I always thought leaving New York City would be good for me because when you live there, the push to get the best of everything is very strong. New Yorkers are maximizers, a term coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz for someone who is always thinking they can do better. These people are generally unhappy.
There’s a spectrum, for sure. But if maximizing were a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest in NYC everyone is in the 6-10 range. And the 6s think they’re really laid back. I wanted to be in the 1-5 range, where research shows that people lead much happier lives.
I knew I’d need to leave New York City to do that. In Madison, WI, I have to admit, I remained a maximizer. I got a lawyer from Chicago to sue the schools for their incredibly poor compliance with IDEA. I flew to LA for haircuts. I refused to stop flying American Airlines even though smaller, scrappy airlines had more flexible schedules out of Wisconsin.
But the truth is that you do become who you live with, and the maximizer is slowly being knocked out of me. Which has been my goal all along. Research shows that people are happier in rural towns than in cities, primarily because there is no way to be an maximizer. (I have argued before, many times, that people who live in cities don’t care about happiness, so it doesn’t matter that they are not happy.)
In the maximizer world, I live in the 1-5 range right now. Where I live I look like a crazy maximizer, because everyone here is a 1-5 and I’m a 5. When I visit my friends in New York City, I seem a little bit off.
The best way to see myself in relation to city people is to recall common conversations. Here are questions that city people ask me all the time:
1. Do you have real animals?
2. Do the pigs smell bad?
So asking about the pig smell would be like me saying to a New Yorker: “Does the noise bother you?” Of course it doesn’t—they live in NYC.
3. How are the schools?
4. Do you want to go out for dinner?
5. How many bedrooms?
I have found that the biggest cultural gap between rural life and city life has been the maximizer mindset. To a maximizer, a rural person looks stupid, or delusional. And to a rural person, the city person looks insecure and uptight. Both assessments are right, really. But I have found that it’s more interesting to try to understand both sides than criticize both sides.
It’s easy to criticize someone else for having no clue about diversity. It’s hard to really spend time understanding someone else’s situation in order to see the gaps between you and that person. Really understanding cultural diversity is really understanding the gaps. And in those gaps is where you gain a better understanding of yourself.
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