A thoughtful article:
Cities and Ambition
By Paul Graham
“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.
“The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.
“What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.”
This reminds me of a report by Luminosity that claimed that Iowa had 6 out of 100 of the smartest cities in the US. There measure was a specific test for cognitive ability.
Some years ago, I read that Iowa City (where I live) had the highest per capita of degrees and PhDs, but I don’t know if that is still the case. Iowa City does have the second highest per capita of doctors. Sure has a lot of writers and artists as well. I’m not sure what message Iowa City puts out in all of this.
I have a friend who grew up in Iowa City. She moved to Portland, Oregon many years ago. She loves it there.
Like Iowa City, Portland has a writers workshop, although it is more alternative than the mainstream workshop here. Compared to other US cities, Portland has (or did have, the last time I checked) the largest bookstore in the US and the most book stores and coffee shops (either according to per capita or per block, I forget which).
Portland is a very creative town with tons of artists and writers. But it also seems a bit like a hipster town. Living there, you want to be or be perceived as intellectual and creative, but you also want to be hip and cool.
Iowa City lacks that hipster quality for the most part. Instead, it feels more middle class. In Iowa City, even the mailmen and bus drivers not unusually have at least a college degree. Artists and writers don’t starve in Iowa City for they just get a job at the University or the City or one of the other large employers here.
“You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you’ve heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren’t genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?
“If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn’t beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?”
That is the most important point to take away. I’ve been convinced by the theory that some of the most intelligent and innovative people in America have their skills squandered or else apply their skills toward ends the mainstream considers immoral, for example (Gang Leader for a Day by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Washington Monthly):
“In the project, Venkatesh finds men and women who easily flit back and forth between the legal and illegal economies (depending, usually, on which pays more at any given moment). Drug dealers aspire to buy small businesses, and their subordinates move between legitimate jobs and the hustle of drug dealing and prostitution. What Venkatesh is able to develop, through the view J.T. grants him, is a new way of thinking about the ghetto and ghetto crime, as the consequences that come when morality is uncoupled from the law.
“J.T. is a good tutor. He is a learned and steady bureaucrat of the drug trade, a man with some college and management experience behind him. Most of his life is spent dealing with, somewhat endearingly, the small headaches of petit bourgeois career life—managing less-than-competent subordinates, handling the objections of Taylor Homes residents, and trying to restrict police access to the project.”
In a country like the US, with a shrinking middle class, social mobility and good job opportunities, with growing poverty and desperation, an entire underclass is created with its own separate communities. As with cities, what community or neighborhood you live in or come from can make a big difference, not just in your opportunities but in shaping who you become (often the opportunities you are able to see and the opportunities that you value).
Many potential Leonardo da Vincis are gangsters tagging alley walls and dumpsters or working at Walmart. Many, probably most, of them don’t even know about even an iota of the talent and potential they have within them.
Genius or even just above average talent doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Without social capital, potential remains potential. Countries, cities and communities that invest in social capital at the same time invest in human capital.