On Travel

I wrote this blog post in 2014, the summer before my senior year of college. I had spent the previous year away from Penn: one semester studying abroad in Argentina, followed by a leave of absence to work at an investment bank in Chicago and then backpack around Australia and New Zealand.

I gained a lot of maturity through this reflective quarter-life crisis. I highly recommend taking time off from school or work in your early 20s if you have the opportunity to do so.

One year ago today, I was in Budapest. In reflecting on how much has changed over the past year, I was reminded of what I wrote about travel back in 2014.

Backpacker

Enter 21-year-old me.


Why Not to Travel

I love to travel. And over the past two years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make travel a priority in my life. Among other trips, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires and traveled around South America, braved a long flight across the Pacific to see Australia and New Zealand, visited friends and family across the country, and participated in a service-learning trip to Rwanda.

Travel has enriched my life. I’ve met people, been exposed to new points of view, and seen things that I would have had no chance of laying eyes on back at home. As St. Augustine said,

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

Sydney Opera House

But the more that I travel, the more I look inward and wonder just how much it has changed me. I wonder if some of the lessons that I’ve learned wouldn’t have been easier and simpler to learn closer to home. I wonder if all of the money I’ve spent on airfare, hostels, and alcohol was worth it. I wonder if my life was changed enough during my travel experiences that I’ll be able to make a bigger impact on the world in the future than I otherwise would have – or if I should have just donated the thousands of dollars I spent on travel to charities that tangibly improve people’s lives right now.

Every time I start a trip, I manage to convince myself that it’s going to be life-changing. That somehow the experience of physically being somewhere different will fundamentally change me – make me more outgoing, more interesting, more motivated to learn new languages, more likely to walk up to that girl in the bar, more like the Dos Equis man.

I think this is in part what has been sold to us today. Travel has become commoditized and romanticized. We’re hooked on images of exotic lands, pristine beaches, new adventures, strange tongues, and moonlight trysts. It’s a mental state, an attitude that companies try to package and sell to us. They claim: “If only your surroundings change, so too will you as a person. You can be anything that you want to be; you can be the person that you’ve always dreamed of being.”

The more that I travel, the more I realize that the whole claim, while alluring, is utter bullshit. I’m the same person in Argentina that I am in New Zealand that I am back home.

We all expect that travel will be “life-changing” or “incredible”, so we only share the highlights of our trips. We don’t tell our friends about the long nights spent sleeping on airport benches, the lost luggage, the feelings of loneliness thousands of miles away from anyone in your support network, the boredom as we lie in bed at an empty hostel in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.

Our problems don’t disappear when we travel. We still have the same worries, insecurities, anxieties, vices, and character flaws that we do at home. Physical location doesn’t change any of that. Yes, travel can lead to incredible growth experiences, but you have to work at it, just like anything else in life. Changes don’t magically occur.

Emerson recognized this. He claimed,

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

I agree with Ryan Holiday that there is no inherent value to travel. You don’t win an award for having more stamps in your passport than your friends. Talking about all of the places that you’ve been comes across a little bit like bragging about your SAT score. Nobody cares and everyone is just a little bit put off.

I’m guilty of this myself. When I’m on a trip, I find myself wondering about what countries I can “do”.  As if flying into a country and being there for a day or two somehow makes me a more valuable human being.

All that being said, we can work to make travel incredibly valuable. Travel can be a great learning experience, can enhance and enrich our lives. But we can’t let it fundamentally define our lives.

The first step is to define why you’re taking a trip. Have a purpose or an objective. Do you want to learn about a new language and culture? To escape the normal routine of everyday life? To just lie on the beach and relax?

Any of these are fine. But be honest with yourself about what you’re doing. And be realistic about your expectations for what the trip will bring. Realize that the whole concept of “things falling into place” or “things just happening” is ridiculous. You have to work to make those great experiences happen.

Seneca once said,

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” It’s definitely true that travel can recharge your batteries and give you the perspective that you need to take on new projects back at home.

But he also claimed,

“They [travelers] make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says ‘Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion. And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.”

Travel to enhance your life. Not to escape your life. You can’t outrun your inner demons. Your physical location doesn’t matter so much as your mental state and actions. Wherever you happen to be in the world.

