In his essay “Cities and Ambition”, Paul Graham writes that ambitious cities spur their inhabitants1 to strive harder, sending specific messages about how to define their success. I always found it intriguing that Vienna, where I currently live, seemed to lack such a clear message. I think Vienna is just a city without ambition.
At first glance, a city without ambition might appear to be a dreadful place to live. The cities that tell you to be richer, more powerful, more famous—these are the cities that capture our imaginations. New York, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, they draw us in with their glittering promises and yet, sometimes, these promises run counter to our own aspirations.
In New York, the pursuit of wealth consumes. In Silicon Valley, power is the ultimate achievement. And in Los Angeles, fame is the game. To live in these cities is to risk being swept up in their current, losing sight of one's own dreams. You may find yourself starting a hedge fund when wealth holds no allure or waiting tables in pursuit of a fame you never truly desired.
Warren Buffett serves as an excellent example of someone who intentionally stayed away from New York to avoid being sucked into Wall Street's groupthink. Instead, he remained in Nebraska, where he could reason about stock prices and company values without interruption.2
And so, a place like Vienna might be some sort of sanctuary. A place where one's ambition can exist without being suffocated by the city's own desires. A place where contrarian positions can be held without the constant attempts to persuade you otherwise. The people of Vienna may not care about your ideas, but they have so little ambition that they will not meddle with them.
I think it's a worthwhile exploration to figure out what kind of city you are in and what kind of city you should be in. The tricky part is, that just because a city seems to lack ambition doesn't mean it's not there. And then the trouble ensues.
Take Berlin for example. A city where common status symbols are frowned upon and life is all about not caring and looking cool while doing nothing. Hence one might conclude, as did I when I moved there, it is a city without ambition. But instead of conventional success metrics, Berlin prioritizes hipness and you have to be utterly ambitious to be hip and take even more care in hiding that ambition because that runs contrary to being hip.
For example: only because you dress up in a tailored suit doesn't mean you will get into the club or restaurant you intend to go to. But if you dress like a five-year-old in sneakers and shorts your chances of being accepted have risen exponentially. Money is also quite useless. To get into Berghain you cannot just pay $5000 to reserve a table and definitely get in like you could do in a city like Monaco. You have to wait in line and when you get in, by being approved by the bouncer for unknowable reasons, the fee is just a measly €15. The price tag of your shoes doesn’t define how hip you are, the right people are not found in the most expensive houses, and you can’t buy your way into Berghain.
I found a clear sign of how to tell the strength of Berlin's ambitiousness: the extreme intolerance for deviation from hip social norms and the aggressiveness of Berliners towards anyone who doesn't fit into that schema.
Cities without ambition are both a blessing and a curse and I'm not certain I prefer them over ambitious ones. I miss the ambition I experienced living in Los Angeles, but I also feel much less distracted now.
Some cities are so ambitious, their ambitions and benchmarks for success spread to even the remotest parts of the world. Like how so many palaces tried to be like Versailles or many dress like the Kardashians. ↩
This allowed Warren Buffett to become richer than anyone else on Wall Street, but if you don’t mind groupthink, being on Wall Street is on average still the better choice for becoming semi-rich than Nebraska. ↩