Choosing where to live
Choosing where to live is a continuous problem that we have, but we are often unaware that we decide about it every single day. We often prefer the comfort of the known and well-organized place over the uncertainty of seeking an alternative path to improve our quality of living. In a world where everyone is constantly moving, a decision that previously seemed a good one can quickly turn out into our disadvantage. The fact that we chose to become comfortable with a city, neighborhood and friends will be likely restricting our alternatives in the future. We may tend to go to the same places, participate in the same activities, talk to similar, like-minded people or even build ourselves a mental picture of how we are supposed to live and using it to judge every opportunity that comes on our way.
Where we choose to live can affect our mood, creativity, pace of living. It will determine our access to education and employment opportunities. It will determine who we can work with, what kind of ideas we work on, whether an idea can find financial backing, whether it can survive and scale. It will determine whether we have access to places where we can exercise in addition to work. It will determine the level of fine micro particles we breathe in every day, increasing our chances to get illnesses specific to our surroundings. The cultural norms prevalent at this place will shape our behavior. This means that the decision where to live should not be taken lightly, given that the obvious choices may turn out to be wrong.
A study has shown that the place where you live already determines how you live. This may seem surprising, considering that everyone of us can choose how to spend their time. It means that our cities determine our choices and the degree to which they can be made independently. It is not a coincidence then that so much research is directed towards improving our cities, making them “smarter”, improving their infrastructure and the institutions which leave their mark on them. The mayors of many cities realize that they are competing against each other to attract the best people and investments that will allow their cities to grow at a much faster rate.
An obvious question then is “If I had to choose, where would I live?”. There is no simple answer to that and anyone who claims that they have it must be seen with suspect. Recommending someone where to live is especially easy for someone who seeks a person to rent their room. But this doesn't say that living at this place would be a good choice for us in general. Each city has its own advantages and disadvantages, which we need to understand very well before choosing to pack and move. We will often lack this information upfront, but we can at least see online some of the things we could expect.
Here I won't try to give you advice, but merely share some of the things I would consider before choosing a place. Again, if we notice that the circumstances have changed, we should reevaluate our choices. An interesting article mentioned that the group of Germans who choose to leave their country, because they no longer liked the direction it was moving is steadily increasing. But someone who has never been to Germany tends to believe that life there is wonderful, maybe to the point of being careless. There are a lot of rumors circulating about some places, so it is a good idea to be able to distinguish them from reality. We also need to prepare as early as possible for the moments where adjustments in our lives will be needed, just to be able to even have this opportunity. Having a good life today shouldn't be seen as a given; it is something we need to constantly pursue and remember. If we want to choose where we live, we need to be and stay flexible.
One criteria by which we could choose where to live is by the opportunities we would have to apply what we are good at or where we could excel. This may sound unreasonable to you. It often seems better to quickly find any job that would pay the bills on time. This will certainly solve the immediate problem at the expense of not improving us or even adversely impacting our future. Because anywhere we go, we need to explain from where we are coming—not just in terms of place, but also in terms of experience and ideology. And if other people dislike our past, they won't be inclined to sustain yet another relationship. This way, our quick, past decisions become our future burden.
There must be some reason for which we exist, which we need to find. It is this reason that determines whether the job would be a good fit for us or not. The extent to which we could make an impact should then not be limited to the borders of our current company. The management may demand so and if we agree, we should carry the consequences. Our worldview will lead us to the place most suitable for realizing what we want, ensuring that we have such chance from the start.
Quality of living is always relative and people often like to associate it with a basket of goods you can afford with a net salary. It is this relativity that says that a country with much higher average salary may not be actually a better place to live. Especially when the prices tend to regulate with the amount of money in circulation. The more money people have, the more rapidly prices tend to increase, further diminishing purchasing power. The oil prices were a great example of this. Each time the economy grew even slightly, oil prices skyrocketed even above 125$/barrel. Each time the economy fell sharply, oil prices decreased only slightly. Why this was so, noone bothered to explain to the wider audience for far too long before the oil crash came.
