Beginning of the year, my wife and I made a final call – to leave California, “as soon as possible”. To be fair, we talked about this for a long time; a few years, but without any concrete date or commitment. But now it was serious, and even the still ongoing pandemic and all related challenges couldn’t stop us. On the first of April, we were already in a hotel in Midtown of NYC, preparing to look for a new apartment that we found two weeks later.
I get asked almost daily “why did you do it? Did your Californian dream not work out?”, and some New Yorkers are in shock and somewhat question how a sane person would move out of “perfect, sunny California”.
The Californian dream did work out – after all, we spent almost 7 years there!
Out of which four were in the San Francisco Bay Area – so it wasn’t “suffering”. I am quick to make impulsive/irrational/radical decisions in my life, so if things were bad, we wouldn’t stay there. There are some absolutely beautiful moments and memories that I’d like to keep for the rest of my life. And I could consider “retiring” in Los Angeles at some older age – it was a super cool place to be and live, I loved many things about it (it was way more diverse – in every possible way – than SFBA); even if it didn’t satisfy all my needs.
But there are also many reasons we “finally” decided for the move, reasons why I would not want to spend any more time in the Silicon Valley, and most are nuanced beyond a short.
Therefore, I wrote a personal post on this – detailing some of my thoughts on the Bay Area, California, Silicon Valley (mostly skipping LA, as we left that area over four years ago) – and why they were not an ultimate match for me. If you expect any “hot takes”, then you’ll be probably disappointed. 🙂
It’s going to be a personal, and a very subjective take – so feel free to strongly disagree or simply have opposite preferences. 🙂 Many people love living there, many Americans love suburbs, and as always different people can have completely opposite tastes!
It’s a decision that we made together with my wife (who was even stronger advocating for it, as she didn’t enjoy as much some of the things that I find cool in the South Bay), but I’m going to focus on just my perspective (even if we’d agree on 99% of it).
Finally, I am Polish, a Slav, and an European – so consider that my wording might be on a more negative side that most Americans would use. 🙂
Let me start with the obvious – living in California, especially in the Bay Area is for vast majority of people equivalent to living in the suburbs. We used to live for over a year in San Francisco, but it didn’t live up to our expectations (that’s a longer story on its own).
Even Los Angeles, “big city” is de facto a collection of independent, patched suburbs. Ok, but what’s wrong with that?
It’s super boring! Extremely suburban lifestyle, with a long drive almost anywhere. To me, suburbs are a complete dystopia in many ways – from car culture, lack of community, lack of inspiring places, zero walkability, segregation based on income and other factors, obsession over safety.
If you are a reader from Europe, I need to write a disclaimer – American suburbs are nothing like European. The scale (and consequences of thereof) is unbelievably different! When I was 14, my family moved from a small apartment in the city center to a house in the suburbs of Warsaw. Back then they were “far suburbs”, my parents build a house in the middle of a huge empty field. But I’d still go to a school in the city center, all my friends lived across the city, and I’d always use great public transport to be within an hour to almost any part of the city. I could even walk on foot to any of those other districts (and I often did!) and at college every afternoon in the summer I’d be cycling across the city. By comparison, in Bay Area walking from one suburb town – Mountain View – to an adjacent one, Palo Alto, would take 1.5 uninspiring hours to walk with many intersections on busy highway streets. Even a drive would be ~half an hour! Going to the city (San Francisco) meant either 1.5h train ride (and then switch to SF public transportation, where some parts could be another 1h away), or 1h car ride with next half an hour looking for a parking spot. Back on topic!
Generally the “vibe” I had was that nothing is happening, so as a typical leisure you have a choice of doing outdoors sports, driving for some hike, watching a movie, playing video games, or going to an expensive, but mediocre restaurant. (Ok, I have to admit – it was mediocre in the South Bay / Silicon Valley. SF restaurants were extremely expensive, but great!)
I grew up in cities and love city life in general.
