I’ve been in San Francisco one full year.
I’m sitting in the corner of the Cal Academy cafe in Golden Gate Park. My red wallet is taking a break, sitting quietly on the stainless steel table, covered by a receipt for two things: coffee with more cream than caffeine, and plain butter croissant. Outside, a fog named Karl is in full form, eating up the Cypress and Redwoods and the Eucalyptus trees by the giant penguin rock statue.
I put on Chris and Thomas’s Broken Chair, which my friend Adam told me about while we were walking by Mojo Bicycle on Divisadero a few weeks ago. (Hi Adam.)
I feel awfully lucky. I’m pretty much filled to the brim with gratitude to be sitting right here, writing these exact words.
Though I’ve wanted to move here long ago, circa 2007 or so, it took me a few years to make it happen. Sometimes, from the moment an idea is formed to the moment that idea comes to life takes a while.
When I told friends I was moving to San Francisco, they’d inevitably ask why.
Well, it’s been a year, so I thought I’d write down a couple reasons that prompted my move, and a few things I’ve learned along the way.
The Romance Begins
In high school, I read ferociously and wasn’t particularly discriminate about genres. I just wanted to get lost in another world. One day, browsing through a used books sales bin, I picked up Weird Like Us – My Bohemian America, a memoir about counterculture and San Francisco. It was the beginning of a long romanticization of all things San Francisco, the Beat Generation, Beat Poetry, Big Sur, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, On the Road.
In October 2007, I drove from Seattle to Long Beach, California on a temporary work relocation. I got to San Francisco late at night, rented a shoddy room in a sketchy hotel in North Beach/Chinatown for eighty bucks, and passed out in exhaustion from the road trip. In the morning, when I walked outside, the sky was as blue as blue can be, and it startled me. I felt like I had taken some other kind of trip.
Walking along the Embarcadero under a bright sun, a thought popped in my head, “I’m going to live here some day.”
In the exuberance of Web 2.0 in 2007 and 2008, I went to a lot of startup meet-ups, dropped a lot of vowels, came up with silly startup names that could pass as Star Wars characters, and read a lot of Paul Graham.
Say what you will about Paul G., you probably won’t argue that he’s a prolific writer, and his writing sparks a lot of discussions and influences a lot of people’s thinking.
Coming out of Interaction Design school, I ate up everything Paul wrote about design. The one essay that’s stayed with me through the years, though, is Cities and Ambition.
“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.”
I’m not going to quote everything from the essay, because I’d end up copying and pasting pretty much the whole thing (I really recommend you read the whole thing though). But the main thing I took away is a comparison with two other great cities from two other eras.
Paul talks about Florence in the fifteenth century and Paris during the Belle Epoque. Florence had Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, among others. Paris had Gauguin, Matisse, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso. (He goes into much more details about that in another essay, Taste for Makers.)
The idea is where you live matters through the messages it sends, the things you overhear in a coffee shop, the things you see when you walk past a window, the things *you* don’t seek out, rather, they seek you out instead.
“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.”
After having lived in a beach bungalow shack in Southern California, already idealizing wearing sandals in November, Kerouac’s Dharma, and that California branch of Spirituality, it wasn’t a big leap for me to embrace the effervescent entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley.
In some way, I had a big case of Fear of Missing Out. I was born a few hundred years too late to live in Florence and Paris, but there was still time for me to make it to San Francisco.
I was 24 or 25. I didn’t even have as much as a plastic houseplant. I could pack up and went wherever I wanted. The time to make the move was right. And I thought about it and talked about it, but I did nothing. I was young, I could always do it next year.
Design & Yoga
The years went by, and I increasingly became deeply steeped in UX Design and Yoga. During the changing years of my late 20s, they were the only two things I knew for sure I wanted to have in my life, for the rest of my life.
One day, I woke up and realized, I was 29. If I wasn’t going to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and do it soon, it wasn’t going to happen, or, I’ll just be a year older when I do it.
I was already making frequent trips to San Francisco for Design conferences and Yoga workshops. I grew more and more frustrated with the lack of the kind of yoga that I wanted and needed in Seattle. For example, in San Francisco, within a 3 mile-radius, there are regular, multiple weekly classes on Vedic chanting, Yoga Sutras, Pranayama, and Ayurveda. In Seattle, my options were limited to variations of Bikram or vinyasa flow yoga, which is all fine and good, but not the only thing there is to learn about Yoga.
