New York vs. the Bay AreaPosted: June 1, 2008 at 5:41 pm in nyc, thoughts
I’ve been out of touch for a bit (I officially graduated from Columbia as evidenced by the happy cap’n’gown icon to the left, then ran off to California to marry my sister off and see some friends afterwards, and then was struck down by a bug from all the excitement), but it’s time to get back into the blogging habit. But we’ll ease back into it with a less serious post.
I’ve been thinking about the difference between New York and the Bay Area, partially because I just visited California and everybody asked me what I thought of New York, and partially because I’m starting to try to figure out where I want to end up long-term. It’s also a relevant topic on teh Intarweb, as Paul Graham wrote an essay comparing various cities, with a focus on New York vs. San Francisco vs. Boston. So I’m going to over-generalize wildly with my takes on the various cities, since those are the three cities I have experience with as an adult.
My typical response when asked what New York is like is to comment that everybody who comes to New York does so to rule the world. They may be in finance or art or fashion or media or theater, but they come to New York to be the best in the world at what they do. There is a palpable energy and ambition about New Yorkers and everything moves faster here as a result. It’s an exhausting environment of people who work hard and then play hard by staying out all night enjoying the nightlife available only in New York.
Another thing I’ve noticed about New Yorkers is that they tend to play the finite game they are given. While they want to be the best, they tend to define “the best” in terms of the industry/field as it currently exists. So they work their way up through the ranks, and look for chances for their big break. This playing within the system tends to promote a competitive zero-sum attitude, as there is a limited amount of attention in any field, and if I have the attention, you don’t. New Yorkers love working out ways to game the rules and beat the system (as evidenced by lengthy discussions about apartment searches), but tend not to question the rules themselves. Some people are working on this, including Charlie with nextNY (who has his own scathing response defending New York), but it’s a lot of inertia to overcome.
In contrast, I think the Bay Area culture tends to be more laid-back. People come to California to chill out rather than to rule the world. This isn’t to say that Bay Area folks don’t work hard, but I know very few people in California who work the 14-hour days that many New Yorkers do. Bay Area’ers do their jobs and do them well, but also spend more time enjoying other pursuits, especially the great parks available in the Bay Area (psst: for those about to give me specific examples of relaxed New Yorkers or driven Bay Area’ers, remember that I’m overgeneralizing wildly).
I also think the Bay Area culture tends to be more collaborative, partially as a result of being more innovative. There are lots of ideas in the world, and lots of ways in which everybody can succeed. People in the Bay Area aren’t working within a system which can only crown a few winners – they are each working on their own thing, so there’s no direct competition (well, except for human resources). This promotes a more non-zero-sum attitude towards the world, one where people can look for ways to help everybody win. When presented with a system, people in the Bay Area look for ways to change the rules rather than beat the system. I’m not sure why that is, whether it’s the strong startup culture, or the liberal Berkeley political heritage that questioned the system, but I feel like more people there are playing the infinite game.
To take a specific example of this dichotomy, several teachers in the Columbia program said “If you don’t learn to play golf, you’re never going to move up in the world.” It’s just taken as an axiom that to move up the corporate ranks, golf courses are the place to do it because that’s where the power brokers are. In the Bay Area, my friends at Squid Labs tell me that “kite surfing is the new golf”, because all the young tech CEOs love this crazy intense sport, including the Google founders.
I also disagree with Graham that Boston is about ideas. Boston is about tradition. Boston is America’s oldest city, and families have lived there for generations. This pervasive sense of history, where you walk by Revolutionary War sites on a daily basis, creates a degree of conservatism, not in a political sense, but in the sense that people are bound by the way things are. I think that’s one of the reasons startups have not been as successful in Boston – the people who would break tradition in that way just don’t fit in, as they have to overcome more inertia both socially and resource-wise. Rather than fight that inertia, they move to California instead, where there is no history to overcome and everybody’s on equal terms as newcomers.
I agree with Graham that the culture of academia which pervades Cambridge values smart people and ideas, but it values the way things are done more. For instance, tenure seems to be a completely broken system that doesn’t reward the best ideas or the best people, instead rewarding those that don’t rock the boat. Professors don’t like new ideas that might threaten their academic turf; as several people have quipped: “Academic politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so low”.
I was trying to think of what the Midwest is about, as that’s where I grew up. I think the Midwest might be about community and, more specifically, family. I haven’t thought about it as much, as I’m extremely unlikely to move back there, but that feels right. Midwesterners are about having a family, creating a good life for your kids, helping out the neighbors, supporting the local teams, etc.
Now that I’ve found a way to offend people from every place I’ve lived, my over-generalized summary is that New Yorkers want to rule the world, where Bay Area’ers want to change the world. It’s not scientific at all, but it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about as I try to figure out where I fit in best, and where I want to end up in the long term. Comments definitely appreciated about both my observations and where I might fit.