What I’ve Learned from Travel

It’s been said that all travelers are either running from something or looking for something. For most people, it’s probably a combination of both. And while I just said that you can’t romanticize travel as the solution to all of your problems, I still find a lot of value in travel. You just have to be running away from and towards the right things.

Personally, I love the novelty of travel. I’m running from monotony and my day-to-day existence, in which I’m not as mindful as I could be. (I know, I’m working on this…) I’m running towards new experiences, new languages, new cultures, and new people. When I’m on a trip, out doing things, I feel alive, as if I’m an active participant in all that life has to offer.

Travel like this can be invigorating and have positive effects even when we return home. We need periodic breaks from work and everyday life in order to be more productive and happy.

Beyond those benefits, I’ve also learned a lot through various trips. If you do it right, travel is a great way not to let your schooling interfere with your education. With that in mind, I wanted to share the top lessons I’ve learned and ways that I’ve grown through travel.

Patience & Going With the Flow

If you travel, you will learn patience. When you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language and have to deal with a bag mixup, or you’ve been waiting two hours for a bus and don’t know if it will show up, or all of the trains are shut down without an explanation, you start to freak out. Then, after a couple minutes, you realize that it isn’t the end of the world. You can figure this out and your life will go on. It becomes an almost Zen experience.

When you get back home, you won’t complain about having to crash on the floor of your friend’s apartment or a flight being delayed a few hours. You’ve been through worse. I’m a firm believer that in travel, as in life in general, you can choose to either laugh or cry at just about everything. If you choose to laugh, you’ll be a lot happier. Moreover, you’ll have accrued a lot of funny stories that you wouldn’t have had you just stayed at home. Those stories will pay dividends in bars and at family reunions for years to come.

Talking to Strangers & Getting Out of My Shell

The first trip that I took completely alone was a few months ago in New Zealand. The first few days, I was quiet and just read. It was nice and a really good opportunity for me to decompress after working really long hours for the previous three months. But after a while, I started to get bored.

New Zealand Beach

New Zealand – Heaven on Earth

I quickly realized that there were only two options here:

  1. Stay quiet and remain bored and lonely.
  2. Start talking to people.

So I bought some beer and shared it with my roommates in a hostel. Surprise – they didn’t bite my head off. Everyone was in the same situation that I was and wanted to meet new people. I got over my fear of going out alone. The reality is, it’s not a big deal to go to a bar, or grab dinner, or do anything by yourself. Nobody really cares – they’re all too worried about themselves.

One of the best things about travel is the people that you meet. You make friends who are completely different from you and learn entirely new world views. People who travel are some of the most open-minded and interesting people that you’ll ever meet. The traveler population self-filters – anyone who is closed-minded or boring will just stay at home.

Additionally, everywhere I’ve been, I’ve found that people are generally proud of the place that they are from. That’s not to say that they’re jingoistic, or have a misconception that where they live is a utopia. Rather, they can see the good in where they live and are eager to share that with other people. As a traveler, it is an incredible experience to be on the receiving end of this energy and to learn firsthand about a culture from someone who is enthusiastic about it.

How to Listen

Travel can teach you how to deal with myriad people and situations. When you’re in a place that you’re not familiar with, you are constantly absorbing information. Every cab driver, waiter in a café, or person that you meet in a hostel has a story that you can learn from. And when you’re in this state of absorbing information, you really learn how to listen.

When you talk to most people, they are (in a best-case scenario) thinking about what they will say next to continue the conversation. Truly listening, focusing 100% of your attention on the person that is talking to you, is an invaluable skill. People notice. Travel causes you to be more present in the moment – it can also cause you to be a more present listener.

You Won’t Get Kidnapped, Murdered, Etc.

The media completely blows out of proportion the risks of traveling abroad. Talking about the great experiences that people have abroad just doesn’t make for good news. But the vast majority of travelers I’ve talked to have never encountered the slightest issue.

Granted, you have to take obvious precautions. Talk to the locals about which neighborhoods to go into and which to avoid. Don’t get too drunk. Don’t travel alone down sketchy alleys at 3 am. Don’t get involved in drug deals with cartels. Don’t visit Syria right now.

