Occasionally I speak with people considering an opportunity to move away from the place they call home to somewhere entirely new - be it for work, school, temporarily or indefinitely. I remember myself making that decision and the questions I had swirling around in my head. Hopefully this assortment of words provides some insight or reassurance to someone else in a similar situation.
I spent the first 19 years of my life around one major city - Sacramento. For those unaware the population is about half a million and the metropolitan population about two (though rather spread out). Not a massive city, nor was it a farm town - perfectly suitable for families, young couples, and someone looking for a laid back California way of life. I have many fond memories of growing up there and take great pleasure in visiting and simply walking around midtown or driving up to Auburn seeing the familiar mountains and forests. Most of my life though was spent in the suburbs - being driven around and eventually driving myself to school, work, and wherever else I wanted to go. Unsurprisingly - almost everyone I knew lived in or around Sacramento and happened to intersect with my personal routines, interests, and communities - I was content with my bubble. Which might explain why seeing some friends uprooting their lives and moving to a different city (for work, a relationship, or simply for fun) seemed absolutely insane to me. Moving away from all my friends, family, relatives, and the life I knew? Restarting and building everything up from scratch again? It honestly seemed terrifying.
Now, don’t get me wrong - I always pictured I’d move to a big city, eventually. The likeliest candidate in my mind was San Francisco given I was interested in programming and there seemed to be plenty of them having a good time there. In my mind this would happen considerably later in life - after I’d finished school, got my first job, and settled into a relationship with someone. Yes, this was actually a prerequisite - I was actually very scared of moving somewhere all by myself. In fact, the exact wording I used in my journal entry the first night the idea was proposed was
I would start from zero. From scratch. Knowing no body. ... that being said, it's not an unconditional no. The idea was there.
Well as life would have it, soon enough I was presented with the option of packing up and moving over to New York City for at least six months, perhaps longer. In my experience peoples’ reactions to this can be grouped into two buckets - “let’s go” and “forget about it”. I was in the latter camp. Fear of the unknown, first time doing something like this, etc. - I was not having any of it. The thought of putting this much distance between myself and my friends and my family scared me - I’d never had to maintain friendships involving distance and had no idea if I’d be able to. I also considered how long it took me to build my social network in Sacramento and it seemed like I was just setting myself up for a lot of loneliness and ended relationships. A few dinners with friends later though and I was beginning to see the other side of the situation - a potential adventure. If it went badly, well I could always move back. But the choice to let this opportunity pass me by might end up in regret - something I like to minimize.
A few months of preparations later, a couple going away parties, some tearful farewells - and I was on a shuttle from Newark, NJ to Penn Station at 2 am in the morning. It was just me, my two suitcases, and a backpack. The hostel we had booked had sent us an email saying they’d overbooked and we would have no place to stay that night. I was exhausted and hungry. Stepping off the bus into the street alone into this massive city where I knew nothing or nobody, I felt a pang of loneliness I hadn’t really experienced prior, being this far away from the familiar. But that loneliness was underlined by something else - actual independence. All of a sudden, figuring out where to sleep tonight was my responsibility, and my responsibility alone. As were the next 10,000 decisions I’d be making - from the mundane to the existential. It was up to me to make things work.
Fast forward 25 months to today. Looking back, I can confidently say moving to New York was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I’ve learned so much about myself, the world, other people, social structures, self-reliance, my own motivations and demons, relationships, struggles, and failures. I’m surrounded by an incredibly diverse set of people from all over the world across countless industries and walks of life. I’m at a place in my own life where I’m beginning to get a grasp on who I am and how I relate to this world. The question is: could I have discovered and learned all of this by staying in my comfortable life back home surrounded by family and long-time friends? Given my data sample size of one - it’s impossible to say for sure. But my gut says it would’ve taken a lot longer than two years. Being thrown into an environment where I knew nothing and nobody, being required to learn on the fly and establish something out of nothing - it’s an incredible learning opportunity. Removing all the filters, assumptions, biases, routines, and networks around you doesn’t mean they disappear forever. On the contrary, it makes you finally aware of them. Cognizant of how those decisions are actually made instead of being so used to them that they might as well be an immutable part of who you are.
One of my biggest fears going into all of this not being sure if visits home and FaceTime would be enough to maintain those relationships and running the risk of losing them. I’m going to do you a big favor and compress two years of experience into a single sentence:
The people you hold dear (and who feel the same about you) will be an integral part of your life regardless of distance, presence of face-to-face interactions, or frequency of those interactions.
