As I’m exploring and steeping myself more into NYC while I’m visiting, the things that stand out most to me are the ones that are most different from what I’m used to in my default environment of San Francisco.
Today after work, I ran through Manhattan through Central Park as the sun was just starting to descend behind the towering skyscrapers, and I was treated to the burst of colors reflecting off the ample glass surfaces in the city’s skyline.
One immediate thing that stands out to me is how alive the city feels. There’s this overwhelming sense of energy and bustle that seeps out of sidewalks and bodegas and luxury apartments. People in all different contexts of life are taking to the streets for their evening plans: tourists heading towards their dinner, office workers heading to the gym, students taking a night off. The sidewalks on busy streets are large and still struggle to accommodate the crowds that overtake them. It feels as if the city is pushing you to rush forward, charging towards some inevitable end point. Even while running I felt this pressure—my first mile was a sub 7min which I haven’t hit in a run since my cross country days in high school.
Passing through Central Park, I felt the energy take on a different shape. Compared to SF, there is so much more diversity in hobbies and what people do. Just this one pass through the park, I found:
artist using sculpture as a model
and more that I can’t remember now
The energy manifested into specific activities that people have adopted into their routines. New York feels like a bee hive: the activity never dies as the city never sleeps, and everyone bustles around each other focused on their own tasks.
Which got me wondering, how do people feel about doing nothing in this sort of environment?
I’ve only had a small sample size thus far, but most people I’ve talked to have expressed a conflict of wanting more freedom to chill while inevitably finding themselves oversubscribed to high-energy events and full-day activities week over week. This energy of aliveness and fun and exploring can take a dark turn when the pressure becomes overwhelming. The underlying pressure pushes you to do more, to be more. New York is a city for the hustlers: it’s the city of rags-to-riches stories from the projects and immigrants forging a new beginning and students scrapping for a breakthrough. The story the city tells you is one of the American dream: that hard work is the key to making it to that inevitable end point, to becoming more than you are now. It doesn’t matter how much the odds are stacked against you; all you can do is press harder and march further and reach higher.
I wonder about the dynamic between commitment and obligation of people who live here. I felt that tension from the people I talked to, but I wonder how it affects the hobbies and activities that people choose to take on. Is there a tension with the paradox of choice, of making the right choice of activity to commit to when the options are limitless? Likely for most, it’s a combination of both. Commitment and obligation both come with the territory of an environment that projects boundless energy and opportunity, which means both the ones you really care about and the ones you just care about because the option is there are attractive options. In the true New York spirit, it’s kosher to say yes to both.
As an example, someone I met had moved apartments in the morning, met up with us to watch a silent film at the Tribeca Film Festival, and then had a paintball appointment in Williamsburg on the other side of town and across the bridge after. I can never imagine having the mental fortitude to go through with all of these arrangements, but perhaps, New York breeds this sort of toughness required to keep going and never pump the brakes. I wonder if the dynamic is more such that you build endurance from living here and eventually become “built different” or if you just become comfortable with constantly juggling a million obligations and loose commitments.
People find it hard to say no to opportunities that present themselves because it feels like you’re saying no to progress, and under the always-go mentality, it’s a sin to slow down, let alone stop. But in these situations, you’re not necessarily saying no to the progress—you’re saying no to this opportunity to have the space to say yes to one that feels right. This goes back to the spectrum between thinking and doing. New York is a city for doing. Action is always preferred, and this flows down into the tendency towards directness in speech and ambition in pursuits.
It’s interesting to observe this dynamic because it’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing, but it’s an observation that can be leveraged to cater your environment towards how you want to grow. For now, I’m enjoying that energy and underlying pressure. I’ve always struggled with biasing towards action, and the city’s presence is pushing my default towards doing, New York’s special flavor of personality erosion.
This is the 26th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here or view my evergreen, longer pieces on my website.