But even in places with lots of violence, the violence doesn’t revolve around tourists. People realize that if you start to kidnap or kill tourists, they stop coming to your country, which just hurts business for everyone.

There will be occasional muggings, kidnappings, and even deaths. But this stuff happens in the US, too. Imagine if we were to judge New York City based solely on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or Chicago based on all of the murders that happen there (over 500 in 2012). That’s exactly what we do with other countries.

Frankly, I felt safer living in Buenos Aires than I do living now in Philadelphia. If you take the necessary (i.e. obvious) precautions, the risk that something will happen to you is minimal.

Spanish

I spoke Spanish pretty well before I left for Argentina, but by the time that I got back I really felt like I was fluent. There is a huge difference between being able to speak the language in a classroom and being able to speak it in everyday life. I found that I was able to understand everything that was said in the classroom, but was challenged in trying to talk to my peers. All of the slang and the stronger accents that people use with one another in casual conversation made it much harder to communicate for me, as I learned the language in a classroom. But by constantly being exposed to that slang and normal, everyday speech, I soaked up the language like a sponge.

Immersion is the best way to learn a language. And in the Internet Age, you can work to get that at home, but there’s always a huge temptation to fall back on your native tongue. Moving to Argentina and being away from my entire English support network forced me to learn Spanish. At first, after concentrating hard to communicate for as few as 15 minutes, I thought that my brain was going to melt. But gradually, it got easier and easier. Being fully surrounded by the language increased my skills more than classes ever could.

Being Selfish is Okay

Travel is principally for our own benefit.  That should be recognized. There’s nothing wrong with going to Mexico and hitting the beach. The entire economy of some tropical countries is predicated on tourism. By traveling, you’re doing your part to stimulate the local economy.

However, “voluntourism” has become very popular lately. The idea is that you spend your vacation doing service work – building houses in Nicaragua, or helping with a water project in West Africa. This concept has come under a lot of criticism. Quite frankly, the money that is spent on these trips would be better spent if it were sent to the communities directly.  Then, local experts can be hired to work on these projects.  This both ensures that the construction is sound (after all, experts, rather than a group of well-meaning but ultimately clueless kids, are working) and the local economy is stimulated.

This was an issue that I wrestled a lot with prior to my trip last summer to Rwanda. With a group of Penn students, I spent 10 days living in a community for high school-aged children who were orphaned during the genocide. I wondered about the impact that we would really make.  Would it be better to just donate the money, rather than spend thousands of dollars to travel there?

I came to recognize that I didn’t change the world during this trip. Quite honestly, if my goal were to make the most positive impact right now, I would have donated all of the money to a quality charity that works on infrastructure projects in Rwanda.

I realized that the trip was primarily for myself and my education. That’s fine. I learned firsthand what life is like in Rwanda. And I hope that in the future, as I earn money and gain professional experience, I’m able to give back and make intelligent decisions about giving based on what I experienced in Rwanda. I hope that this trip will allow me to make a greater positive impact in the future than I otherwise would have been able to.

I learned that in general, these trips are primarily for the participants’ benefit, not the benefit of the local community. The positive impact comes from what the participants learn and what actions they take when they return home.

My Travel Limits

As great as travel is, at some point you’re going to want to come home. The time period is different for different people, but eventually the vast majority want to put down roots somewhere. Maybe you’re done with a trip after two days, maybe after two weeks, two months, two years, or even two decades – at some point you want to come home.

I reached my limit during my study abroad in Argentina. I think that at this point in my life, I can travel and be away from friends and family back in the US for about four months. But when I reached that point in my trip, I started to get homesick and was ready to go home.

Conclusion

Ultimately, travel has caused a great deal of introspection and led to a lot of personal growth for me. I truly think that travel, when done right, can be one of the most valuable experiences that life offers.

Getting to distant places is cheaper, faster, and easier to do now than at any other point in history. The world is your playground. Get in the sandbox, get dirty, and see what you can learn.

Labor Market Arbitrage

Back when the country locked down in March, like many others I hopped on Zoom calls with family and friends where we speculated about when we’d be going back to work in the office. I didn’t realize it then, but (at least for me) the answer is: Never.

