I grew up half in the South and half in the Midwest – always in suburbia. I spent my high school Friday nights in a used bookstore looking for portals into other worlds. I remember when I was home for college during the summers driving into Cincinnati exhilarated just by the city lights across windshield. I’d find a coffee shop, order a cup of hot, black coffee in the summer heat at 9:30 in the evening, and drink it slow to give me more time to absorb my surroundings. I was looking for something; I just wasn’t sure what. Realizing it wasn’t marriage in my early 20s, I broke my engagement and moved to San Francisco without a job – best decision I ever made.
I still didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew if I was going to find it I needed to be in a city, to descend into the chaos, throw out some old ways of thinking and take in some new ones. In Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine, Lehrer summarizes the research of what drives creativity. Urban areas, Lehrer reports, are dramatically more productive than their suburban counterparts. The bigger and more frenzied the city, the more productive its inhabitants. The productivity of a city can actually be measured by the average speed of pedestrians. Cities are like boiling water causing people to bump into each other like molecules, exchanging ideas. Ideas result in patents, result in start-ups, and result in new ways to solve problems. And that’s what I was looking for – permission to redefine myself, to approach my personal journey from a different perspective.
Of course, as evidenced by a friend who recently told me her 300-square-foot Manhattan apartment rent is going up by 26%, cities are not always a realistic choice. Also evidenced by a 300-square-foot apartment, cities don’t offer the most comfortable living arrangements. But cities, though we may not always like it, expose us to the new through our day-to-day routine just walking down the street.
For those of us who are suburbanites, we must not let ourselves get too comfortable. We must actively take in new information and challenge our existing beliefs. The wisdom we’ve been looking for may be in the experiences we’ve been avoiding.