SF vs. NYC—Two Ambitions

Having lived in both New York City and San Francisco, I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the two. New York has much more European influence, it’s much denser and the energy of people on the streets is palpable. New York has the best live jazz in the world. San Francisco has hills with beautiful views, and much better weather. From San Francisco you can drive out to Napa, Monterrey, Tahoe, or Yosemite for a day or a weekend. But what most interests me about the two cities is the way they treat ambition.

Take some of New York’s top industries—finance, law, advertising. Many of the most successful people in New York work in one of those three, and all of them attract a constant stream of new grads looking to make their fortune. What’s common about all three industries is that most of the world thinks they’re evil, or morally neutral at best. The average person thinks big finance firms are not too different from gamblers in the global economy. That most lawyers (especially New York corporate lawyers) help the rich screw the poor. That advertising exists to manipulate people into spending money on things they don’t need.

And when most people view an industry as immoral, many of the workers in that industry believe it too. Many of the financiers, lawyers, and ad execs don’t really believe in the value of their own product. They just believe it’s a better deal than you’ll get from the next guy.

So the fundamental attitude of many of the most successful people in New York City is that they are playing a game, and their self-esteem comes from the belief that they are very good at that game. It is cynicism, and it’s in the foundation of their livelihoods and self-identities.

Across varied and often-clashing cultures present in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, what’s most universal is idealism. People here believe that they should live their values. Different people here have very different values, but they live them consistently. Those who have strong political views dedicate substantial portions of their lives to advancing them. And those who start businesses do so truly believing they have the capability to improve the world (and believing they will get paid well for doing it).

So both cities are ambitious—New York in its cynical way and San Francisco in its idealism. But San Francisco is conflicted about its ambition, particularly when it comes to outsiders.

New York has always been an immigrant city. New York prides itself as a place where people come from around the world to participate in world-class business and arts. If you can make it, you can stay.

San Francisco is not so sure. A lot of the people showing up to participate in world-class endeavors are cis straight white men with engineering degrees. A lot of the people who currently live in San Francisco are not, and they’re finding they can’t afford to stay. So while the rest of the world looks at San Francisco as the best place in the world to build technology, many San Franciscans lament the growth.

The complaint (not unique to SF, but concentrated here) is that the growth is going only to a few, and the rest are left behind. In some ways, the market is correcting for this, with the rise of coding bootcamps that promise a shot at a six-figure engineering job after 4 months of intense training.

Of course, most SF residents won’t become software engineers. But I’m hoping this city will find a way to grow gracefully, bringing prosperity to everyone willing to work for it, and welcoming those who come wanting to contribute to the great endeavor of advancing knowledge and technology.