I like density, things going on all the time, busy atmosphere, and urban life. I love walking out, seeing some events happening, streets closed, music playing, concerts and festivals happening, and just getting immersed in it and taking part in some of those events. Or going out to a club with friends, but first checking out some pub or a house party, changing the location a few times, and finally going back home on foot and grabbing a late night bite. It’s all about spontaneity, many (sometime overwhelming!) options to pick from, and not having to plan things ahead – and not feel trapped in a routine. Also, often the best things that you remember are all those that you didn’t plan, just happened and surprised you in a new way. As an emigrant willing to experience some of the new culture directly and get immersed in it- Montreal was great, Los Angeles mediocre, South Bay terrible.
Suburban boredom was extremely uninspiring and demotivating, and especially during the pandemic it felt like Groundhog Day.
With everything closed, one would think you’ll be able to just walk around outdoors?
This is how people imagine that suburbs look like (ok, Halloween was great and just how I’d imagine it from American movies):
But this is how most of it looks like: strip malls, parking lots, cars, streets (rainbows optional):
Public transport is super underfunded and not great (most people use cars anyway), and while some claim that owning and driving a car is “liberating”, for me it is the opposite – liberating is a feeling that I can end up in a random part of a city and easily get back home by a mix of public transport, walking, and city bikes (yeah!), with plenty of choices that I can pick based on my mood or a specific need.
Unfortunately, suburbs typically mean zero walkability. You cannot really just walk outside of your house and enjoy it – pedestrian friendly infrastructure is non-existent. Sidewalks that abruptly end, constant high traffic roads that you need to cross. Even if it wasn’t a problem, there are miles where there is nothing around except for people’s houses, some occasional strip malls – and it doesn’t make for an interesting or pleasant walk. In many areas you kind of have to drive for closest corner store type of small grocery. This meme captures the walkability and non-spontaneous, car heavy and sometimes stressful suburban life very well:
I don’t want to make this blog post just about suburbs, so I’d recommend the Eco Gecko youtube channel, covering various issues with suburbs – and particularly American suburbs – very well. A quote that I heard a few times that resonated with me is that after WW2, driven by economic boom, Americans decided to throw away thousands of years of know-how on architecture, urban planning and the way we always lived, and instead perform a social experiments named “suburbs” and lead a “motorized” lifestyle. I think it has failed.
As noted, those are my preferences. Suburbs have “objective” problems, strip malls and parkings are ugly, cars are not eco friendly etc – but yes, there are people who love suburbs, relative safety (in US it’s a problem – at least a perceived one), having a large house, clean streets, and say that it’s good for family life. I cannot argue with anyone’s preferences and I respect that – different people have different needs. But I’d like to dispel a myth that suburbs are great for kids. It might be true when they are 1-10 years old, later it gets worse. As I mentioned, when I was ~14 I moved to suburbs – and I hated it… I think that for teenagers, it’s bad for their social life and ability to grow up as independent humans. Now being an adult, I think my parents have a very nice house and a beautiful garden and I can appreciate chilling there with a bbq – but back then I felt alone and isolated, and if it wasn’t for my friends in other parts of the city and great public transport, I’d be very miserable. Which teenager wants to be driven around and “helicoptered” by parents and have whole life revolving around school and “activities”?
Ok, but people live there and are very happy, so what do they do?
This brings me to a difference in “West Coast lifestyle” (it’s definitely a thing).
Most of the people living there like a specific type of lifestyle – in their spare time they enjoy camping, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking and similar.
And this is cool, while I’m not into any hardcore sports or camping (being a “mieszczuch”, apparently is translated to “city slicker” – not sure if this is accurate translation), I do love beautiful nature and can appreciate a hike.
Californian hikes and nature can be truly awesome, even outside of the famous spots:
But as much as I love hiking, it gets boring to me very quickly – either you go to see the same stuff and type of landscape over and over, or you need to drive for many hours.
Living in the Silicon Valley, the closest hikes were driving 45min one way, then hunting for half an hour for a parking spot (it doesn’t matter if there is vast open space if some percentage of over 7 million people living around tries to find a parking spot by the road… and forget about getting there by any public transport), doing an hour hike, and the driving back. Boom, half of the weekend gone, most of it spent in a car. And quite a lot of them have same, “harsh” and drought affected climate with dusty roads and dried out, yellow vegetation:
Anyway, the vast majority of friends and colleagues had such “outdoor” and active interests and hobbies (I’m not mentioning other classic techie hobbies that are interesting, but solitary like bread making or brewing and similar).
On the other hand, I am much more interested in other things like music, art, culture, museums, street activities, and clubbing. Note again – there is nothing wrong with loving outdoors vs indoor – just a matter of preference.
“Wait a second!” I might hear someone say. Most of it is available “somewhere” around – some museums, events, concerts, restaurants. Sure, but due to distances and things being sparse and scattered around, everything needs to be planned and done on purpose. If you want to drive to a museum, it’s one hour, but then to go to a particular restaurant, it’s another hour. There is no room for randomness, things just happening and you randomly taking part in them. You need to actively research, plan, book/reserve ahead, drive, do a single activity, and come back home. As I write it, I shiver; this lack of spontaneity kind of still terrifies me. There’s “American prepper” stereotype, people who are super organized ahead of time and often over-prepared – for a reason.
Similarly, I was growing up being a part of alternative cultures communities (punk rock, some goth, new wave, later nu-rave, blog house, rave, electronica, house, disco, underground techno) and was missing it. The kind of thing when I’d go to some club even when nothing special is going on – to get to know some new artist, band, or a dj; to see if any of my friends are around, maybe meet new people, maybe just hang around. This is how I made lifelong and best friends – completely randomly and through shared interests and communities and we are still friends up till today, even if those interests changed later. I missed it greatly and it contributed to a feeling of loneliness.
So this is matter of preference and just something I’m into vs not into, so I consider it “neutral”. On the other hand, there are other things I definitely didn’t like and consider negative about the vibe I got from some (obviously not all) people I met in Silicon Valley.
Car culture and driving to all places like restaurants, clubs, and bars has also a “dark side”. Quite a lot of people are drunk driving – way more than in Europe. In Poland blood alcohol limit is 0.02%, in California it is 0.08%. I’d see people visibly drunk with slurry speech that go pick up their car from valet and go home. By comparison in Poland among my friends if someone would have a single weak beer, all of the friends would shout at them “wait a few hours, you cannot drive you idiot”.
Side note: There is also the whole “tech bro” “alternative” culture – people into Burning Man, hardcore libertarianism, radical self expression and radical individualism, polyamory, and microdosing (to increase productivity and compete, obviously…) – but none of it is my thing. If you know me, I’m as far “ideologically” from technocratic libertarianism and rand-esque/randian “freedom for rich individuals” (or rather, attempting to slap a “culture” label on the lifestyle of self-obsessed young bros) as possible. Also, I think I haven’t really met in person even a single person (openly) into this stuff, so maybe it’s an exaggerated myth, or maybe simply much more common in just VC/startup/big money circles?
Competition, money and success
Lots of people in the Bay Area are very competitive and success obsessed.
There are jokes about some douches bragging on their phone while in a supermarket checkout line about how many million they will get from their upcoming IPO – those “jokes” are real situations.
Everyone talks about money, success, position in their company (1 person company = opportunity to be a founder, CEO, CFO and CTO, and a VP of engineering – all in one!), entrepreneurship. At corps / companies people think and talk about promos, bonuses, managers about getting more headcount, higher profile project, and claiming “impact” – everything in some unhealthy competition sauce (sometimes up to a direct conflict between 2 or more teams). You are often judged by your peers by your “success” in those metrics.
Such people see collaboration only as a tool of fulfilling your own goals (once they are fulfilled, at best you are a stranger, at worst they’ll backstab you). Teams are built to fulfil goals of their leads who want to “work through others” and even express it openly and unironically (I still shiver when I hear/read this phrase). Lots of “friendships” are more like just networking or purely transactional. It’s kinda disappointing when a “friend” of yours invites you “for socializing and catching up” and then turns it into a job or startup pitch.
I personally find it toxic.
It’s also a bad place to have a family (even though I’m not planning one now) – teenage suicide rates are very high around Palo Alto due to this competitive vibe and extremely high expectations and peer pressure… I cannot imagine growing up in an environment where “competition” and you competing starts before even you are born or conceived – with parents securing a house in a place with the best schooling district and fighting and filing applications for spots in a daycare.
The competition area is also very specific – there is a lack of cultural diversity, everyone works in tech, works a lot, and talks mostly about tech.
I know, I’m a tech person, so I shouldn’t complain… but I actually thrive in more diverse environments; it’s fun when you have tech people meeting art people meeting humanities people meeting entertainment people; 🙂 extraverts mixing with introverts, programmers and office clerks and musicians and theater people and movie people etc. None of it is there, no real diversity of ideas or cultures.
I don’t think we really met anyone not working in tech or general entrepreneurship (other than spouses of tech colleagues) – which is kind of crazy given being there four years (!).
This one is even worse. Silicon Valley is full of extremely smart and talented people, who excel in their domain – technology. People who were always the best students at school, are ridiculously intelligent and capable of extreme levels of abstraction. I often felt very stupid surrounded by peers who grew up there and graduated from those prime colleges and grad schools. Super smart, super educated, super ambitious, and super hard working.
Unfortunately for some people who are smart and successful in one domain, one of the side effects is arrogance outside of their domain – “this is a simple problem, I can solve it”.
Isn’t this what the Silicon Valley entrepreneurship is about? 🙂 A “big vision” that is indifferent to any potential challenges of obstacles (ok, I admit – this is actually a mindset/skill I am jealous of; I wish my insecurities about potentially not delivering didn’t go into pessimism). This comes with a tendency to oversimplify things, ignore nitty gritty details, and jump into it with hyper optimism and technocratic belief that everything can be solved just with technology.
Don’t get me started over the whole idea of “disruption” which is often just ignoring and breaking existing regulations, stripping away worker’s rights, and extracting their money at a huge profit (see Uber, Airbnb, electric scooters, and many more).
“Bro, you have just ‘reinvented’ coworkers/roommates/hotel/bus/taxi/wire transfers”
And you can feel this vibe around all the time – it’s absolutely ridiculous, but being surrounded with such a mindset (see my notes above about lack of cultural diversity…), you can start truly losing perspective.
Economy and prices
Finally, a point that every reader who knows anything about California was expecting – everything is super expensive.
Housing prices and issues around it are very well known, and I’m not an expert on this. It’s enough to say that most apartments and houses around cost $1-4mln, and it’s the buyers who compete (again!) and outbid who gets to buy one, with final sales prices 30% above the asking price. Those “mansions” are typically made from cardboard, ugly, badly built, and with outdated, dangerous electrical installation. Why would sellers bother doing anything better, renovating etc. if people are going to pay fortunes for it anyway?
I didn’t buy a house, my rent was high (but not that bad), but this goes further.
On top of housing, also every single “service” is way more expensive than in other parts of the US (or most of the world). In LA for repairing my car (scratch and dent on a side) in a bodyshop with stellar reviews we paid $800 and were very happy with the service; in Bay Area for a much smaller, but similar type of repair (only scratched side, no dent) of the same car I got a quote for over $4K, of which only $400 was material cost (probably inflated as well) – and we decided not to repair, our car is probably worth less than twice that. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I am privileged and a high earner, so why would I care?
The worst part to me was the heartbreaking wealth disparity and homeless population.
A huge topic on its own, so I won’t add anything original or insightful here, people have written essays and books on it. But still – I cannot get over seeing one block with $4mln mansions, and a few blocks away campers and cars with people living there (who are not unemployed! Some of them work as actually work as so called “vendors” – security, cleaning, and kitchen staff – for the big tech…).
And this is the luckier ones, who still own a camper or a car and have a job – there are many homeless living in tents (or under starry sky) on the streets of San Francisco, often people with disabilities, mental health problems, or addictions.
I won’t exaggerate at all saying that many people in the BA care much more for their dogs, than for fellow humans that get dehumanized.
