoid of trolls, newbies and all the things that destroy and dilute real thinking they might be better off in a virtual community.

Your message is meaningful for many but it ignores an important sub set.

To the inverse question is also very interesting.- Specifically, what if a city does not send a message? To me that is the same as a company that can't get its marketing message and corporate culture right. The city, like the company, flounders and "fails". I used to live near Detroit. That city never recovered from the 1968 race riots. It could never re-discover its message of success.

If a city as a culture (not just a political entity) does not value something, then it provides no guidance to the immigrant ("new hire"). The resources to be successful are not visible nor readily available.

In SV, I would say the message is not "power" but action. Specifically, "Great idea. Have you built it yet?" This is why Cambridge as an "idea" center will not overtake SV. SV is about doing - and more importantly accepting failure as a step toward success.

Living in New York, I completely concur that it sends a message about having more money, and I suppose it significantly shapes my own thinking. I've noticed it even more in other people.

Just two nitpicks about the essay. First, I think that, in the London of Oscar Wilde, you would have seen "hipness" as being important. Plenty of hip dandies of the time, Wilde included, did not descend from the aristocracy of the time. Second, I'm not so sure about the required jackets for men metric. For one thing, some of the nicest restaurants in New York wouldn't bat an eyelash about a patron in jeans, for precisely the reasons you discuss. I would trust what Zagat has to say on the matter. I think a better metric would be how many men choose to wear a jacket and tie, and on that score, I suspect that New York still loses out as a startup hub.

> When you walk through Palo Alto in the evening, you see nothing but the blue glow of TVs.

Perhaps the blue glow of monitors instead?

> 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.

Interesting to see that "you should be more religious" is not on the list. That's closer to the message of Berkeley and SF: be more progressive, more virtuous, destroy those close minded right wingers.

> It's in fields like the arts or writing or technology that the larger environment matters. In these the best practitioners aren't conveniently collected in a few top university departments and research labs—partly because talent is harder to judge

Methinks that MIT and Stanford do a pretty good job of assembling the best technologists.

Fascinating idea. It will be interesting to see if the idea of online communities does allow for the kind of synergy (for want of a better word) that you describe in New York or Palo Alto.

I’ve been trying to learn to use online communities to replace the live contact the we used to get from working for big corporations with large campuses. I’ve been at it for the last 9 months or so and I’m not finding the same kinds of feedback or support that I got from lunch with colleagues.

As a kid growing up in the 50’s we were told that if you built a better mouse trap, the world would beat a path to your door. Your essay confirms my life experience, that the world will only show up at your door if you live in the right neighborhood!

This article is terrific in its sweeping generalizations. The only thing that kept me engaged to the end was the writing. Nicely done. However, I think you over simplified the issue. I lived in NYC, Jerusalem, Vancouver, Montreal, LA, San Fran. Yes, each city has its unique vibe but that does not mean other elements don't exist. You just have to find them. I live in Vancouver now. One may say that it is similar to Berkley in that the fundamental message is to live a better life. However, underneath that, there is art, greed, style, hipness etc. So yes, a city may have a theme but it is only that. Dig a little deeper and ye shall find what ye are seeking no matter the city.

An exceptional case, but he makes a good point: (from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2007/c... )

At a critical time, when I was contemplating leaving Harvard as a faculty member and going to Utah, he, being familiar with my self-sufficiency, counseled me that I could do good science anywhere. The move turned out to be a good decision. In Utah I had the luxury to pursue long-term projects that were not readily possible at Harvard, which, in too many cases had become a bastion of short-term gratification.

I'd agree that Cambridge is the intellectual capital of the world, but I think you may have the wrong Cambridge.

I'm biased, of course. I was lucky enough to be a student at the other Cambridge. My old college (Trinity) boasts more Nobel Prize winners than the whole of France.

Cambridge, England, like Cambridge Mass, is blessed with a climate bad enough that no-one would go there for the weather.

The English Cambridge is a delightfully compact city, with the University at its heart. You can go almost anywhere on foot or bicycle. It's also cool to wander through a courtyard unchanged since Isaac Newton knew it.

What message does the city send? Perhaps that you are mortal, but that learning is eternal.

Having been to The French Laundry in Napa Valley on a few occasions (admittedly none in the last few years), I can attest that they did not require jackets. They certainly did not in January 1998 when three friends and I dined there without knowing anything about it other than having a recommendation from someone at the St. Jean winery, a place that we had stopped at earlier that same day. A kind woman associated with the winery made reservations for our group and told us how to find the non-labeled house. I probably wore blue jeans to one of the best meals of my life... -Loren

South Florida (late 1970s): You should have as much fun as possible (and New York City sucks: I'm so glad I do not live there anymore).

Atlanta: if you can't avoid being pathetic, uneducated, dumb or from the boonies, you should at least try to hide that fact.

San Francisco's message is, like PG said, you should live better.

Marin County (just north of San Francisco): a lot like SF, a little like Silicon Valley, but what is distinctive about Marin is that many of its influential citizens give off the message that you should use spiritual practices to learn never to become angry or hateful and always feel love and compassion for everyone all the time.

The thing you're missing about San Francisco is that in the early to mid '90s, commercial real estate crashed hard enough that you could get plush offices with bay views for less than a tilt-up in a Mountain View office park. That's one reason that so many internet startups ended up there instead of the valley back then. When things heated up in the late '90s, the combination of hipness and by then very expensive office space made it even more desirable in those "let's spend as much money as possible to show how serious we are" days of internet bubble 1.0 silliness.

Berkeley: You should be more eccentric.

Atlanta, so far as I can tell, doesn't have much of a message at all.