I’m not saying there isn’t Good Yoga in Seattle. There is. It’s just not as accessible and frequent, to my knowledge. And I’m guessing it has to do with a critical mass of public interest. I also became determined to study Iyengar Yoga, and I wanted to go to the source: The Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco. At the same time, my teacher, Judith Lasater, was offering a one-year study program with her in 2013. (Basically Life said: “Go!”)
I wanted to not only push, but propel myself as a designer, in my yoga studies, and in my own personal growth. I also knew myself well. I knew that, though I had enough intrinsic motivation, I couldn’t grow nearly as much on my own as if I was surrounded by people who were just as fervently into the things I’m into.
“Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence.
Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionately from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, the New Yorker, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.”
It’s not that San Francisco was the only town where great work was happening. I’m not saying that in absolute terms, and that’s not even close to the truth anyway. I did, however, had the fear and perception that I was stagnating where I was.
“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.”
The time was Now to stop talking and start packing.
Souls and Cities and Intuition
I know there’s often an urge to compare cities, and it’s very seductive. This City is better than That City. Rent is so high there. And it’s so dirty. But you have to pay so much taxes. It rains so much, how do you stand it? Well we have legalized weed and gay marriage, what have you done lately but act like privileged douchey tech children?
Every single argument for or against a city is valid from a personal perspective. In a yoga class, every single person comes with a different story, a different psychological history, injury history, genetic history. I would no more encourage someone to look at their neighbor to practice yoga than to say that a city is absolutely better or worse for all people, at all time.
I could tell you a hundred reasons why I moved, and no doubt you could refute me in a hundred and one ways why my reasons are terrible. Though I’ve listed a few things that prompted my move, I know someone, somewhere out there, would call b.s. on them. “There’s great yoga and great design and fantastic food and wonderful people in Seattle.” I would agree with all of that.
I suspect all my reasons are there to largely pacify that part of the human brain that demands an explanation. We’re uncomfortable with things that don’t have an explanation or seem illogical and irrational to us. I used to joke that I’m moving to San Francisco for the boys, and it didn’t matter if that was true or not, it was enough to satisfy people’s need to know why.
The biggest reason why I moved to San Francisco is because I followed the tiny voices in my heart, my intuition. There was no guarantee of anything going one way or another. Though I had some hopes and fears and best case and worst case scenarios played out in my head, I really had no idea how my life in San Francisco would turn out.
I asked myself, when I’m 80, sitting on my rocking chair, would I regret moving or not moving to San Francisco when I was 30? The answer was clear, I would regret that I didn’t do it more than regretting that I did.
“Engineers are taught to make decisions analytically and largely without emotion. When it comes to a decision between alternatives we enumerate the cost and benefits and decide which one is better. But there are times in our lives when the careful consideration of cost and benefits just doesn’t seem like the right way to make a decision.
There are times in all of our lives when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate–when a particular course of action just feels right.” – Tim Cook
For now, San Francisco is where I am. I’ve grown leaps and bounds here, and the growth spurt is quite uncomfortable at times. As life’s twists and turns would have it, I met a boy before I left Seattle, and not just any boy, the boy that I would be head over heels for and infinitely smitten with for the rest of my life (more on that later), and falling in love long distance is more than hard on the knees.
For now, when I walk home across Alamo Square park covered by the tall, wacky shaped trees, or when I look up at the giant colorful art murals in the Mission, or when I pass by the pink bunny with a skull in its mouth on my way to the San Francisco Zen Center, knowing that nothing lasts forever, I smile and thank all the people and whatever forces in the Universe that have made it possible for me to be here right now.
“I have no plans
No appointments with anybody
So I leisurely explore
Souls and Cities
Geographically I’m from
and belong to that group
called Pennsylvania Dutch
But I’m really a citizen
of the world
who hates Communism
and tolerates Democracy
Of which Plato said 2000 years
Was the best form of bad government
I’m merely exploring souls and cities
From the vantage point
Of my ivory tower built,
Built with the assistance
That’s enough isn’t it?” – Kerouac, 34th Chorus, Mexico City Blues