I found a place that people want to visit.
ASTORIA, New York- I knew that setting up a base of operations in New York City would put me on other people’s path — an odd place for me to be — but I initially didn’t fully appreciate the full ramifications of this or just how many people would be coming in for visits.
As soon as I came to NYC I began getting ‘wanna meet up’ emails from people passing through. They were mostly people involved in topics that I cover — sources, think tank academics, CEOs, etc. This is good for business, I thought.
I operate in the connection economy, a place where a friend is always more valuable than a contact — and friends are made via hanging out, drinking beer, talking about other things besides work. This is where opportunities come from:
“Hey Wade, I’m putting on this conference. Want to come give a talk?”
“I know this guy who travels to those places, you may want to get in touch with him…”
“I have this doc coming up that maybe you’d be interested in working on …”
But what I didn’t anticipate was how good living in New York City would be for cultivating my personal and family connections.
Two weeks after moving here my mother AND father-in-law visited. My father-in-law doesn’t like leaving his house, let alone going to another city in another state. While my mother-in-law visits us once or twice per year, my father-in-law never even considered it. “I used up all my travel tickets when I was young,” he once told me. Apparently, the last time he traveled my wife — then a little girl — vomited on him on the airplane and then the airline lost his luggage. He was done with travel after that.
But he visited us in NYC. He’s actually sort of from here, and he knew the lay of the land better than we did. He’s a fun guy. He brought me three jars of homemade pickles and did my dishes.
Then not a week later MY parents showed up. My parents never go anywhere. They have never visited me anywhere I’ve been in the world. They grew up and spent their entire lives in Western New York but have never visited New York City (my dad transferred buses here as a kid but that probably doesn’t count). But they did it. They really did it. My mother was pushed out of her comfort zone — NYC is un-apologetically dirty and overtly rough around the edges. She went into adventure mode and endured the filth and the crowds, the crazies and the bullshit. To her credit the place is actually kind of shitty if you look at it through Martian eyes: “So you Earthlings want to spend all kinds of money and endure low standards of living to be here?”
It was really something special: 20 years of travel and I’ve finally scored a visit.
Relationships are built upon the mutual sharing of experience. While our technologies allow us to connect with people anywhere in the world they do not allow us to share experience. Skype is not a substitute for being there. The lives of “our people” rapidly slip by each year, playing out without you, until one day you realize that everyone had gone on without you — the curtains have been drawn shut, the show is over, life happened and you weren’t there for it.
This is relevant because this isn’t merely the concern of digital nomads or perpetual travelers, but an entire world where families, cultures, and communities are being scrambled up and splattered all over the face of the earth, ever watering down their cultural essence and not passing down the values of what made them them to the next generation. World culture is quickly becoming a substance-less sludge of international muck. We’re all becoming the same and that isn’t a good thing.
I’m fortunate that I grew up in a place that was near my grandparents, near my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Weekends would mean going to grandma’s house. Holidays would mean everybody going to grandma’s house. We’d have giant football games out in the field. We’d laugh, joke, fight, play — share experience. There was no reason for me to value this then. It was so normal that I couldn’t fathom a day where it would be no more. But today I know better — that era is long gone.
Family get-togethers no longer really happen too much anymore. We tried one this summer and my sister got mad about something, packed her kids into the truck, and ran away back to Montana. When I was a kid my aunts and uncles would get in fist fights and be peacefully hanging out together at the next birthday party the following weekend. People had to forgive back then because they had to see each other again — running away and absconding behind geographic barriers simply wasn’t an option. Distance has made us fiercely unapologetic.
I now think things like, “There’s a lot of kids out there growing up without this because their moms and dads found a better job on the other side of the country / world.” Growing up without family probably sucks, and is another reason why I decided to set up a base of operations in NYC: my kids can see their grandparents and extended family more often.
Do you know what makes people happy in every country in the world at any time in history? It’s not pills or booze or money or entertainment. It’s not success or love or admiration. It’s too simple: it’s family and friends. As we chase our intrigues and travail on long journeys to find happiness we often move further and farther away from the object of our search.