One Year in Austin: Bad, Weird, Good
crazy that I've lived here for a year and I'm not even good at rock climbing
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Long time no post. I’ve written quite a bit since I last pressed publish for this newsletter. It has been a bit of a chaotic time the past few months, filled with some struggles and a lot of beautiful moments. C’est la vie!
I’ve been living in Austin for a year now. I can hardly believe it. There have been a lot of new experiences and adventures but it doesn’t feel real. Maybe writing this will help.
This past Monday I boarded a flight from Rochester. I packed my backpack with my laptop, pens, journals, my Kindle, and a few choice books. I checked my hiking bag and one large suitcase filled with clothes, my yoga mat, a blanket, and as many copies of Lead the Future as the bag weight-limit would allow.
I wrote in Freak Gasoline Fight in the Harbor of Optionality on July 18th, 2021. Fortunately, I haven’t needed to hawk those copies to pay my rent.
When I first arrived in Austin, my experience seemed to affirm these three ideas:
People underrate the value of cold outreach
The costs of showing up are generally known and fixed, the potential upsides are non-linear
Localities (and organizations) with high economic growth are conducive to positive-sum mindsets and long-term games
Maybe I was eager to believe all of these. Whether or not Austin was ‘the place to be,’ I had decided that it was the place for me. I was determined to capitalize on my decision to uproot myself. The next few months were full of cold outreach, showing up to almost every event and party I was invited to, and investing in relationships that I hope will last a lifetime. This perspective definitely didn’t hurt me as I worked to get comfortable in this new city and make the most of the opportunities in front of me.
Is Austin the hot new place to be? Do I wish that I had moved elsewhere? Maybe and no.
Let’s get into the bad, the good, and the weird (mixed).
None of these are particularly bad. I’m sure I could be more critical if I was that kind of person. I spend all my critical energy on myself…don’t get me started.
The weather is different than what I’m used to. You generally don’t have to worry about putting on your snow boots or bundling up before you go out. It’s much easier to see the sun every day than it is in Rochester.
But the heat definitely tires me out. When it’s 104 degrees out, my body tells me it’s time to take a nap under a big tree (or in my air conditioned room) or go swim in a body of water. I had excessive hopes that the additional sunlight alone would give me more energy. It certainly did in the winter but my vitamin d deficiency probably wasn’t as consequential as I believed. Our daily decisions are, outside of the extremes, much more consequential than the weather.
People say it’s humid here and they’re usually wrong. It’s humid in the north east in the summer. It’s humid in Houston. It’s not dry either. It’s dry in Phoenix. Austin is somewhere between those, more dry than humid. In a couple hours I’m going to go walk to the gym while it’s 101 degrees out and I’m going to enjoy it.
Austin has become a lot more expensive since I moved here. Most of the restaurants and bars that I like to go to have raised their prices at least once. My bill at the grocery store has definitely gone up quite a bit. I used to say that every time you order something out you will spend at least $10, now it seems closer to $15. I tried to do some basic analysis of my purchases the other day and I mostly found out that traveling and going to weddings is really what’s killing my budget. Austin is, presumably, a much more fun place to live if you’ve secured the bag.
From talking with my friends and looking at the data, I know that rising costs are not a local Austin phenomena. We’re all in this post-lockdown hangover together. There are a lot of different shocks and dynamics at play but now it’s pretty clear: if goods don’t get produced and shipped, while people’s wealth continues to grow, then those dollars will need to compete for those scarce goods. I’m just going to become worse for the economy (eat more rice, beans, and eggs) and hope our landlord doesn’t raise our rent too much in November.
The upsides of serendipity are lumpy. More of a comment on my experience than Austin itself. At times, it has felt like my life here is brimming with opportunity. Then whatever the new hot opportunity is doesn’t play out like you thought. There’s an interview or a productive conversation and then radio silence. Or quick, friendly rejection after the situation changes—like we whip from a hyper-speculative bull market fueled by what I like to call ‘funny money’ to the precipice of stagflation. A project starts off well and then fizzles out. This is kind of a good which convinces me that it’s bad on certain rejection-filled days. And a great segue to the WEIRD.
I mostly wanted to have a section called Weird because of the meme ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ I’m sure that phrase meant a lot more before it effectively failed to keep Austin weird. I’m mostly thinking about the density of FAANG jobs and the new corporate developments that could be built in any mid-size, wealthy city. The loss of weird is most easily seen by the remnants of weird Austin that have survived. ‘Famous’ dive bars that smell horrible on the inside but have a nice patio. Shops at the intersection of eastern religion and the occult.
Although weird is quite subjective. I could tell you about the density of various flavors of anarchist in Austin. Or about how when I was flying back to Austin from Asheville there were two people who were barefoot on the plane. I’m also friends with people who have been invited to some weird new age-y parties that are not my scene, nor newsletter appropriate. But I’m not going to. Instead I’ll just talk about neither good nor bad things which have surprised me, at least coming from Rochester.
