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Life without ambition is not worth living essay

May 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: The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: 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 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: 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. Empirically, the answer seems to be: 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 life without ambition is not worth living essay see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: 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.

I'd always imagined Berkeley would be the ideal place—that it would basically be Cambridge with good weather. But when I finally tried living there a couple years ago, it turned out not to be. The message Berkeley sends is: 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. I realize that seems a life without ambition is not worth living essay claim.

What makes it true is that it's more preposterous to claim about anywhere else. American universities currently seem to be the best, judging from the flow of ambitious students. And what US city has a stronger claim? A fair number of smart people, but diluted by a much larger number of neanderthals in suits. The Bay Area has a lot of smart people too, but again, diluted; there are two great universities, but they're far apart.

Harvard and MIT are practically adjacent by West Coast standards, and they're surrounded by about 20 other colleges and universities. 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.

Life without ambition is not worth living

But Cambridge is just part of a city, and Silicon Valley is not even that. San Jose is not, as it sometimes claims, the capital of Silicon Valley. It's just square miles at one end of it. 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. One of the exhilarating things about coming back to Cambridge every spring is walking through the streets at dusk, when you can see into the houses. 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. Palo Alto was probably much like Cambridge inbut you'd never guess now that there was a university nearby. Now it's just one of the richer neighborhoods in Silicon Valley. It's not something you have to seek out, but something you can't turn off.

If you want to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives

One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. 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.

  • Hipness is another thing you wouldn't have seen on the list 100 years ago;
  • For example, physical attractiveness wouldn't have been there 100 years ago though it might have been 2400 years ago;
  • If you listen for it you can also hear it in Paris, New York, and Boston;
  • There's an A List of people who are most in demand right now, and what's most admired is to be on it, or friends with those who are.

At the time I thought she was being deliberately eccentric. Sure, it can be interesting to eavesdrop on people, but is good quality eavesdropping so important that it would affect where you chose to live?

Now I understand what she meant. The conversations you overhear tell you what sort of people you're among. 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.

There's an imbalance between encouragement and discouragement like that between gaining and losing money. Most people overvalue negative amounts of money: Similarly, although there are plenty of people strong enough to resist doing something just because that's what one is supposed to do where they happen to be, there are few strong enough to keep working on something no one around them cares about.

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.

Professors in New York and the Bay area are second class citizens—till they start hedge funds or startups respectively.

  1. This suggests an answer to a question people in New York have wondered about since the Bubble. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents.
  2. If you walk into a fancy restaurant in San Francisco wearing a jeans and a t-shirt, they're nice to you; who knows who you might be?
  3. When you list everything ambitious people are ambitious about, it's not so pretty. If you want the power to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives.
  4. Hipness is another thing you wouldn't have seen on the list years ago.
  5. In the long term, that could be a bad thing for New York.

This suggests an answer to a question people in New York have wondered about since the Bubble: One reason that's unlikely is that someone starting a startup in New York would feel like a second class citizen. In the long term, that could be a bad thing for New York. The power of an important new technology does eventually convert to money. So by caring more about money and less about power than Silicon Valley, New York is recognizing the same thing, but slower. Only those that are centers for some type of ambition do.

And it can be hard to tell exactly what message a city sends without living there.

  1. A fair number of smart people, but diluted by a much larger number of neanderthals in suits.
  2. Each list only gets one objective. The Bay Area has a lot of smart people too, but again, diluted; there are two great universities, but they're far apart.
  3. There's an imbalance between encouragement and discouragement like that between gaining and losing money. Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won't matter where you live physically.

I understand the messages of New York, Cambridge, and Silicon Valley because I've lived for several years in each of them. DC and LA seem to send messages too, but I haven't spent long enough in either to say for sure what they are. The big thing in LA seems to be fame. There's an A List of people who are most in demand right now, and what's most admired is to be on it, or friends with those who are. Beneath that, the message is much like New York's, though perhaps with more emphasis on physical attractiveness.

In DC the message seems to be that the most important thing is who you know. You want to be an insider. In practice this seems to work much as in LA. There's an A List and you want to be on it or close to those who are. The only difference is how the A List is selected. And even that is not that different. At the moment, San Francisco's message seems to be the same as Berkeley's: