In keeping with the recent theme about cities, their brands, and the messages they send, I thought I would revisit an old essay (2008) written by Paul Graham (of Y-Combinator) called “Cities and Ambition.” In it, he talks about the various messages that cities send us, such as:
- You should make more money (New York)
- You should be better looking (Miami?)
- You should be smarter (Cambridge)
- You should be more powerful (Silicon Valley)
But the most interesting part of his argument is the belief that we are largely products of our environment. No matter how strong or formidable our personalities might be, the message a city sends us is hugely important. In fact, it might be impossible to escape it. Here’s how Paul puts it:
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.
You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. 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 don’t. 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.
To some, this thought may depress you. I mean, if you happen to live in a city or place with the “wrong” message, you might feel as if you’re missing out. I know that thought certainly crossed my mind when I read his essay. But different messages resonate with different people, and so maybe the message your city is telling you is exactly the one you need to accomplish great things.
In Toronto, I’d say that the message is similar to that of New York: You should make more money. Oh, and also that you should buy more condos 😉
What message does your city tell you?