I grew up just outside London. I could walk out my front door and be in the city in under an hour. But there’s a difference between learning about something, and experiencing it. I’d learned about many different cities. But London was the only one I’d ever truly experienced.
When I moved to New York, a brand new city in an alien country, it didn’t take me long to realise I’d been taking London for granted. From our way of thinking right down to what people are drinking, looking through the lens of London was all I’d ever known. I’d assumed one tiny city was “the” way to do things. And in the process, it had distorted my view of what reality really was.
In short, I took my environment for granted.
That’s what I’m discussing today. I’ve come to believe that taking your environment for granted is usually the rule rather than the exception. And that’s dangerous.
The crazy thing is, why wouldn’t it be? Given your exposure to the people and conditions that are in your environment every day, you’re the extreme exception if they don’t heavily influence your worldview.
Therefore being biased because of your environment isn’t something that happens by chance. It is, in fact, completely necessary.
But here’s where things get interesting.
Because once we know that our environment’s influence is a factor we can control, we can use it to our advantage.
This article is about how I discovered these forces by moving to a new city, the process to start being more aware of them in your own life, and how you can use your environment to play a more active role in shaping your behaviours.
Welcome To The (Concrete) Jungle
Moving to New York City in September 2017 was the first time I truly understood the influence your environment has on your behaviour. And it was completely by accident.
I moved to NYC knowing just one person: my boss. I had no family here, and all my friends were back home. That shifted my perspective completely, from almost not noticing my surroundings in London, to one of childlike curiosity.
Suddenly, I’m the outsider. Everything is fresh and strange. I walked through New York’s surreally straight streets, watching this new pace of life unfold. Even though it somehow felt like I’d been there before (I’d seen New York destroyed by aliens and tsunamis at least half a dozen times), I went into this new city as an interested observer. I couldn’t help but try to understand the environment.
New Yorkers may appear blunt and get a rep for being abrasive, but only because so many of them are single-mindedly pursuing their dreams, and will stop at nothing to make it happen.
There’s a reason New York gets calls “the city that never sleeps”. The people work crazy hours. Then they have a side hustle. Then their side hustle has a side hustle. They’re driven and dedicated to turning dreams into reality. One of my favourite communities in New York is literally called Personal Development Nerds (PDN). I mean, come on.
As I spent more time with these New Yorkers, and my early days in the Big Apple turned into weeks, which eventually rolled into months… I began to notice changes in my behaviour.
These people were pushing themselves beyond the limits of what I previously thought possible. I started thinking: “Why couldn’t I do that too?”
Slowly but surely, I plugged into the underlying current of ambition that pulses through New York’s environment, and let it consume me whole.
Realising that New York was making me more ambitious was infectious. I can’t give an exact date when this happened, but this process started firing properly in February, about 5 months into my experience. From there, until the moment I left, I didn’t stop.
I had the ever-present thought that I was on a clock (my Visa ran out at the end of August). So for the remaining months, I pushed even harder. 6AM calls. Feverishly writing at 11PM. Saturdays. Sundays. You name it, I worked through it. (Note — This wasn’t a sustainable long-term strategy. I believe it only worked so well because I knew I was coming home. Please don’t burn out.)
I had embraced my ambitious environment, and emerged a different person on the other side. The energy and the people had totally shifted my mindset.
My big takeaway from living in New York?
I used to think that my mindset dictated my environment. But watching myself change, I came to realise it was the reverse.
My mindset was being moulded by my environment.
Heading back to live in London, I felt prepared. I was armed with this new insight: My environment was an active force that was shaping my behaviour.
While I feel privileged to have experienced New York’s ambition first-hand, it’s not the only operating system to become the best version of yourself. So I thought: What else could my environment push me to become? If New York was subconsciously optimising me for ambition, then what might happen if I went the complete opposite direction?
What if I chose my environment to maximise happiness?
From Doing To Being
Moving back home and beginning to work for myself I knew two things: my environment plays a huge role in my behaviour, and I had caught the travel bug.
I’d heard about a new way of living over summer, these people called “Digital Nomads”. They weren’t interested in raising money, or working in flashy offices. They simply wanted to be, in the words of my friend who mentioned them: “Bootstrapped and f*cking profitable.”
There was something about that simple, no-nonsense approach that appealed to me. I was running a business from my laptop, and could theoretically go anywhere.
After a little research, it turns out these Digital Nomads tend to congregate in South East Asia. One of the biggest hotbeds? A tiny island in Indonesia: Bali.
Bali doesn’t scream ambition like New York. The tiny island has far fewer people, less bright lights and late nights. There are no concrete jungles… it has the real thing instead.
