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 reason people there care about Larry and Sergey is not their wealth but the fact that they control Google, which affects practically everyone.
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot.
You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference.
But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.
You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo.
Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you’ve heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren’t genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo.
What happened to him?
If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn’t beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?
I’m fairly stubborn, but I wouldn’t try to fight this force. I’d rather use it.
So I’ve thought a lot about where to live.
Photo credit: Andreas Kruck on Unsplash