Work From Home

Work From Home’s Dirty Little Secret

Great cities attract ambitious people. If you’re looking to make your mark on the entertainment industry, you move to Los Angeles. If you want to become a financial Master of the Universe, you move to New York.

Historically, the downside to leaving one of these cities has been losing its network effects. This is why digital nomadism never went mainstream – if any smart, ambitious people in this instance of the Prisoner’s dilemma chose to work in-person, it created an equilibrium in which everyone else who was looking to get ahead needed to do the same. COVID creates a new Schelling point in which people can choose to work remotely, precisely because everyone else is also working remotely. They lose fewer of the network effects than they would have a year ago.

So for a substantial minority of white collar workers, COVID has actually improved lives.1

COVID catalyzed a burgeoning remote work trend, which is in turn is upending the status quo of our framework for choosing where to live. Previously, the primary consideration for what city to call home was:

  1. Your current job
  2. The local labor market for your industry
  3. Everything else

COVID has removed #1 and #2 (at least in the near term), meaning that people are now choosing where to live based on the ever-nebulous “Everything else” category. Do you prioritize proximity to family? Access to outdoor activities? Want to create a co-living community with a bunch of friends? Now, you don’t have to give up the career opportunities of living in the big city to move to a kibbutz – you can do both. Just make sure that you have a good home office setup wherever you do choose to go.

Both anecdotes and data bear this out. Home prices in lifestyle cities like Austin and Salt Lake City are up, while rents in SF and NYC are down. Airbnb bookings, especially long-term stays (a leading indicator of home sale demand), are through the roof in towns within an hour or two of urban centers.

Work From Anywhere

What does all of this mean? Well, if you’re still paying rent in New York or San Francisco and don’t have a compelling reason to do so: leave now, before prices rise in the cities that young people are now flocking to. You’ll increase your savings by spending your high salary in a low cost-of-living city.

On the other hand, if you’re happy with where you live, now is a great time to get a new job. With the labor market now untethered from your geographic locale, you can enjoy your current lifestyle while locking in the salary of a much higher cost-of-living city. The key is to do this soon – before companies start adjusting salaries for the cost of living where a given employee is located.

The Bear Case 🐻

The advice I just gave assumes an indefinitely long work from home future. However, given a strong Bayesian prior of working in person, what is actually likely to happen?

While we’re working from home, those least affected are people in the later stages of their careers. They have a large amount of social capital and an existing network, meaning the marginal interaction for them in an office is less valuable. So they have the luxury of being able to work from home without adverse consequences.

Conversely, those early on in their career have the most to gain by working in an office. They are eager to establish themselves, and the best way to establish a the track record of work performance and build a large rolodex is through making a positive impression face-to-face. So they lose the most due to an environment of working from home – potentially slower promotions and lower earnings than they would otherwise have. Additionally, once working from an office (at least part of the time) becomes viable, all it takes is a few ambitious people looking for face time to defect to the office to make in-person work the norm once again. So unless everyone is working from home – from the C-suite on down – no one will be.

Cubicle Hell

Back to cubicle hell

So it’s far from certain that the future of work is more than a small minority of people being able to work from home. Byrne Hobart argues that the serendipity of in-person interactions coupled with the network effects of cities create a future in which people can work from home, but also commute to the office for important meetings. Packy McCormick also envisions a hybrid model.2

Further, some companies already adjust salaries based on cost of living. This is the reason that my brother, a Google engineer, hasn’t left the Bay Area. He’d be taking a pay cut if he moved anywhere else. In Closing the Remote Work Arbitrage, Byrne Hobart explores the second- and third-order effects on this phenomenon:

VMWare is cutting compensation for remote workers in cheaper parts of the country. An equilibrium where workers all work from home and earn the same wage selects for workers to move to cheap parts of the country, so it’s not stable. But an equilibrium where companies select wages based on where remote workers live is also hard to maintain; it’s hard to measure any productivity difference between someone working in San Jose and the same person working in rural Wyoming. The tech labor market remains liquid, so workers who are underpaid because they work somewhere cheap will get picked off by employers who use a broader remote wage scale.

