Comparing Cities

by David Hartsough (2017-06-04)

The most important aspects of a city cannot be quantified or compared and contrasted on a spreadsheet.

Every city sends a strongly influential message — a vibe comprised of its people's ambitions​. (Check out this little article, Cities and Ambition, to get a better idea of what I mean.) For example, a year ago I discovered that Boise looks better "on paper" (spreadsheet) than any of the other cities I was looking at, so I decided to move there. The data had me convinced enough to wing it, even without ever actually visiting there. I came, I saw, and I claim a spit of land in Idaho as my home. However, within the first month of living there, I realized something I never would've learned through mere internet searches and data collections: Boise citizenship requires you show proof of ownership of 2 dogs, a bike, a Subaru Outback (with a Thurman hardshell topper), a handcrafted fly fishing rod, and adventure pants. Furthermore, Boise citizens prioritize three ambitions: "outdoorsy" hobbies, quality of life, and family (dogs included). But the only way to learn these things is to interact with the people there or just walk about the city and "eavesdrop" a bit.

After a year in the city, I can confidently say: there's nothing wrong with Boise; it's oddly perfect — or, in a word, pleasant. Yet, in a strange way, I've realized that's not quite appealing to me (in perhaps the same way I might not want to date a perfectly​ pleasant girl), because I am looking for a city with a slightly different character.

The best example of this is Meridian, Idaho. Data will tell you that this place is comfortable, warm, inexpensive, and has no crime whatsoever. It is ideal. But what is it ideal for? Upon driving through it I understood how this data was possible: Meridian is a widespread city where half of it is a parking lot with Mattress Firms and pizza joints, while the other half is a pile of quaint cul-de-sac neighborhoods with elementary schools sprinkled in-between. Meridian is ideal for those who work some day job (it doesn't quite matter what the job is as long as it pays well enough to financially support the hobbies) but really just want to take the kids (dogs included) out mountain biking on the weekend.

Again, there's nothing wrong with that. These are all fine qualities I assumed I'd love yet have found are not my priorities. I'm not looking to settle down and start a family at this point in my life. I'm not looking to make sure business is profitable so I can afford a new tent. I'm not looking to live in the perfect house. I'm not looking to race competitively on a $2k mountain bike. I'm not the "mountain man" I thought I'd be. (I'm still an East coast/Midwest boy who prefers wooded ravines with little creeks running along the bottom as opposed to wide-open desert-like foothills with nothing more than the occasional grouping of sagebrush or pine trees.)

Personally I think it's hilarious to end this little essay of thoughts with "I'm not the mountain man I thought I'd be." So if you're looking for a stopping point, here it is.

"So what? Do any of these observations matter? Why are you so caught up in evaluating cities? Does a city really have any effect on who you are and how you live?"

Great question! I'm glad you asked because that's what I wanted to talk about next. According to Jim Rohn (and later Tim Ferriss), "You're the average of the five people you spend the most time with." That might be a bit of an overstatement, but it conveys an important truth: "Your friends set the behaviour you see as normal (social norms), and directly influence how you feel (through emotional contagion). Your friends can also directly teach you new skills and introduce you to new people." (See #6 and #7 from this 80000hours.org article). I believe people are the most important part of life, or as the writers of 80000hours.org put it, "close relationships are perhaps the most important ingredient of life satisfaction." And people shape the community they live in — a place is the sum of its people. "Where you live […] determines the types of people you'll spend time with." And the people you'll spend time with (dogs included) will heavily influence who you are, what you do, and how you live.

I am reminded of one of my favorite bands, The Killers, and their song Sam's Town:

Nobody ever had a dream 'round here,

But I don't really mind that it's starting to get to me.

Nobody ever pulls the seams 'round here,

But I don't really mind that it's starting to get to me.

(Brandon Flowers wrote this in reference to where the band is from, where they used to live: Las Vegas.) A city will set the precedent for what is expected — for what is "normal." The people of the city will shape that city's inspiration. If you live in a city where the collective highest aspirations culminate to "be wealthy," then you will find yourself surrounded by people who prioritize money-making, who make it seem normal to live a rich lifestyle, and who expect you to live in that manner, too. That city would only inspire and motivate you to obtain more wealth. In his TED Talk, How to find work you love, Scott Dinsmore (founder of Live Your Legend) describes how he struggled to make his dream become a reality for years until he decided to move to a new city. Right away he started to witness his dreams being brought to life all around him by people he quickly came to call friends. "It became normal, so my thinking went from 'How could I possibly do this?' to 'How could I possibly not?'"

What is your dream? What do you want to do with you life? How do you want to live? Who do you want to be? The answers to these questions don't come easily and may often change, but they are the best lens you could ever need to inspect and explore a city to see if it would be a good fit for you.

I know now that I will be looking first at the people of a city before I start looking at the data of one. But without actually visiting a city for at least a week, I'm unsure how I could learn about the people, the ambitions, the inspirations, and the messages of a given city. And socially, there seems to be no expectations that everyone will just take a few months to travel around, going from city to city, before picking one to settle down in. As my dad says, "There is no pausing life as an adult." He was suggesting that I can't just take a break from work, and unfortunately, he's right; I can't simply break out of the expected social clock and social norms to find a city to settle down in. Perhaps the more socially acceptable thing to do at this point in my progression on the social clock (after college, before marriage) is to only try a new city if I can ensure I'd have a job and a place to live. The bummer is that that is a huge commitment. That means applying for jobs and housing until somehow managing to land both (which is never guaranteed). Leases almost never are for less than a year, and bouncing from job to job never looks good on paper…

And here we are again, we've arrived back at the beginning — a full circle to that idiom: "looks good on paper." Maybe the moral of this long, convoluted story is that we shouldn't spend our short lives making our major life decisions based on what looks good paper — whether that's choosing a specific path for your career because it will look good on paper or choosing to live in a city because it looks good on paper. Perhaps we should spend our short lives focused less on "paper" and more on people (dogs included).

"The good life is comprised not of good paper but of good people." — David Hartsough

(Side Note: The original title was Why Not Boise, and it was written exactly one year after Why Boise as a quip of the conclusions made in it.)