The Unsustainable Activity of New York City

6 min read — #Travel #NYC

On visiting and living in 'the greatest city on earth'

“There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless.”

— Simone de Beauvoir

On Visiting NYC

Every trip I’ve taken to New York City (NYC) has been uniquely memorable. The city is constantly evolving, so it’s as if I’ve entered a new city, in a new era, on top of my own evolving perspective of the world. Here are a few memorable times:

As I reflect on my experiences in NYC, I realize that it’s a city that moves you forward in some direction. Whatever energy you give it, it multiplies tenfold and hurls right back at you.

This makes the city a mirror, amoral and unwilling to judge. If you seek the hedonistic lifestyle of parties, drugs, and surface-level relationships, you will find it in the “city that never sleeps”. Conversely, if you seek progress in your career, social network, or even spiritual growth, you will make strides in the right direction.

The energy that NYC dishes out seems infinite, to a point where it’s unsustainable to say “yes” to every opportunity. I’ve noticed that smaller cities and suburbs do have meaningful opportunities, but to a much smaller degree — saying “yes” to everything in these places is a viable long-term strategy, and might even be better than being selective since the pool of available opportunities is smaller.

In a city where anything is possible and available just a short metro ride away, you run into people that embody the ethos of “do more, be more” as described by my friend Spencer:

"… someone I met had moved apartments in the morning, met up with us to watch a silent film at the Tribeca Film Festival, and then had a paintball appointment in Williamsburg on the other side of town and across the bridge after. I can never imagine having the mental fortitude to go through with all of these arrangements, but perhaps, New York breeds this sort of toughness required to keep going and never pump the brakes."

While you can indeed embrace the chase of novelty and activity, you can also embrace the fact that reality has a surprising amount of detail. The slower and more intimate moments tend to have an outsized effect on your overall impression of a place. NYC is buzzing with these moments, if you can tune out the endless stimulus around you and pay attention — from the old man with a cane and a dog dropping off a letter in the mailbox, to the wonder in a child’s eyes as she wanders around the Union Square Farmer’s Market.

These extremes pervade one’s experience and add dimensionality to an already dynamic city. We are not one-dimensional creatures, and crave life multiple modalities. Some days, we crave varied experience and can explore the novelty that NYC has to offer, while other days we might feel contemplative and want to enjoy life at a slower and more intentional pace. The fact that one can do both at the flip of a mental switch in the same place is part of the magic of this beautiful city.

On Living in NYC

Recently, a lot of my San Franciscan friends have either toyed around with the idea of living in NYC, or have outright made plans to move there. The SF to NYC pipeline is alive and well and continues to promise burnt out techies a vibrant social life, greater intellectual diversity, and a more favorable dating scene. However, I’m not convinced that moving there for the pursuit of more is a good strategy. From Joan Didion:

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ in Xanadu."

Goodbye to All That

The intoxicating energy of NYC is what makes it so great, but also makes it draining and frustrating as a long-term lifestyle. One need not be constantly inspired — rather, a few well-placed conversations or experiences can be all the sustenance one needs. To me, New York is a place to visit and to be nourished by, not one to lay down roots in.

Though, I certainly understand the appeal. There’s a lot of value in living somewhere that attracts the kind of people you want to be more like. Paul Graham has written about “great cities”, which serve as a magnet for people that are ambitious. All great cities amplify and inspire ambition in some form or another, but the direction that this ambition points towards is shaped by the message the city sends. This message funnels certain people and experiences into your day-to-day, which in turn influences how you think about and view the world.

The message that New York City sends is that it’s the city of more. It’s the city that refuses to be defined, refuses to settle or calcify, and refuses to rest on its laurels. It’s a continuous source of inspiration and energy for people around the world. It’ll always be there, welcoming travelers like myself into JFK as it did for immigrants into Ellis Island. I know that when my well of inspiration runs dry and I find myself parched for an adventure, a visit to NYC will quench my thirst and re-invigorate my creative juices.

For now though, I return to San Francisco, where my mind returns to work, creativity, and the pursuit of a healthier life. As I’m buffeted by the invigorating wind, blinded by the sun and the clouds, and breathless on the rolling hills, I feel content to call this place my home.

NYC, I’ll see you soon. ✌🏾