The most stable setup would be to bucket workers into three categories: 1) can commute to the office once that’s possible, 2) can’t commute, but can take a short direct flight, or 3) would need a full day of travel to get to the office.

What tech companies are talking about instead is localizing wages based on cost of living. This has a very interesting side effect: it’s a de facto subsidy for single employees to move to the most expensive place they possibly can, because their personal expenses are lower (smaller homes, car optional, no school, less healthcare), so their disposable income benefit would be higher. And since dating is a two-sided market, any subsidy that encourages single people to move somewhere will encourage other young single people to follow them. Cost-of-living-based compensation would be very positive for the economic recovery of big cities.

For those of us who enjoy the freedom of working remotely, Moloch strikes again.

Thinking 10 Years Out

This analysis is all done on the social level. What if companies decide that the cost savings of having a remote workforce – no need to pay high rents, lower salaries for cost of living, etc. – outweigh the negatives of the serendipity of in-person interactions? At that point, how much more of a leap is it for them to start recruiting employees outside of the US to further lower costs?

White-collar workers in the U.S. are about to realize what blue-collar workers did 50 years ago. They are in for a rude awakening when they realize that a college degree and the ability to copy and paste in Excel does not give you a competitive advantage in the global labor market – especially when your competition is more than happy to work for half of your salary.

This is the thing that nobody seems to be talking about, the thing that scares me the most about this brave new future of highly-skilled work: we now compete with the entire world.

But we’ve had remote work tools for over a decade now. If this were the case, wouldn’t it have happened already?

Let’s explore what causes companies to draw from a local labor pool:

  1. Quality control. Companies don’t want to be scammed by people abroad who will take their money and abscond with it, or just produce low-quality work. In-person, at least they can measure if the person they hired is in the office every day.
  2. Trust. Related to quality control, but it’s draining and unproductive to worry about whether someone can be trusted to actually be a good worker. By having a degree from a reputable and recognizable university, or being within a degree or two of connection in your social network, a potential hire signals that they are more likely to reflect positively on you.
  3. Culture. You want to work with people that you like to be around and who understand the same references as you. For better or worse, having a shared cultural baseline in the business world is important.
  4. Communication bandwidth. In-person interactions convey much more than an email can. Communicating asynchronously while working across multiple time zones creates long delays that a 30-minute meeting could solve. The easiest way to ensure high-bandwidth communication is to get people into the same room.

COVID has forced us to revisit these assumptions. How much of this is reality, and how much of it is simply defaulting to what has been a norm for centuries? By forcing us to adapt to a remote work world, COVID has shown us that while these four problems with remote work still exist, they are not insurmountable obstacles. And these obstacles become much more palatable for companies to take on when they can slash their costs by doing so.

I’m already seeing this. The company where I work, TRM Labs, embraced remote work pre-COVID. Pre-pandemic (and today), the entire Machine Learning team is located abroad: the team lead in France and three engineers in Egypt. This is highly skilled, complex work that will only scale up in the future. When I was still at Oscar Health, almost all of our new job listings were listed in Tempe, rather than NYC. Why pay a future employee a New York salary when you can get them for 75% of the cost – especially if they’re going to be working remote anyways?

The internet creates power law distributions. A select few companies will be able to pay above-market rates to attract top talent. Employees of lesser-tier firms, or those without a particularly rare skillset, will realize that their salaries were propped up by a scarcity of local highly-skilled labor. A global power law distribution of this type of labor bodes poorly for them.3

Right now, we’re all just along for the ride. We’re in a strange liminal state where the old rules apply and the labor market hasn’t adjusted yet. But in the next few years, there will be an inflection point. And fueled by Zoom, the Silicon Valley caste system will spread.


Notes:

  1. In Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests that we only have the potential to produce actual quality work for four hours per day. The rest of the time is filled with – for lack of a better term – bullshit. Provided you have a good home office setup, working from home helps to eliminate a lot of this bullshit (commute, meetings, etc.) that filled the rest of your time. (This is a big qualifying statement – I’m well aware that many with roommates or children are itching to get back to the office.) 