You’re welcome. I do want to add two corollaries to that:
- You may not be aware of who those people are, even if you think you do. Some I expected to stay close with I ended up drifting apart from; other relationships I didn’t value as much before leaving only grew richer and deeper with time and distance.
- Qualities and traits you admire in other people may change with time, and that’s ok too. You’re going to be out exploring the world. You’re going to have assumptions about yourself and others proven wrong. Call it perspective, experience, wisdom, data - whatever you want. But there’s a very low chance that upon returning you’d be able to just plug yourself right back into the old life you used to have.
Another major concern of mine was meeting new people. I had it easy back in Sacramento - I was part of a massive Slavic community who saw each other on a weekly basis for years and years. It’s impossible not to make friends in that environment. Moving to NYC took all of those advantages away and put me on a level playing field with everyone else. This meant I had to be the one reaching out, initiating contact, putting myself out there - there was no existing connections to piggy-back off of, no community I was familiar with to instantly plug into - none of that. A few of my personal takeaways for finding friends in a new city:
- Say hi. At a coffee shop, waiting in line? Exploring a new part of the city? In an elevator waiting to get to your floor? There’s a sea of incredible people out there just a friendly hello away. Talk to them!
- Use the internet. I don’t care whether it’s dating apps, meetups, events, comedy club nights - use this incredible thing humanity has invented to find other human beings who share the same interests/concerns/values as you. I met one of my close friends on a dating app looking for a girlfriend. I met tons of amazing friends on an experiment called HeyGreet - literally an app to to put you in random dinners with others in the city. I’ve gone on a date with someone I met at a concert in someone’s living room. Don’t get stuck in your little corner of the city - explore it.
- Always say yes. Get invited to some random party where you don’t know anyone and think you’ll be awkward all night? I don’t care - go. Some of the coolest people I’ve met have been through random encounters at a friend-of-a-friend’s party who I showed up to with a 6-pack and a bag of chips. Invited to some random event by a friend-but-not-quite-friend-yet with? You’d better go! This is the time to stuff your calendar as much as possible. Maximize serendipity and spontaneous encounters.
- Don’t wait. Everyone has busy lives - especially in a city like New York. Chances are the person you want to grab dinner with already has a long list of social obligations you’re competing with - other friends, a partner, a sports team, a company to run: you need to be proactive and reach out instead of waiting for them to remember. Do this enough times and you’ll find a balance start to form with invites going out from both sides. But it takes effort to get there.
- Be creative. Explore your interests. Sign up for that random class you’ve been eyeing a while. Schedule a picnic in the park. Plan a day trip somewhere. Put in a little effort into organizing something and people will almost always be happy to join. People are social creatures, but often would rather just not think about anything and lay in bed and do nothing. Having someone else offer to do some thinking for you is a wonderful gift.
All of this being written might make it seem like moving away is the easiest thing in the world. It’s not. There were definitely evenings where I was still getting situated and had nothing to do besides wandering around. Other times I’d see all my friends back home together on Instagram and feel like I was missing out on amazing times. Most of all, seeing some of the relationships end and not really being able to do anything about it - that isn’t easy at all.
In addition to all of this, I had a very fortunate set of circumstances that made this move relatively low-risk and easy:
An amazing safety net back home - if I ever fail big time in NYC I can always move back in with my parents and they’d probably even float the ticket back. Not everyone gets that and I do not take that for granted.
I’m lucky enough to have skills for an industry that happens to pay its employees extremely well. No major city is cheap - especially when considering a physical move and job transition on top of that.
I had a lot figured out for me in NYC including a stable job, an apartment, and roommates. This would’ve been much, much harder had I needed to land a job, while looking for an apartment, while dealing with insane realtor fees, and trying to establish a social network. Others I know had to deal with that whole list and more, so while it is possible, it’s also quite impressive. That being said: if you’ve read this far it’s likely you have something deeper you’re going after and aren’t just chasing a whim. Follow that dream.
NYC is an incredibly diverse city with some of the most accepting and open-minded people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Not all cities are like that, and I’m lucky I landed here.
This ended up being longer than I expected. But the key idea I want to leave off with is that life is an adventure - treat it as such. Nothing happens by default - you have to put yourself out there and and accept some non-zero level of risk. Sometimes that’s as simple as smiling at another person and saying hi; other times it’s packing up and moving across the country. But time and time again I learn that exploring the harder, more annoying, less clear, or less-traveled road ends up being so much more rewarding, worthwhile, and beautiful.