New York vs. the Bay Area

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.

14 thoughts on “New York vs. the Bay Area

  1. It’s funny, in a lot of ways I agree with your points about Boston’s conservatism and sense of tradition, but all your conclusions from that look factually wrong.

    Also, you have tenure backwards. The point is to be able to say scandalous, anti-establishment things and not get fired. It’s orthogonal to the startup mentality, not opposed.

  2. I’m with ya on that tradition thing. Nothing is more frustrating than walking into a job interview and seeing faces that just didn’t “expect” a thin, pretty, young-looking female for a head of IT or whatever position. Bastards. 🙂

  3. Christy: I figured my moving to New York after ten years in the Bay Area was diss enough. 🙂

    Jessie: I agree that once you have tenure, you can do what you want and not get fired. Except that the tenure process ensures that the people that might say “scandalous, anti-establishment things” don’t make it through. For instance, to get tenure, you have to publish in established journals, which is difficult to do if you’re attacking the establishment. I’m extrapolating from the few years I spent on the academic track, so this may be completely bogus, of course.

  4. Well, sure, there are people who are totally unwilling to spend a few years demonstrating that they know their own field in detail and can participate in it as it stands. Those people will find it hard to get tenure. But why would they want to? The value of academia is that you have a community of colleagues with specialized knowledge in your field. If you think everything they do is wrong and you have a burning desire to start proving that straight out of the gate, “college professor” is the wrong job.

    There are many problems with the way tenure works, but in my experience they have to do with the move towards the startup model, not away from it.

  5. Boston is about tradition.

    Did somebody say, “tuition”?

    (No idea what you’re talking about. Utter nonsense.)

  6. Jessie: Maybe I’m misunderstanding something. To get tenure, one first has to earn a PhD to demonstrate knowledge and participation (5 years minimum). If one is lucky and gets a tenure-track position immediately, it’s another 5 years of publishing before earning tenure. Many people have to do at least a post-doc or two before getting the tenure-track position. So I thought it was more like 10-15 years of participating in the field as it currently exists before earning the right to say what’s on one’s mind. That’s a long, long time (or so it seemed to me). And I would argue that it is nearly impossible to spend that long a time using a given worldview without adopting that worldview unquestioningly, as the assumptions implicit in that worldview become accepted as truths (shades of Kuhn).

    I should also note that I’m biased, since the value of academia is, as you say, in creating a community of specialists, and I am, as the title says, an unrepentant generalist.

    I think I’m also not understanding what you mean by the startup model or mentality. Is it the idea of starting something new without really understanding what expertise currently exists?

  7. I’m in the middle of a big life/career shift at present, so forgive me if this seems scattered.

    I agree with the thesis that cities have characters. I agree with Graham’s characterizations of NY vs SF. I also agree with yours; they seem quite compatible to me.

    My response to these issues is to simply arrange to spend some time in each of these cities, absorbing their characters to a degree… by which I mean strengthening the parts of my social network that specifically feed into those those characteristics.

    I love having thoughtful friends, risk-taking friends, wealthy friends, good-looking friends, and so forth. And since my friends are pretty far-flung, why not spend a little time in the places where various friends get to play to their various strengths?

  8. I think normally the goal of the PhD is to *gain* knowledge, not demonstrate it. Again, the point of academia in this context is to gain and work with in-depth knowledge in a particular field. When you see that as a waste of time spent sucking up to the authorities, you’re just saying that you (generically) don’t want a PhD. If you’re ready to say everyone else is wrong by the end of your second year, why stay in the program? You can “speak your mind” almost any time you want. What you’re talking about is trying to redefine the field, and it’s really not productive to do that very often–just like little startups don’t redefine “computer science”.

    What I mean by “startup mentality” is mostly the idea that everything should be fast fast fast and new new new and very shiny and show results right away. That’s death.

    it is nearly impossible to spend that long a time using a given worldview without adopting that worldview unquestioningly

    Maybe you mean something different than I do by “using a given worldview”? But if you just mean, doing work that doesn’t explicitly challenge a given worldview, then I think that’s bullshit.

  9. I disagree with some of it but even so this is a great post. You at least do a good job of delving into the cliches about SF and NY (I’ve lived in both cities for over 5 years at a time), even if the generalizations don’t quite match up with reality in every instance. For example, I am a proud SFer (actually Berkeleyan) who works occasional 15 hours days. This is not because I want to rule the world. It is because I work in advertising and the only way I can afford the cost of living in this area is with 15-hour days. 🙂

    If I might make a few generalizations of my own, I also think that another big difference between the two cities is nightlife. SF tends to have less bacchanalian craziness (I mean SF NOW, not in the 70s) than parts of New York. For example I’m going to be out to the east coast visiting some Sexchester friends on Father’s Day weekend; there is some crazy gin party at the Prophecy in White Plains they are taking me to. Out here in the west that kind of heavy-party stuff seems harder to come by, even in the gay community, but that’s part of why I like it better. Then again maybe I’m just not looking in the right places.

    Now if I could just move to Boston for 5 years, and then maybe Chicago I’d be SET…

  10. Interesting thing about moving to NY to rule the world, or at least, the industry that one is in. 🙂 I actually stumbled upon your blog when searching about giving up certain things and moving to New York.

    I’m a late bloomer in my career, and just finished graduate school. I feel like I’m at the crossroads. I can stay where I am and wait it out a bit to progress. BUT, I’ve been thinking about moving to NY ever since the first time I saw the city (um, 8 years ago). Now, I’m thinking I’m willing to compromise supposed career goals and just take a job that won’t necessarily be a progression. I won’t rule the world, but I just might be happier.

  11. Don’t forget Washington – the power capital of the world, where people go to rule absolutely everything. It’s revolting.

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