I recently took a trip back to New York City. The trip had multiple purposes. One, I missed New York. I missed my friends and the life that I had there, however brief it was. Two, I wanted to maintain connections with my former organization and maybe make some new ones. Three, I wanted needed a vacation.
For the past nine months, I’d lived in San Francisco. It’s become one of my favorite cities. It’s often compared to New York. Apart from the fact that they make up opposite metropolitan centers on each coast, I’m not entirely sure why they’re so often compared. To me, the comparison isn’t justifiable.
I was there for a week. I fell easily back into the routine of long hours, post-work drinks, late-night trains, date nights, and bottomless brunch. Days were long. I was moving forward, getting relevant work done, and on the whole, a productive member of society that also had a rich social life. Yay, me. Perhaps these were the feelings that I’d missed.
I loved my trip back, but it also highlighted how much I’ve changed in only a year. It highlighted the extremes to which one’s environment shapes one’s thoughts and way of thinking. Maybe it’s the barrage of data and technology in San Francisco and what money and success means here compared to New York that makes the distinction so palpable.
In San Francisco, the conversation revolves around technology: engineering, coding, machine learning; data: data systems, integration, visualization; startup culture: entrepreneurship, innovation, connections, capital. Now, I realize that a life in New York means many different things to many different people, but mine is and was about being part of an international city. My world turned for global policy and world politics, the goings-on of the United Nations, who was coming to the US, and what it meant in the world. Relevant issues were defined as what we were doing about the refugee crisis, what was happening in the Congo, Syria, Lebanon, and the Ukraine, what you thought about it, what should be done, and the role you and others played. It’s not that these issues are forgotten in San Francisco. It’s just that discussion of them is often diminished by news of the most recent Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and what that means for society and private companies. And while these happenings too are important, the inherent differences between them are compelling.
I went back to New York with a mindset dominated by the accepted importance of data, tech, and startup culture. In New York, I encountered my old self – one for which the significance of these concepts were only peripheral. For that time, I forgot everything I was aiming to pursue in San Francisco. But the San Francisco influence clearly affected the way that I thought about and responded to old friends’ conversation around the usual international development issues.
What alarmed me the most is that I only realized these changes when I returned to the West Coast. It wasn’t until I pulled myself out of that environment that I realized its impact, that other places are consumed by different worlds. It highlighted and re-emphasized a few things for me.
- Make conscious choices about your environment – friends, work, and culture – because it will shape you and your life.
- Your world is small. Don’t forget that your present and its concerns are often only small elements of others’ worlds.
- Seek out new experiences and new places, but revisit the old ones. Don’t forget to reflect on them and recognize how you’ve changed as a result.
My task now is to effectively integrate and balance these perspectives for innovation and impact. These are experiences that make each of our views unique and relevant. So how do I make mine tangibly relevant? That still remains to be seen.