Climate…? And other misc
This one will be a fun and weird one, as many (even Americans!) assume that California is perfect weather.
It’s definitely not the case in San Francisco and generally closer to the coast – damp, cold, windy most of the year. My mom visiting me in the summer with her friend brought mainly shorts and dresses and shirts. They had to spend the first day shopping for a jacket, hoodie, and long trousers.
Ok, San Francisco is an extreme outlier – going more in-land, it is definitely warm and sunny, which comes at a price.
All the last few years the whole summer you get extreme heat waves, wildfires, bad air quality, and power blackouts. Last year it was particularly bad… Climate change has already come and we get to pay the price – desert areas that we made inhabitable will soon stop being inhabitable anymore. Feels truly depressing (and that humanity cannot get its s..t together).
Ok, so you have to spend a few weeks inside with AC on and good air filters, but it’s just a small part of the year?
Here again comes the personal preference – I got tired by almost zero rain, no weather, or seasons. I’m not a big fan of cold or long winters, but I missed autumn, rainy days, excitement of spring, hot summer nights (not many people realize that on the West Coast even in the summer it very rarely gets warmer than 15C at night – desert climate)! You get long summer, and autumn-like “winter” with some nice foliage colors around late November / mid December, and you used to get a few rainy days December – February – but not really anymore.
Climate is getting worse, droughts and wildfires are making California worse and worse place to live, but there’s another thing that is on the back of your mind – earthquakes. You feel some minor ones once a month (sometimes once a week), but that’s not a problem at all (I sleep well, so even pretty heavy ones with the furniture shaking wouldn’t wake me up). But once every few decades, there is an earthquake that destroys whole cities and with huge casualties. 😦 I’d hope it never happens (especially having some friends who live there), but it will – and living above faults is like living on a ticking timebomb…
From other misc and random things, California is (too) far away from Europe. This is the most personal of all of the above reasons, buy the family gets older and I don’t get to be part of their lives, and I miss some of my friends. It’s a long and expensive trip, involving a connection (though there might be a direct one soon), so any trip needs to be planned and quite long, using plenty of “precious” vacation days.
Some other gripe that might be surprising for non-Americans – lots of technology and infrastructure is pretty bad quality in the Silicon Valley as well! Unless you are lucky to have fiber available, internet connections are way slower than in Europe (and way more expensive), financial infrastructure old school (though this is a problem of the whole US). When I heard of Apple Pay or Venmo, I was surprised – what’s the big deal? We had paypass contactless payments and instant zero-fee wire transfers (instead of Venmoing a friend, just wire them, they’ll get it right away) in Poland since the early 2000s!
Let me finish this with a more “random”and potentially polarizing (because politics) point.
I am a (democratic) socialist, left wing, atheist etc. and I thought California would at least partially fit my vision of politics and my political preferences. But I quickly learned that Democrats, especially Californian are simply arrogant plutocratic political elites and work towards the interests of local lobbies. (On the major political axis defining the world post 2016 – elitist vs populist – many are as elitist as it gets).
It was very clear during the pandemic with way stricter restrictions than rest of the country, Local and state officials threatening people with cutting off their electricity and water for having a house party – while at the same time, same people who imposed those lockdowns were ignoring them, like California governor having a large party with lobbyists at a 3 Michelin star restaurant, mayor of SF also dining out while telling citizens to stay home, or the speaker Nancy Pelosi sneaking to a hairdresser despite all services closures. Different laws and rules for us, the uneducated masses, different rules for our great leaders.
And there is no room for real democracy or public discourse – as it will be shut down with “trust the science and experts!” (whatever that means; science is a method of investigating the world and building a better understanding of it, and has nothing to do with conducting politics or policies).
Things I will miss
I warned you that I’m a pessimistic Eastern European. But I don’t want to end on such a negative note. Very often, life was also great there, I didn’t “suffer”. 🙂
Here are some things I will definitely miss about California, and even the Bay Area.
I actually already miss some and am nostalgic about it – after all, it was 4 amazing years of my life.