Greed is almost unlimited and it is also a function of where we live, how we choose to dress and what we have. (Whether the last remains private stays at the mercy of your bank, while some large businesses may push it to understand how much to charge you.) This means that going to a place where the average salary is higher may actually make you poorer if you don't have or lose your job, because most service providers there will seek to extract much higher rates from you. This makes the cost of being less well-oriented at a new place especially high. And people who don't know better fall easy prey to various cheaters.
Keeping your costs down is especially important while moving. Having to pay a rent may quickly empty your pocket if you aren't careful. Rent is a major cost so you need to pay attention to the ability of your future job to pay it and ensure that in the today's uncertain environment you can work long enough. In some cities the ratio between job salary and rent price is lower than 3, so you should probably not move there unless you have a really good reason to do so. In any case, review this “opportunity” under a microscope and never blindly trust your employer who may seek to replace you a month from now or due to market conditions chooses to strike your job. This means that if you lost your job today, you would have less than 3 months to find a new one, no matter the circumstances(!), or you will be broke, having to pay much higher taxes for not meeting your obligations. Note that here I still haven't even mentioned the other costs of living. As a good rule of thumb, I would prefer jobs that provide a better cushion (higher rate) and minimize the downside of making a wrong move. Some people prefer to have rooms that are “invitation-friendly”, but I am not one of them. I still believe that you can't force yourself into something better unless you truly deserve it. Many people tend to think that they can “go” to their place, but a place can only be deserved, in which case it will find us. We should always be happy to just be no matter where we are. If we can't sustain our standard of living, we will lose it, but with the additional tax of losing our self-respect, dreams, ambitions and ideas of independence.
The ratio I mentioned above was also examined for some major US cities, which revealed surprising results. As far as I could see, their ratios varied between 2.5-2.7, which was partially explained by the strong inflow of people and the lack of affordable housing, which pushed the rents higher. And while many people still dream to move to USA, the reality still leaves something to be desired. But just because everyone is willing to risk too much to get there, doesn't mean that we should follow as well. There are plenty of other cities that are less popular, but still quite livable. Collecting as much data as possible and analyzing it allows us to make better choices.
Let's say that you read about a job offer in Vienna/Austria, where they need someone with your skills and they offer a starting salary of 2000 euro. Would you move there if you had the chance? There are plenty of things to consider again. How open is the market actually, are there special visa requirements? Are there limitations for how long you can work per year? What is the sentiment towards foreigners—are people friendly/helping or do they attack you when walking on the street? Are they asking you when you will leave? What if someone said you that Austria is one of the most expensive countries in Europe? What if you had to pay a rent of up to 800 euro/month because the demand for rooms is high? This would leave your ratio below 3, which doesn't seem like a great alternative. Now, if you had to pay just 400-500 euro/month, the situation would be different. Your ratio can get up to 5, which (roughly) means that instead of working 3 months to finance 9 months of living, you have to work 2 months to finance 10 months of living (if we ignore all other costs). It is clear which alternative most people would prefer.
What if a company in Great Britain announced a job in your field mentioning a salary of 30000 pounds? To a poor guy, this seems like a fortune, so he should immediately apply (and be one of the many), right? Well, first you need to understand how much that amount is relative to the other costs that await you. If in the process of researching you read that the British government is currently considering to support people earning 25000 pounds with up to 4000 euro additionally, then this should scare you. It means that the above salary is very close to the threshold where people consider you a case in need of social help. Who wants to feel like that? When you are young, you need to earn a lot through your work, because later in life you may not have this chance (often forgotten). Many companies seek to employ young workers when they are most capable, but to pay them “social” salaries. Avoid working for them, because you will be giving more than average in terms of effort while earning less than average. You don't deserve the fate to stay incapable of improving due to being a low earner. Work needs to improve your skills, but if you agree to be a low earner, you are preparing yourself for failure. Over time you will progressively become less employable, until you lose your job to a motivated person who is better than you, because they insist on being paid, which in turn motivates them to work harder than you. They will use the payments to fuel their ambitions, to move forward faster and get more diverse experiences. They will be also more positive in the company of others and more open to try new things. They won't allow unbilled hours, let alone a “maybe” at the end of the month. And yet, they will achieve this without being rude, by merely expecting a fair treatment.