  2. Both of these essays are worth a read in full. 

  3. Relatedly, I believe that a great business to be in over the next decade is providing highly skilled labor from abroad to U.S. Companies, like Andela. This helps address the quality control and trust issues, creating a gigantic arbitrage opportunity. 

A Quick Update

Update

This blog has been dormant for the past three months. Apologies to my many doting fans. I was getting into a great posting rhythm towards the end of the summer, but life got in the way. A couple of personal updates:

  • My road trip is going well. At the very least, better than these stories. I spent a few weeks driving across the country before settling in Austin for a month.
  • I got a new job! I have completed my transformation into the Übermillennial; I now am not only a digital nomad, but also work at a crypto company. I’m an early employee at TRM Labs, a company that prevents fraudulent transactions on the blockchain. This new job incorporates a lot of writing, so I hope that having my livelihood depend on writing output has the positive externality of more creative juices flowing for my personal writing.

Between driving across the country, interviewing for new jobs, and finishing work at Oscar / starting work at TRM in November, I haven’t made as much time as I’d like to write. That will soon be rectified. Upcoming posts to look forward to include:

Giddy up.

On Original Thoughts

Over the past few months, as I’ve worked to turn personal notes into public blog posts, I’ve been wrestling with a troubling notion: Do I have any original thoughts?

I’m not sure. I find that a lot of what I think and write is just rehashing what others have said before me.1

But the even bigger question is: Does it matter?

Contemplation

What Is an Original Thought?

There are very few true original ideas.2 By “original ideas” I mean true zero-to-one insights. Not zero-to-one in the way that term is casually thrown around by venture capitalists, but actual insights that change the world. Things like:

  • Gutenberg’s printing press
  • Shakespeare’s plays
  • Kant’s moral philosophy and epistemology
  • Einstein’s theory of relativity
  • Newton / Leibniz inventing calculus3

If this is the bar for an original idea, few human beings will ever have one.

But let’s lower the bar a bit. We can define an “original thought” as an insight about the world that someone hasn’t had before. Even here, the notion that no one else has ever had a similar idea seems to strain credulity. I can’t know for sure (the problem of other minds), but it seems to me that someone at some point in history would have the same thought that I do.

Distilling Others’ Insights

For a long time, I resisted the fact that there is a value in repackaging and disseminating others’ ideas. For years, I’ve watched people like Mark Manson, James Clear, Tim Ferriss, and Ryan Holiday successfully implement the following playbook:

  1. Take a primary source (often one that has been around for hundreds of years)
  2. Distill key insights from it and summarizing them on a blog or podcast
  3. Grow an audience
  4. Parlay that audience into book deals, speaking engagements, investment opportunities, etc.

While following these authors, I held the contradictory thought that because I already knew something (or could go to the primary source myself) it didn’t make sense to write about it publicly. I was waiting for a new insight to share.

Yet this discounts the fact that just because I know something doesn’t mean that others know it. Many don’t, and they don’t have the time or inclination to dig into primary source material. I’ve found it helpful to think about this through the lens of abstraction layers. Some people want to understand a topic in great detail. Others are just focused on what key insights they can extract to better their lives. Additionally, for concepts to stick, people need to be taught in different ways: with different stories, through different media.

So you don’t need to have some breakthrough insight to share ideas. We’re all just putting our own spin on preexisting information. By writing online about some idea, you:

  1. Indicate that you’ve given the subject enough thought to understand it better than the majority of people
  2. Share the story of how to apply that idea to a particular set of circumstances.

Idea Generation vs. Application

We’ve established that:

  1. There are relatively few true original thoughts/ideas.
  2. It is likely that someone else has already had the thoughts that I have had.
  3. There is value in distilling key insights and disseminating them to a wider audience.

Should having original ideas even be our focus? One thing that I’ve learned in the startup world is that ideas are cheap. Everyone has ideas for the next billion dollar company, but it’s the execution – the application of those ideas in a specific context – that matters.

Elon Musk doesn’t have original ideas. He wasn’t a founder of Tesla. SpaceX was not the first private space company. He is an amazing marketer and draws attention to his projects, which attracts the capital and talent that allows his vision to become a reality. He is the epitome of “fake it until you make it”.4 I don’t mean this as a criticism – I admire Elon Musk and think that he is doing an incredible job of pushing the world forward and shifting the Overton window when it comes to space exploration and clean energy. His execution is what matters.

