Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cities and Ambition

A few years ago, essayist Paul Graham wrote a piece titled “Cities and Ambition.” I remember the path it wove around the interwebs when it was first published. The piece compared the different types of messages/mantras whispered by various cities to its inhabitants. Graham wrote, “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… A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It's not something you have to seek out, but something you can't turn off.”

I thought of this essay after I flew home a few weeks ago. I traveled to the Bay Area, for reasons which I’ll leave for another time, when I’m ready to talk about it. All of my days were packed to the gills but I accomplished nothing substantial. I slept the sleep of the dead in a cold bed covered with stiff sheets, in a house located at the bottom of a hill and surrounded by a thicket of crickets, in a tiny town where all the stores had been replaced several times over and the cars were slow and indifferent. I wore thick socks to bed. What I did do: I followed my relatives around like a shadow and did stupid, extravagant things like scoff at my mother’s instant coffee mix and buy four croissants in one morning. I ended up leaving them (the croissants, not my relatives) on the kitchen counter because either I was not hungry at all or being sad affected my papillae receptors and they tasted like sawdust. Maybe they are still sitting there (this time, referencing both the croissants and the relatives).

Another thing I did: I wandered hospital corridors, scrutinizing sketches and watercolors and charcoals because I didn’t know what else to do. I challenged myself to memorize these paintings for the rest of my life, forever and ever, because to forget them would, somehow, cheapen the days and the details.

Everything felt new and troubling.

After a few days of puttering around uselessly, I surrendered and retreated. I scurried back to San Diego. I didn’t feel safe again until I saw afternoon harbor water.


For ten years going on eleven, I’ve been pining away, fiercely, for something that feels like home. I thought it was the Bay Area. Instead, I left feeling all out of sorts. The old unease had returned: I started to pummel myself with circular thoughts like why am I not making a million bazillion dollars in China why didn’t I start my own company already why do I have no real ambition. The city felt like a stranger and I was grieving for someone I didn’t even really understand.

I think the strong sense of disconnect boiled down to expectations vs. reality. I expected instantaneous comfort and recognition. I wanted to belong, immediately. I forgot, conveniently, that I never felt a sense of belonging, even when I lived there.

I forgot that erecting a home involves effort and investment of oneself. How could I feel at home when I visit once a year, when I put forth no real effort in coming back? To expect more is foolish and unrealistic.

Bottom line: “Some people know at 16 what sort of work they're going to do, but in most ambitious kids, ambition seems to 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.”

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