It was cool to work in THE Silicon Valley. You feel the history of technology all around you, see all the landmarks, and random buildings turn out to be of historical significance.
For example Googleplex is the collection of old Silicon Graphics buildings – how cool and inspiring is that for someone in graphics? Simple bike ride around would be seeing all the old and new offices of companies whose products I used since I was a kid. It feels like being immersed in the technology (and all the great things about it that I dreamt of with the 90s technooptimism).
Yeah, when I was a kid and I was reading about the mythical Silicon Valley (that I imagined as some secret labs and factories in the middle of a desert 😀 funny, but might actually become true in a few decades…) and all of the famous people who created computers and modern electronics, I never imagined I’d be given an opportunity to work there, or sometimes even with those people in person (!).
I still find it dream-like and kind of unbelievable – and I do appreciate this once in a lifetime, humbling experience. Being surrounded by it and all the companies plus their history was inspiring in many ways as well.
I’d often think about the future and in some ways I felt like I’m part of it / being a tiny cogwheel contributing to it in some (negligible) way. This felt – and still feels – surreal and amazing.
Let me be clear – by moving out, I have severely limited my career growth opportunities.
And it’s not just about the tech giants, but also all the smaller opportunities, start ups, or even working with some of the academics.
This is a fact – and the only other almost comparable hub would be the Seattle area.
In NYC (or worse, in Europe if I ever wanted to go back…), tech presence is limited and most likely I will have to work remotely for a foreseeable future. Most people will return to offices, and many of the career growth options (I don’t mean just ladder climbing that I just criticized; but also exposure to projects, opportunities for collaboration, being in person and in the same office with all those amazing people) will be available only at headquarters.
But life is not only a career – yes, I’ll have it a little bit more difficult, but I’ll manage and be just fine 🙂 – and life is so much more beyond that. You cannot “outwork” or buy happiness.
Life is not about narrowly understood “success” (that can be understood only by niche groups of experts) or competition, but fulfilment and happiness (or pursuit of it…).
While I am not a suburban person, there are things I will miss.
Lots of green and foliage. Nice smells of flowers and freshly mowed grass – and omg those. bushes of jasmine and their captivating smell! Able to ride a bike around smaller neighborhoods without worrying too much about the traffic. But most importantly – outdoor swimming pools in community/apartment complexes, and ubiquitous barbecues!
I love lap swimming and have been doing it almost every single day for the past few years and I will miss it (hey, I already miss it).
Similarly, a regular weekend evening grilling on your large terrace when it just starts to cool down after a hot day with a cold drink in your hand was quite amazing.
I love cycling and some of the casual strolls were nice. I guess I’d miss it already (cycling in NYC is fun, but a different experience – a slalom between badly parked cars and unsafe traffic) if not for a bit of pandemic cycling burnout (every morning I was cycling around, but due to limited choice there were ~3-4 routes that I went through each dozens+ of times).
Finally, our neighborhood was full of cats. I love cats (who doesn’t…), but we cannot have one, and stil we got some pandemic stress relief in petting some of our purring neighbors.
Californian easy going
Finally – Californian optimistic and positive, easy going spirit is super nice and contagious.
Despite me complaining about having a hard time making friends and criticizing the tech culture, I truly liked most of the people I met there.
If you don’t make any troubles (and have money…), life is very easy, comfortable, everyone is smiling, you exchange pleasant small talks, nothing is bothering you.
Some stranger grinning “hi how are you???” (that seems more extreme than in the other parts of the US) might be superficial, but it can make your day.
There are no conclusions! This was just my take and I went very personal – the most I ever did on this blog. I know some people share of my opinions; some problems of the Silicon Valley are very real, but don’t read too much into my opinions on it. And it was such an important and great part of my life and my career, and I know I’ll miss many things about it. That said, if you get an offer to relocate to the Bay Area – I’d recommend thinking about all those aspects of living that are outside of work and if they’d fit your preferences or not.
Is New York City going to better serve my needs? I certainly hope so, it seems so far (a completely different world!) and I’m optimistic looking into the future, but only time will tell.