A lot of friends come to visit. Why is this weird? I’m just not used to it. I’ve never thought about South by Southwest before. I had no idea that’s what SXSW meant when I would see it floating around twitter. But when you live in Austin, this means that a lot of your friends who work in technology will all come into town for a week or two and invite you to a bunch of well-catered-yet-mediocre parties. And then the friendship just won’t stop until it’s 100 degrees outside. From SXSW, up until a few weeks ago, it has seemed like a friend has visited Austin at least every two weeks. It’s great but I didn’t expect it and I haven’t adapted to this new social reality.
My new friends here are interesting and much more successful than me. I’ve befriended a bunch of people who have found a ton of success in their young careers. Writers, social theorists, designers, technologists, serial entrepreneurs (successful), founders, investors, musicians, policy wonks, and prolific content creators. This would likely be true regardless of the city that I had moved to. The weird part has been the on-going struggle with the resulting mimetic desire.
I’ve found myself valuing and wanting things that I don’t actually care about. Before the latest asset bubble began to deflate, I was spending a lot of time looking for an opportunity that would put me on a clear trajectory to become a multi-millionaire. In the abstract, this is neither good nor bad but it pushed me to look for certain kinds of job opportunities, say no to others, and want to attend events with people that I didn’t particularly enjoy talking to (referring to events out of my normal social scene). This is partially why I have spent less time writing online. I spread myself too thin focusing on a very narrow set of opportunities.
New friends come and new friends leave. Austin is a dynamic place! Not everyone has left because they’re seeking the greenest pasture. People get new, localized job opportunities. They fall madly in love with a girl who lives more than a plane flight away. I don’t blame them for leaving. It’s mostly weird how great of an influence they have had on me in a short amount of time. I just got here and I’ve already had friends leave me. At least with my upperclassmen friends in college we usually got two or more years together. It’s a change of pace to have friends fall into and out of proximity in less than a year.
The winter was easy. It was in the 50s and 60s for most of the winter. Sunny during the day. I loved it. I am looking forward to its sweet embrace. It was weird for it to be 5pm, dark outside, and warm, but I will accept the Austin winter in all of its glory.
New friendships and partnerships. I’ve danced around it this entire piece but yeah I like my friends here. I feel blessed that I was able to meet so many great people in a short time period. I’m grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given and the warm welcome that my friends in Austin have shown me. I try my best to return the favor and make some introductions where I can.
No shortage of fun stuff to do. I think if you complain that there’s not enough fun stuff to do then it’s your fault. You’re telling on yourself. In Rochester, I knew that there was plenty of activities that I could get involved with before I had any real right to complain. Yeah, if you’re big into surfing or want to live by a ski resort then you probably don’t want to move here. But most everything that you do in a bigger city, you can also find people doing it in Austin. People here are generally quite athletic and/or love to drink alcohol. If you don’t fit in either of those groups, there’s also a strong concentration of people who are down to talk about software, art, social theory, AI-risk, post-scarcity, etc. If you just want to climb and take your dog to the dog park, this city is full of climbers and dog dads.
Short, direct flights. Austin has a ton of direct flights. It’s not a huge airport but it has been fun to realize that I am only one flight away from many of my favorite people. If prices ever go down again, or when I rebuild my savings, I will be coming to your city.
The bus is good. I still don’t have a car. I recommend that you don’t sell your car before you move here, unless you really want to and you live on SoCo/in East Austin. The bus gets me most places that I want to go for $2.50/day. I’ve ridden it home on many late nights with no issues. With my bike, uber, and help from my friends I get mostly everywhere else. Sometimes events are a bit too far away so I don’t go and that’s not a big deal.
Austin is not a big town. If you hang out in a couple different scenes, you will run into people at events, restaurants, etc. I met a guy at a meetup and ran into him later that week on the street. One of the baristas from the coffee shop where I wrote many issues of Seeking Tribe was at my favorite brewery a couple months ago. One of the guys who attended one of my Nuclear Bitcoin meetups was at a bar that I went to when one of my friends was visiting. I could go on. I’m sure if I lived in a more lively, expensive part of this city that this would happen even more often. A larger city gives you anonymity, you’re no one, just another passerby. In Austin, it seems possible to have a niche without feeling wholly dispensable.
My brother and his family moved here! We’ve never lived in the same city as adults. I’m excited for them to get settled in.
Rock climbing. I’ve lived here for a year and I’m not even good.
This post is kind of long so I’m going to leave it at that! If you have any specific questions about Austin or you plan to visit, don’t hesitate to reach out. It’s definitely not for everyone and some people should leave…at least until Austin builds a lot more housing. Every time I see a new development downtown I think “this could be taller.”
P.S.: Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to start publishing again. It meant a lot for you to reach out :).
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Lovely thoughts! Thanks for writing this.
When I visited it was wild how much of a flashy city it felt like, the hotel lobby felt like a vegas hotel kinda, the elevators had lots of lights and touch screens and then at the bars it and all over actually it felt like people were really dressed up.