Thoughts on thinking too much about where to live

Do I care about where I live? I certainly think about it and change it enough.

In the time since I signed my last lease in NYC, I ended up in a remote job. With my income no longer linked to my location, I have been thinking a lot about where I want to live. I swing back and forth between the the pros and cons of big cities (NYC, London, SF), medium cities (Austin, Chicago, Miami, and small cities (Bentonville, Lancaster, mountain towns). I have a certain about of heartburn about how beneficial it is to live in a big city versus a small or medium sized one. So when I see material on the future of work/mobility, I pay extra attention.

Tyler Cowen recently interviewed Marc Andreesson and this quote jumped out at me:

Take a step back on this. The office is an artifact of the technology of a time and place. I mentioned the Second Industrial Revolution. The office is a derivation of the factory. There was the factory and the idea of mass production, and then there was the idea of all the time-and-motion studies and all these guys who did that. And out of that, you go back, look at the history — you’ve got schools, you’ve got jails as you see them today, and then you’ve got offices. It’s this idea that you have to bring people together in this highly orchestrated, mechanistic, mass way.

Marc Andreesson

Cities have clear been successful at least in part because of the commercial and cultural benefits of clustering: agglomeration benefits, spontaneous interactions, scale. But maybe another way to think about the success of cities is simply as a management practice to scale up knowledge production. The city scales up the benefits of the office and the office is an effective mechanism for mass production of knowledge products. To-date, “office factories” have made the most sense to cluster in cities.

There is nothing good or bad about this but it might lower the future relative value of big cities compared to small/medium cities if part of their success is simply that they are an effective mechanism for mass production. Until a few years ago, big cities were the only way to produce a certain type of work. But now with new remote-work technology and norms, new types of knowledge factories might be possible. As Marc Andresson points out after the above quote, there is nothing necessary about offices and complex societies:

Empires — fun historical fact: The Roman Empire was not run out of offices. They ran the world, yet there was no office. There was no office building. The Roman aristocrats worked out of their homes, and then they went to the Senate, and then they went to their country house. There was no office building for administering the Roman Empire. I don’t know about the British Empire. I’m guessing they probably didn’t have a lot of offices. They maybe had a couple of offices in London, but they probably didn’t have a lot of offices either.

Marc Andreesson

So are big cities more a mere historical artifact and less a natural outcome of the best way to collectively create value together? Or is this all just me over reading an observation about offices?

There is also a difference between not needing to be in an office and not needing to be in a city. In 2008 Paul Graham observed that “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: you could do more; you should try harder.”

This phenomenon pre-dates the Industrial Revolution with Renaissance Florence as the classic example and shows that this is not merely an artifact of the Industrial Revolution. Cities give you the benefit of an environment that cares about what you care about which has social and cultural benefits in addition to commercial ones.

No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. 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: they’ll work much harder to avoid losing a dollar than to gain one. 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
You’ll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have

Paul Graham

This is a striking observation but also a tough one since it sort of just pushes you down a level to now discern what you care about and what sort of ambitions you hold. And I think that is maybe at the root of the anxiety I have about figuring out if and where to move. I used to have fear, uncertainty, and doubt if I was doing the right sort of work. Now that I feel good about work, I am less distracted from thinking about my ambitions and values. Champagne problems for sure but important ones to explore, I think.

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