Having visited Cambridge over spring break, I'm definitely enamored with the intellectual climate there, and will be moving to a nearby city in a few days (with the intention of moving to Cambridge proper when I can afford it). Getting to live in Cambridge is important enough to me that I'm hesitant to even consider applying to YC's winter round. San Francisco, to me, is essentially a laid back, less dense, more confusing, poorer, sleepier, cobbled-together, more hipster version of New York.

I do not consider that a worthwhile summary of Berkeley. I do not see a lot of eccentricity in Berkeley except among the homeless.

The Berkeley I know valued differences in personality and personal style a great deal. Maybe a better word would be 'niche', but there is definitely a bias towards playing up one's oddities and particularities.

Boston? Intellectual? Forgot to mention the Neanderthal Mayor Quimbys at neighborhood festivals shouting "get your portuguese sausage heah!" or "get your itallin sausage heah!" or "get your irish sausage heah!" all while grabbing their nuts. very classy. not to mention the racists in every neighborhood. did i forget to mention the Boston and Mass attitude that everyone hates: the stick up their ass looks on their faces? Or that everyone wants to cut the tongue out of every bostonite to keep them from butchering our native tongue.

I live in London... The city tells me that old is gold... tells me to hold on to my ethnic form as there is nothing like a common global community form. The city hinges on ancient culture instead of values. It is too majestic to be assimilative in my opinion. It feels prohibitive. New York is a different place really. A sexy conurbation... a true melting pot in this world... it tells me that communities do come together on new values and reinforces my belief in human-kind.

That was a very good writeup. Yes, cities do mould people. What I am excited about in the Bay Area is the possbility of success and recognition. The thing here is, if you are good, you will most probably and in all likelihood be recognized for it and valued for it. Also the geeky combination of Asian Americans and the tech sector makes life more interesting at work. I've never returned home on any day without having solved something interesting or without learning something new. That to me is the essence of Silicon Valley.

Cities are nice to visit, but in the long run they are a bit of a grind.

This is utterly wrong. If you were trolling, good job, Graham. If not, grow up and realize that your backwater burg is not as awesome as you think.

MIT is a sanitarium for masturbating nerds who can't get real jobs, it is not "intellectual".

SF is not about "power". It's about making cool toys that make money. HP set the tone for Silicon Valley. You should try reading the HP Way before making statements about what other people think.

LA, SF, and Seattle don't require jackets in restaurants because A) we're mostly descended from cowboys; B) the weather doesn't suck ass.

Very interesting! This reminds me of http://creativeclass.com/whos_your_city/ which I came across recently.

I live in Denver, and I've been increasingly aware that it doesn't feel like a very ambitious place, at least in the ways that I care about.

I'm considering Boulder... could somebody with a lot of time spent there speak to what messages Boulder sends? And how well it (really truly) lines up with the ambitions of tech entrepreneurship, intelligence, and living well?


I've always thought Cambridge's message was "You're not a student. Go away."

Or on the other hand ... "once you've been a student, please stick around and join a high tech firm".

One of the most distinctive things about Cambridge MA is the concentration of large numbers of people stay in the area who are intellectuals but are not working closely with the colleges -- instead they're at IT startups and biotechs & pharmas of all sizes.

In a New York their numbers would be swamped - and there are loads of intellectuals in Manhattan & Brooklyn, just less than financiers, fashionistas, and hipsters -- but greater Boston is just not that big.

On the other hand, Cambridge, England is, despite being arguably a better place to study (quieter, and more supportive institutionally) just too small for this -- almost everyone moves away from the city once they are not formally a member of the university, most commonly to London.

Of course I could be biased by seeing the job ads in Lisp on the Red Line :)

"In Boston they ask, How much does he know? In New York, How much is he worth? In Philadelphia, Who were his parents?" -- Mark Twain

It's funny how little has changed in more than a century...?

Your observations on needing a "great city", for a lifestyle based on art, writing, and technology were right on..That is exactly what I've been looking for, is Paris that city?? Or Moscow or toronto??After I read your latest book,Who's your city" I decided what I've been needing most is NETWORKING. Without a network its extremely hard to find one. I am planning a visit to Toronto would it be possible to meet? Or should I just head for Paris! Janice Armellini

Awesome. Well, I live in India , always have. Born and live in Bangalore, a startuper and love doing exactly that. In India, Mumbai means money, Bangalore means power(as in the bay area), Delhi means political power, Kolkata is an intellectual's haven so on and so forth.

I guess we dont have a say in where we are born, but most of us do end up "belong"ing somewhere, like, i will feel completely at home at SF. You should write about the other cities too.


Agreed. And if you stay long enough you may witness a message meltdown. Living in Seattle since '82, I remember my first impression was that it reminded me of Minneapolis, but with better geography. Flash forward 25 years and the vacuity of chasing status/money is deafening. I often wonder what life here would be like if Bill had stayed in Albuquerque. It wasn't until the late 90's I had to admit finally that what I considered ambition, wasn't.

"Hipness is another thing you wouldn't have seen on the list 100 years ago. Or wouldn't you?"

Being picky about the grammar here, but shouldn't it be 'Or would you?' ?

Explain how the grammar is sound? And I mean that seriously because I want to be well written.

It seems like it should be:

"Or would you?" - so that what follows 'or' is the converse of what was said.


"Wouldn't you?" - without the 'or' to denote skepticism.

And while we're on it, nix the first 'a' in "wearing a jeans and a t-shirt..."

Please understand that this isn't said out of pedantry, but out of love for this essay. We should all be taught to understand the implications of what a place says to us, on us. It should be part of any formal education.

Quibbling over grammar in our casual posts is lame, but this essay deserves to be in a book one day, printed and in wide circulation, so please understand my intention.

The usage is awkward, but the grammar is sound.

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