Guilty (of Success) by Association

The city was far too sparse, leaving no space for anyone to get important things done.

I tweeted this the other night, while reflecting on recent travels.

This was met with this response from David Perell

A response I loved and appreciated. The balance is something I’ve gone back and forth on many times. I wanted to continue this line of thought. I couldn’t compress my response in a tweet but here is my own exploration which I’ve titled “Guilty (of Success) by Association”.

I would love to hear his thoughts on this as well I’m certain his recent studies of cities would provide a perspective I don’t currently have. Additionally, it’s quite unfair to compare my argument to his without more information from him so please don’t judge him harshly on 16 words.

In accordance with this recent tweet by me ->

Conclusion: If you want to create something important, randomness is more influential than focus.

Subject Matter: Where you live has a large effect on the type of randomness you encounter, thus shaping your thoughts, friends, and things you work on.

Let’s dive into the argument:

Guilt (of Success) by Association

In response to David, Yes and… A sparse city creates isolation. It prevents randomness and serendipity to shape our lives. If you believe randomness and serendipity are the building blocks of ‘important things’ (I do, if not break func) then it’s critical to be in your brand of dense city.

Let’s first deconstruct the meaning behind the text:

“The city was far too sparse, leaving no space for anyone to get important things done.”

The implicit arguments:

  1. We want to work on important things
  2. The city we live in can impact that work
  3. The density in the city can impact that work

With that, the metaphorical “space for important things” is simply a play on words as I think important idea creation actually happens in physical spaces.

Thus, if a city was too sparse, there would be no crashing of ideas together because there would be no place for people to come together.

Randomness & Focus

To me it’s an issue of order of operations. There is likely a massive decrease in odds for idea creation in sparse cities. There is likely a large decrease in ability to focus in dense city. I’m hesitant to put them on the same magnitude though.

Should you barbell where you live? Dense for finding important ideas, Sparse for focus? Personally, it seems much easier to remove yourself when you need to focus than insert yourself when you need a particular brand of randomness.

Said differently, Focus exists everywhere, but types of randomness are pocketed. The randomness of Austin is not the randomness of SF is not the randomness of DC is not the randomness of NYC. Is the focus the same? I’m inclined to at least argue the net differences are much lower.

My conclusion?

If you’re a disciple of Hamming and have any intention of doing important things, far better to be in a denser space of your brand of randomness. That’s a big part of his “open door” rule at Bell Labs. If density decreases focus then the biggest arguments against focus are NYC and SF. The outlying success of very dense geographic regions could be caused by two things:

more people = more long tail events


Styled randomness in a dense city is more important than focus

The more people theory could certainly true, but there’s a filter involved. There are more long tail events in a different cities of a certain brand. New York isn’t churning out Oil & Gas magnates in the same way Houston consistently does. This leads me to the conclusion that the style of density is more impactful than the ability to focus.

Houston, TX. One of the largest cities in America, yet somewhat sparse

What it will look like if I’m wrong

I’m confident there are hidden gems in every city across America. If I was wrong, there would be more Berkshire Hathaway’s and less Stanford dropouts getting funded. If we look at how things really are, it seems as though the opposite is true. Pattern matching humans funding the next generation of startups seem to understand that there can literally or metaphorically be “something in the water”.

Guilt of Success by Association

Where does this lead? You can increase odds of success simply by being in the right place at the right time. Want to get your startup funded? Topeka, Kansas is not going to increase your odds. This is what I would call the “Guilty of Success by Association” effect

My Takeaways:

Focus is slightly overrated, randomness deeply underrated, both are critical

If the above is true, live in a dense city of your brand and make time to remove yourself from the randomness to focus, not the inverse.

If you live in a certain brand of city, you can almost become successful by association, at the very least materially increase your odds of success

If you want to continue the conversation, the tweet thread with an abbreviated version of these comments is below.