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 NewYork 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.
…… I'm fairly stubborn, but I wouldn't try tofight this force. I'd rather use it. So I've thought a lot about where to live. ……
You should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized. It's probably the place in America where someone from Northern Europe would feel most at home. But it's not humming with ambition.
In retrospect it shouldn't have been surprising that a place so pleasant would attract people interested above all in quality of life. Cambridge with good weather, it turns out, is not Cambridge.The people you find in Cambridge are not there by accident. You have to make sacrifices to live there. It's expensive and somewhat grubby,and the weather's often bad. So the kind of people you find in Cambridge are the kind of people who want to live where the smartest people are, even if that means living in an expensive, grubby place with bad weather.
As of this writing, Cambridge seems to be the intellectual capital of the world. ……Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups.
When you talk about cities in the sense we are, what you're really talking about is collections of people.……
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. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I'll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones. ……