On Considering a Move away from Silicon Valley
My wife and I will be moving from our home in Sunnyvale to a new one in Seattle.
In thinking about the idea at all, I’ve felt one or two surprising emotions. One comes from realizing how much the land of Jobs and Woz has shaped the person I became on the way through my 20s and into my 30s. I came to California one year after graduating from college, and it’s the place where I became an adult, making it, in other words, the only place where I’ve actually been an adult. What will it mean to leave that environment? What will it mean to be a programmer away from the notional center of it all? Will I identify less with the community of programmers in an environment where it’s less ubiquitous? (though admittedly still very commonplace) How will I feel about that?
Another strong feeling centers around the increased distance from a lot of important friendships – which thankfully will be mitigated by a lot of factors, like our ongoing mobility and theirs. Not long ago, a friend of mine tweeted about what he valued in his teens, twenties, and thirties, ending with idle curiousity about what he’d want in his forties. A sage blipped into the conversation long enough to volunteer “a handful of close friends” as an answer. Letting the steak of my mind marinate in that idea on occasion has left me happy to be where I am, even when I’m feeling grumbly about the local technology monoculture and blind hungry calculus of the startup scene. And I’ll miss our close friends immensely when I can’t see them as easily.
I think a lot about the structure of the Bay Area’s economy, and lately I’ve pictured its shape as a funnel that pulls in well-informed talent from one end and quietly diffuses experienced folk coming out the other end. And while its logic often seemed sinister at street level or when the rent renewal come in, now I see its personality as haplessly naive, simple.
If you’re a programmer, there’s a rational perspective that points to the Bay Area as the place to live: it’s where the action is, it’s an experience, it’s an opportunity, you’ll get paid, you’ll meet your cofounder. It’s not the only perspective, but it’s familiar from Paul Graham’s essays and elsewere. Everybody is informed by this perspective. Some may discount it, some may give it less weight than others. But it moves a lot of people, and since the obvious first-glance answer to “where should a programmer live?” is here, and programmers care about optimization, optimize the community does, and saturates a small piece of arid land with 6-figure incomes, finding a little bit more unoptimized land to put apartments and small homes upon each year. Which makes it a tough spot for individuals that don’t have the same earning power. That might include families who have been here since Fairchild was the big name in semiconductors, or it might include the folks who keep the service sector humming. That, I think, is why out in the public spaces of the Peninsula, sense of community feels elusive. Perhaps the perspecitve is different if you’ve been here since the 80s, or you’re attached to the Stanford academic community, or live in the working-class neighborhoods of East Palo Alto or Redwood City, or you pay property taxes and vote for mayor of the neighborhood-sized town you live in.
There will always be lucky folks whose situations allow them to grab a piece of land in some spot that reflects, for them, a fair compromise between cost and value. There are a lot of folks trying to make a living here, and you will always be competing for space with a people with unusual advantages you’ll lack: couples who have no children and both make programmer-level salaries, or manage to live rent free with family, or have a parent subsidizing their exertions well into adulthood. What I mean is that there’s just not enough space for all of these full adult lives with 6-figure wingspans to happen in, and once you’ve benefited from the opportunities the place offers to the super young, the disadvantages to settledown-ers become noticable. None of that’s cause to point fingers. It’s just an unforgiving competition that plays out slowly and continuously.
Much has been written about the bay area by people who have moved on from it, and plenty of examples of the genre are just as insufferable as can be the local assumption of importance common in the bay area itself. My own situation is a bit different. I’ve always known (or at least assumed) that the Bay Area was not my forever home. I’ve embraced the place while I’ve been here, and will miss it in the future.
One thing that I know is that in pursuing happiness, sometimes you get surprised. Sometimes the satisfaction is there but doesn’t have the same enduring richness or texture you’d imagined. At first, you can take this as cause for extreme doubt of your own deicisionmaking, but ultimately you have to come back to listening to what you want. That’s still your compass, but you have to consult it more often. So despite an inability to see the future and to predict what adult Luke is like outside the Valley, I’m fairly confident that we’ll love it in Seattle, a town that reads, is green like Japan, smells like Indiana in the autumn, and feeds its visitors well. I hope it’s where I’ll be able to imagine technology better, not as the big prize we’re all after, but as a modest complement to people’s lives.