The Digital Nomads who live in Bali work to unlock the rest of their lives. Their businesses are run on their own terms. The time they have left over? That’s spent working on themselves. Hiking through jungle trails, surfing, practising yoga, meditating or doing one of any other countless, wholesome activities. There’s fresh, healthy food at a fraction of the price, right by tropical beaches, with connections to the other amazing countries in Southeast Asia.
In a nutshell: The incredibly cheap cost of living makes it relatively easy to live like royalty.
To me, I saw this environment as a machine hard-wired for happiness.
I recently booked my flights to Bali, and will be moving there in May. I’ve made a conscious decision to prioritise inner happiness. Once more, my behaviour will be dictated by my environment. But this time I will know it’s happening. And that means it’s a force I can direct.
So the question is: If our environment has such a profound impact on our behaviour, how can we apply this principle to our daily lives?
If Bali represents happiness and New York is ambition, then they’re almost a direct reflection of the most popular debate we’ve had yet on Subject Matter: “Happiness & Ambition: Friends or Foes?”
I don’t think it’s surprising that this debate struck a nerve. To some people: these two states feel like extremes at the end of a spectrum: Does high ambition have to come at the cost of your happiness? Or does being fully happy mean you’re sacrificing your ambition?
While my viewpoint always conflicts with Tom’s on Subject Matter, my honest take on this is happiness and ambition can peacefully coexist. Going into 2019, I’m the most ambitious I’ve ever been, and the happiest too. I’m looking to push the latter up even further with my move in a few months time. But the key was always my environment, and actively embracing it rather than letting it passively influence me.
Ambition and happiness might have been my two factors, but you could optimise for something totally different. Let’s discover how you can start being more aware of the effect your environment is having on you.
Let’s clear something up. You don’t need to board a plane to create an environment shift. But you do need some form of change.
There’s a reason I’ve left London’s environment out of this piece, and that’s because it’s all I’ve ever known. For the majority of my life, London was the only city I’d ever truly experienced, and the only place that influenced me on such a fundamental level.
You know how everyone in the world has an accent except you and the people where you’re from? That’s how this feels. It’s only the moment you meet someone with a different accent that you realise your accent isn’t the only way to do things.
It’s the exact same for your environment. If you’ve only truly experienced one city, town or sleepy village your entire life, then by definition, that’s your only reference point. Your behaviours will be deeply rooted in your surroundings, to the point where it will be hard to notice what influence they’ve had in the first place.
So if that’s the problem, what are the solutions?
I see two paths:
1: Try to understand people’s perspectives when they come from a different environment
If you have the same inputs as everyone else around you, you’ll think the same as everyone else. It’s only when we interact with people outside of our ideological echo chamber that we are challenged, spark radically new ideas, and provoke fresh ways of thinking. A simple heuristic you can use to source these people: Make friends with smart people who disagree with you.
Disagreement for the sake of it is meaningless. But when someone is informed and has a radically different take on the world to me, I listen. It shows a clear difference in our environments, and highlights the fact that no one point of view will ever be inherently better. In today’s society full of media forcing their opinion down our throats, it’s always good to be reminded of that.
2: Radically change your environment.
You don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to understand how your environment has impacted your behaviour. But you do have to travel.
Best case scenario? Live in a totally alien country. Experiencing this even for a month will be such a radical context shift that if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll spot thought patterns pretty damn quickly.
Not an option? Visit a neighbouring country to see how their way of life differs to yours. Speak to the locals. Understand why they think the way they do.
If that’s off limits, spend a long weekend in a new city. But however far you travel, the principle remains the same: observe the people who live there. How do their behaviours differ to you? Why are their belief systems different?
Do whatever you have to do to break the bonds of subconscious thought that have been passing through you ever since you started inhabiting to the place you live now.
If you follow these practices, it won’t be long before patterns that you took for granted start to reveal themselves. You’ll eventually realise that while your behaviours might be deep-rooted, they’re completely changeable too. That knowledge is nothing short of intensely liberating.
Before moving to New York I took my environment for granted. Now, I think about it all the time. If you’ve lived in one country or city your whole life, it’s likely you’re taking things for granted too.
While your environment has forces beyond your control at work, being aware of them makes it possible to use them to your advantage.
Sprawling metropolis, cozy town or even a beach hut: it doesn’t matter. Your environment moulds who you become.
Whether you want to be more ambitious, more happy, or simply the best version of yourself:
It’s time to start paying attention.
P.S — Thanks to Nate Ginsburg for helping me see a different way forward.