My friend Steve sent me the link to a Paul Graham article awhile ago that spoke to me. I revert back to it now and then when I'm homesick or doubting my life choices or in need of some inspiration.
It's long (you can read the full thing here) but as I sit at my desk watching the snow fall, sipping coffee number x (I'm embarrassed to tell you how many I've had today), taking a mental break from homework, I wanted to share some of it.
I like thinking of cities as these all-powerful beings that influence how we think and act. New York's energy has been talked about endlessly, but I like the way Graham articulates the characteristics of places as though they possess human qualities.
He mentions Cambridge (where I live currently) in a way that I'd never really thought about before. It explains, in some ways, the magnetic pull that I had to leave New York (for a bit? forever? I still don't know). There's something magical about Cambridge that I can't explain (the resemblance of Harvard to Hogwarts has crossed my mind but I don't think that's it).
My mind has opened up in a way that I'm still grappling with. Inspiration can be fleeting, so I'm cognizant that this feeling might not last forever. I only have a few short months left here so I'm trying to absorb all of the positive powers it radiates.
Cities & Ambition - by Paul Graham
Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.
The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. 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.
When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.
That's not quite the same message New York sends. Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents. What matters in Silicon Valley is how much effect you have on the world.
The people you find in Cambridge are not there by accident. You have to make sacrifices to live there. As of this writing, Cambridge seems to be the intellectual capital of the world. I realize that seems a preposterous claim. Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups.
When you talk about cities in the sense we are, what you're really talking about is collections of people. For a long time cities were the only large collections of people, so you could use the two ideas interchangeably. But we can see how much things are changing from the examples I've mentioned. New York is a classic great city. But Cambridge is just part of a city, and Silicon Valley is not even that.
Maybe the Internet will change things further. Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won't matter where you live physically. But I wouldn't bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.
A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It's not something you have to seek out, but something you can't turn off.
No matter how determined you are, it's hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It's not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.
Because ambitions are to some extent incompatible and admiration is a zero-sum game, each city tends to focus on one type of ambition. The reason Cambridge is the intellectual capital is not just that there's a concentration of smart people there, but that there's nothing else people there care about more.
Unless you're sure what you want to do and where the leading center for it is, your best bet is probably to try living in several places when you're young. You can never tell what message a city sends till you live there.
Even when a city is still a live center of ambition, you won't know for sure whether its message will resonate with you till you hear it. When I moved to New York, I was very excited at first. It's an exciting place. So it took me quite a while to realize I just wasn't like the people there. I kept searching for the Cambridge of New York. It turned out it was way, way uptown: an hour uptown by air.
Some people know at 16 what sort of work they're going to do, but in most ambitious kids, ambition seems to precede anything specific to be ambitious about. They know they want to do something great. They just haven't decided yet whether they're going to be a rock star or a brain surgeon. There's nothing wrong with that. But it means if you have this most common type of ambition, you'll probably have to figure out where to live by trial and error. You'll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have.