Further, why do I value original thoughts in the first place? Is it because I value logic and thinking from first principles? Or is it – if I’m brutally honest with myself – because others claim they value logic and originality and I want to be seen as someone who exhibits those traits? René Girard’s mimetic theory scores a point.

Thinking Monkey

At the end of the day, it’s a good problem to have if I’ve managed to cultivate a space where the five people I spend the most metaphorical time with are those whose ideas elevate me. If I’m learning from the best and implementing smart ideas, the genesis of the idea doesn’t matter. Doctors don’t worry that they’re copying other doctors’ best practices. In fact, this is encouraged in the medical profession. Similarly, I can provide value by taking lessons from others, applying them to a specific situation, and writing about that process.


Notes:

  1. I find an argument that resonates and spit it out on my blog or at cocktail parties, and I’m not sure if I actually have a well-reasoned perspective, or if this is just the best argument I’ve found by someone else on that topic. The beginning of this Slate Star Codex post describes a related feeling:

    “[T]here are people who can argue circles around me. Maybe not on every topic, but on topics where they are experts and have spent their whole lives honing their arguments. When I was young I used to read pseudohistory books; Immanuel Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos is a good example of the best this genre has to offer. I read it and it seemed so obviously correct, so perfect, that I could barely bring myself to bother to search out rebuttals.

    And then I read the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct, so devastating, that I couldn’t believe I had ever been so dumb as to believe Velikovsky.

    And then I read the rebuttals to the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct that I felt silly for ever doubting.

    And so on for several more iterations, until the labyrinth of doubt seemed inescapable.”

  2. I use “thought” and “idea” interchangeably throughout this essay. 

  3. Two people independently inventing calculus ironically would indicate that one of them didn’t have an original idea. 

  4. This does beg the question: How many geniuses had insights that could have changed the world, were only those insights marketed better? 

City of Blinding Lights

Manhattan Bridge

Everything that people say is negative about New York City is true. It’s too noisy, too crowded, too smelly, too expensive.

The people who live there are brusque. They’re constantly in pursuit of more. More money, more power, more wealth. And because you all live on top of each other, you’re constantly reminded of what you don’t have. Being surrounded by so many people, you can either become overwhelmed with sonder and empathy or toughen up and focus on yourself.

I once read, “Everyone in the world is self-centered. It’s only the radius that differs.” New York shrinks that radius. During my time in New York, I found myself becoming slightly more selfish, more callous, more transactional in interpersonal interactions.

Despite all of that, I fucking love New York. It’s the greatest city on Earth.

City of Strivers

New York is a city where the entire world comes together in a melting pot. It’s a city where you can hear just about any language in the world spoken on the subway. Where you can walk out of your apartment and have any cuisine that you could imagine in the next 30 minutes.

If Las Vegas is the id of the US, New York is the country’s ego. An Israeli immigrant once told me: “In New York anyone can become rich. You need to bust your ass to do it…but you can.”

New Yorkers (of the born and raised variety) are the most tolerant and accepting people in the world. They’ve had to get along with cultures from across the globe: people of different races, who speak different languages, have different religious practices. So growing up in this morass of culture, they learn how to get along with others – not in a tiptoe-y PC way, but by learning not to give a shit about what other people do1 and speaking the truth without qualification.

The subway is a great equalizer in New York. Blue collar workers from the outer boroughs get on the train first, so they often have a seat on the train while the Masters of the Universe stand in their suits.

NYC Skyline

Living in New York is hard. But that struggle begets motivation. Satisfaction is not a character trait of those who change the world. Much like you need to place your muscles under stress for them to grow, the stress of living in the city creates the motivation and discomfort necessary to create great art and great companies. There is a palpable sense of this communal labor.

In June, when the city was under curfew, I walked into the deli on the corner of Canal and Eldridge in Chinatown. Its windows were boarded up to deter looters that had tried to break in the night before. A man dressed in all black (standard 2020 protest uniform) walked in and started talking to the owner.

He said, “You call me if those looters come around again and I’ll be here in less than five minutes. We’re fucking New Yorkers. We don’t do that.”

