Last week Bear pointed us to RelocateAmerica's ranking of the best places to live in America. Greenville South Carolina was ranked at #4 (though the validity of such a list is in question). While there are certainly some clear factors that make one city better than another (crime rate, school quality, cost of living), many more factors are subjective. Some people love living in, say, Omaha Nebraska, and who's to argue Chicago or Boston are better?
Today I ran across Paul Graham's essay entitled Cities and Ambition wherein he discusses the importance of a city's message as expressed through the ambitions of its inhabitants:
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...
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...
But, people don't need to live in cities anymore becuase our civilization's collective nervous system -- the internet -- keeps us connected. Doesn't the internet have the potential to accelerate culture and collaboration across cities and regions? Surely the lonely genius stranded in the hinterlands has the ability to interact with the wider world in ways that were unimaginable a generation ago. Paul continues:
Maybe the Internet will change things further. Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won't matter where you live physically. But I wouldn't bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle...
He has a point. The internet isn't the same as real life interaction yet. It's good for many things, but a handshake and eye contact still makes a big difference. Not to mention that sarcasm routinely and dismayingly evaporates on the web.
A friend who moved to Silicon Valley in the late 90s said the worst thing about living there was the low quality of the eavesdropping. At the time I thought she was being deliberately eccentric. Sure, it can be interesting to eavesdrop on people, but is good quality eavesdropping so important that it would affect where you chose to live? Now I understand what she meant. The conversations you overhear tell you what sort of people you're among
To me this sounds like Paul is identifying some of the tributaries to the concept of culture. Or maybe the messages in ambition are a culture's cardiovascular system, so to speak? It's an interesting observation nonetheless. Inspiration sparking from social contact make location very important. The right mixture of people and opportunity can create magic. Being around diverse people is one thing, but equally important is being around the right culture and the right frames of mind. That's powerful stuff.
Greenville resident and champion of innovation, John Warner, wrote a a blog post over two years ago in which he said "innovation is a contact sport." I don't know if those are his words, but that metaphor has stuck with me.
The challenge for Greenville and the region is to continue growing a culture that has identifiable and compelling ambitions and messages. Funnels should be built around those messages to help attract the best folks to the area. Though I don't believe this process is something you can engineer, you can add momentum through conversations like this... that other people can eavesdrop... through the internet.
So what's Greenville's message?
Thanks to Josh for twittering about Paul's essay last week and asking the same question about Boulder CO. Incidently, Josh is an upstate native and used to live right down the street from me. And congratulations to John Warner for his 10,000th post, which coincidently is quite apropos.