The Purpose of New York

Everyone on the trains always look so sad…

– Dianne

Dianne is a particularly special friend of mine, from long ago and far away. She recently wrapped up her undergrad career at a particularly unfortunate safety school, and is in New York for the summer, developing a new archival system for an art foundation.

We met up at Prospect Park last weekend to catch up, and she expressed some anxiety about New York, commenting on how everyone, all the time, seemed so serious, so sad, so hurried.

“People are never smiling.”

Her points are valid. I had similar reactions and struggles, my first weeks after moving here. Now that I’m rounding the nine-month mark in New York, I’ll endorse Dianne’s observations about the culture of the city. Compared to cities in Northern California (where we both went to school) and Southern California (where we both grew up), people here operate with much less levity and much more single-minded intent, which can often be read as unhappiness.

But to read it that way is to miss the point.

The purpose of New York, the reason they come here — at least for people in their twenties — is not to make themselves happy. The purpose of New York is to be a crucible, a kiln for the young and driven to struggle and to fight through — and through that struggle, to achieve their potential.

The faces on the train are faces of people struggling to achieve more and to perform better at whatever it is that they do. Everything about this city’s professional culture is set up to reward narrowly-defined excellence. This is the paradigm. “Work-life balance” is a distraction.

There are a few reasons why I think this is the case. New York is the mecca of several major industries, and a major player in several more. As such, the city is the home of the world’s top professionals. The importance of this is hard to overstate. In any other city, because it is another city, the professional leadership are those who, for whatever reason, have prioritized things above pure professional success. A partner at McKinsey choosing to live in San Francisco over New York is making a choice for quality of life. The partner choosing New York is choosing pure professional challenge and opportunity. There are certainly exceptions to this, you may be one of them, I’m just trying to illustrate some generalities as I understand them. One could, of course, imagine a person choosing to live in New York for other reasons (an artist participating in the creative culture, for example), but the high housing prices (and prices overall) mean that people need to inherit or establish some sort of financial foundation to survive here — a financial incentive towards success in some shape or form. And of course, I’m talking entirely about the experiences of people for whom being in New York is a choice. There are countless thousands, even millions, of people without options — domestic workers, recent immigrants — for whom there is no choice, only struggle. Their experiences are huge and real, and deserve attention and remedy, but are not what I am discussing here.

Those who choose to stay in New York, then, have made a choice for professional success, and for all of the attendant challenges and rewards, both financial and social, which come with. At the start, then, you’ve got a population of people who have overwhelmingly prioritized professional success. In the context of that population, however, its internal logic can assign that success only to a very few. Almost necessarily, many of those who have chosen New York will not achieve what they have come hoping for . Not everyone can make it to the top of their field. And thus the struggle, the competition, the crucible, the kiln.

The closing line of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” goes: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere / It’s up to you, New York, New York.” A famous line, and unsurprisingly so. The rewards of success are enticing enough that there will always be another person willing to lean a bit harder on the gas pedal, willing to sacrifice a bit more for an edge. Those rewards are enticing enough that if you lose your single-minded focus, you’ll likely not succeed. “Making it” in New York requires 100% of what you’ve got, plus luck — for reasons outlined above, anything else will most likely not cut it. There are other cities for you — cities where people have chosen other (valid) balances, other (valid) priorities. Cities where “making it” professionally is a little easier, because people are splitting their energies amongst multiple things, and where you’re allowed to take more rest.

Two more things.

First, you may raise the point that being an excellent, well-rounded individual is itself an achievement. You would be correct. But (as I came to understand only recently), splitting your energy among multiple things (even if the energy being split is hypothetically enormous in magnitude) means that you’ll necessarily be less successful at any individual thing than if you poured all of yourself into one thing in particular. Given that professional success is generally narrowly-defined and difficult to achieve, and there are many people focusing on such narrowly-defined professional success, a diversified strategy would, unfortunately, likely leave you unsuccessful at everything you tried. Exceptions can be made for geniuses; I’ll leave it to you to place yourself in that category.

Secondly, and most importantly, just because success is perceived so narrowly doesn’t mean that successful individuals are the ones who truly put 100% of themselves into a single thing. If this sounds to you like it contradicts a number of earlier points made in this post, then you’re right. Life is complicated.  The people who do pour themselves 100% into a single thing will almost certainly burn out and remove themselves from the equation. Those who end up actually succeeding are those who develop strategies of self-management and self-care which allow them to consistently output quality work over time. The ability not to sabotage yourself is far more important than any raw aptitude, ability, or talent, in the long run. Those who truly succeed in New York, I think, are those who are able to place their professional responsibilities front and center, able to absorb themselves fully in their work, while still managing to maintain a healthy enough life to maintain that focus over a period of several years. For the mathematically-minded, we could say that the palm goes to the one who can maintain the highest average percent output over any given time period, not the one who can achieve the highest local maximum.

Now, returning to our overarching themes. The purpose of New York? To create an environment where capable and driven people can find the emotional, social, and financial support structures to push them onward to try and achieve professional success. Structures to help them develop to the heights of their abilities, to discover the limits of what they are capable of. It’s manic, certainly. But there’s also tremendous beauty to it. Struggle and competition, while grueling and draining, are also some of the surest paths towards the breaking of boundaries and the ascension to heights — for yourself and for society.

It’s not for everyone, of course. And many leave (appropriately so). But for those who stay, it’s not arbitrary or senseless sadness, but a purposive and noble fatigue.

This is the key point: this kind of success and achievement would not be possible in any other place, or if New York was different than it is. The highs and lows of New York are inseparable from each other; they are figure and ground of the same image. They require and create each other.

There’s a brilliant poem which captures all of this with extreme lucidity. Consider it.

Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”

And he answered:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.

Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.

When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

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