Paul Graham’s latest essay “Cities and ambitions” touches upon the topic of the way a city can influence a person’s ambition. The post is US-centric, but there are quite a few interesting points in it.
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.
Does anyone who wants to do great work have to live in a great city? No; all great cities inspire some sort of ambition, but they aren’t the only places that do. For some kinds of work, all you need is a handful of talented colleagues.
What cities provide is an audience, and a funnel for peers. These aren’t so critical in something like math or physics, where no audience matters except your peers, and judging ability is sufficiently straightforward that hiring and admissions committees can do it reliably.
Some people know at 16 what sort of work they’re going to do, but in most ambitious kids, ambition seems precede anything specific to be ambitious about. They know they want to do something great. They just haven’t decided yet whether they’re going to be a rock star or a brain surgeon. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it means if you have this most common type of ambition, you’ll probably have to figure out where to live by trial and error. You’ll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have.
I was not able to entirely appreciate the points made regarding the various cities, having never visited any of them. However, I can draw some parallels with the Indian cities in which I have lived, mostly from a personal point of view rather than a professional one. I was born in Bangalore and spent the first 12 years of my life there. This was of course before the IT related growth, and the Bangalore of today is a lot more crowded and busy.
My next 10 years were in Chennai, one of the 4 Indian metropolitan cities. Chennai is a relatively serious and conservative city (my friends used to complain every time rock concerts bypassed Chennai and went to Bangalore). My last 3 years have been in Kolkata, my native place and another metro, and the lifestyle is quite relaxed. The weather of a city seems to have a considerable impact on the attitudes of its citizens (something my mother mentions quite often).
So, what quirks have you noticed about your city?