That’s New York City.

Enter COVID

All that said, after four months of being quarantined in my Chinatown apartment, I left New York.

Like every other stereotypical millennial, I moved to New York for two reasons:

  1. Career opportunities
  2. The culture – restaurants, bars, comedy, art, etc.

And like many others, over the past several months living in New York, I realized the pandemic highlighted all of the negatives of the city without the reciprocal positives. It doesn’t matter that New York is a center of tech when the entire industry is working remotely. And when you can’t take advantage of the amenities of the city, it starts to make a lot less sense to live in a small Manhattan apartment, no matter how convenient the subway access is. Add in the bawling HVAC equipment from the illegal dumpling shop downstairs, the helicopters buzzing directly above my apartment to cover the protests on the Manhattan bridge, and cannibal rats and it was time to leave New York. The eustress of living in New York, that motivating discomfort, became the distress of trying to survive Coronavirus in a tiny apartment.2

I find myself nostalgic for what was just a few months ago. I’ll miss New York. I’ll miss getting punched in the face at Trinity Boxing Club, Wednesday night comedy shows in Williamsburg3, eating and drinking in Red Hook, my favorite bar on the Lower East Side. In summer, the daily ritual of being asked for directions by German tourists in Chinatown. Its labyrinthine streets.

Chinatown

But New York will be strange for the next few years, and for now, I’m using this unique time to do something I never would have done otherwise.4

I bought a car and am traveling around the country with my girlfriend, staying in Airbnb rentals for a month at a time. We’re lucky that we’re in a time in our lives where we can do this: old enough to have enough money to hit the road, but young enough to have no kids and no mortgage to tie us down.

Where to? Anywhere with a good WiFi connection and access to the outdoors: college towns5 and national parks.

Gotham Rises

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of blog posts right now about why people left New York City. But I don’t buy the thesis that New York is dead forever. There is a reason that cities have endured for thousands of years, while the nations encompassing them changed. Rome, Istanbul, Hong Kong, New York – the melding of cultures and dynamism of these cities can’t be replicated remotely. Byrne Hobart argues, “If Covid-19 imposes a shock on every city, the ones with the weakest network effects will unravel, but the rest will survive.”

New York has some of the strongest network effects out there. Just as the rich are getting richer when it comes to commerce moving online (due to the network effects of the internet), so too will network effects help the strongest cities survive COVID when the dust settles. I’m preparing for many “Why I’m moving to NYC” blog posts about three years from now.

There will always be a demand for theater, comedy, and art. The artists aren’t going to suddenly move to suburban America, so New York will remain a Schelling Point for young creatives. For white-collar workers, the option to work remote is not an edict to do so. Those who are young and hungry will still come into the office in the hopes of building up their social capital. Remote work makes a lot more sense once you’re established in your career, have good work practices, and have made a name for yourself as someone who gets things done (regardless of physical location).

Brooklyn Bridge

So COVID-19 is a forest fire. While it wreaks destruction in the short term, it will help the overall ecosystem of New York (and other cities) long-term, serving to lower rents so that the city is no longer a playground for only multimillionaires. One of the biggest problems with New York is that living there, you either have the money to enjoy the city, but no time, or the time to enjoy it, but no money. This crisis will lower prices and help address that.

New York isn’t dead. It’s just undergoing a factory reset.


Notes:

  1. In Brooklynese, “Minding your own fucking business.” Thanks to my girlfriend, born and raised in Brooklyn, for this quote, and for editing this essay (removing most of the clichés). 

  2. I’ve noticed that I’ve been in a better mood, had more creativity, and been able to output more since leaving the stressful situation in NYC. The academic research supports this. 

  3. Ebola hotspot long before COVID hit…all the trendsetters are in Williamsburg. 

  4. Inspiring speech on this topic. 

  5. Lifestyle cities and college towns – places with good culture, young people, and bars and restaurants like Boulder and Boise – will explode in the next few years. These places offer nearly all of the amenities of the big city (especially now that many jobs are remote) with the added benefit of access to nature and a lower cost of living. Will we also see the rise of intentional living communities (communes), or is that all just Twitter bluster from the tech cognoscenti?