Not everything is about the money, of course, and payment in itself already makes us feel used. Yet, we can consistently hear how it isn't that important, how it doesn't make us happier, how beyond a given threshold it doesn't add to what we are already. This sometimes serves as an excuse to reduce or eliminate it. Fortunately, it is in our own right to avoid the companies and places that have subscribed to growing such a mindset into a lobby.
Payment is consistently discussed as a last point during interviews, which makes it feel less important or even accidental. This is partly due to our desire to adhere to social norms and behavior that would be “appropriate” for the situation. But it is also true that figuring out whether to spend a lot of time in the company of people we don't know anything about is much more important than any potential short term gains. It is this desire to first seek to understand and then to be understood that naturally postpones discussions involving numbers. In fact, both parties may agree to interrupt the interview at any given time if they think that working together would be impossible, which is something that I couldn't prevent myself from doing on several occasions. One article full of advice to job seekers once mentioned that no matter what, they shouldn't discuss payment at the start of the interview. I was totally shocked and couldn't believe that an employer could stay with their name behind such a message. It never occurred to me that a job seeker may be acting like this, let alone that they needed to be instructed for this. My initial thought was: “Well, what if they asked?” Their asking may not be necessarily worse than your teaching and convincing. Both are equally disturbing me. I am not taking sides here, just saying that people should be themselves at the interview and always discuss the things they are concerned with early on before making a final commitment they might regret later. (Signing a contract without taking the time to review it is already a commitment.) If they have heard that an employer has trouble paying, they may be rightfully concerned about whether they will be paid for their work. But of course everything is situation-dependent. Eliminating someone based on a single word or phrase may be easy, yet emotional decision. Rather, the reason why this phrase appeared must be examined.
The main reason for working needs to be because we love doing it. The work is its own reward is valid only when we can be proud of the things we create. When our creations are forced, our initial ideas distorted and words misunderstood, all we can produce is just plenty of noise and there is rarely something to like about it. We need to be proud of our company in the same way we can be proud of our work. Silently proud within ourselves, not loudly demonstrating status in a group. An interesting question is whether our company follows our goals or whether we are following the goals of the company. A good company would be one that shapes itself based on the abilities and goals of its individuals. It allows itself to be open about the consensus around the common goal, while being firm at execution. It never interferes with the intrinsic goals of each individual, but attempts to support them, even when that may be hard. On the opposite pole is a company that tries to infinitely shape the skills, character, mindsets and goals of its individuals, attempting to change people into something they aren't. A company that isn't in any way interested what its employees can already provide. Despite the fact that the last is rarely realistic or successful, many companies still insist on their practices from the past. If we find ourselves in such a situation, where we see the need for change, but noone really supports it, thinks similarly or asks for opinion, it may be better to move on. It is unrealistic to believe that we can change an entire company when most people don't see the need for it.
It is best to choose a city that is already good at what we want to do. If we are web designers, it doesn't make sense to go and seek work in a city known for its car makers or beer producers. We can neither build a car, nor brew beer. We wouldn't design a website for a car maker if we suspect them of cheating or if dislike pollution in general. We also wouldn't design a website for a brewery if we don't drink. In both cases we would be able to personally feel the work, the get deeply in touch with it. Such cities would be a bad choice not because there won't be enough opportunities there, but because these opportunities won't be the best fit for us, which means that they wouldn't allow us to unfold our full potential or excite us enough to be able to finish truly meaningful projects. As paradoxically as it may sound, sometimes even big and well-known cities may not provide the opportunities we are looking for or if so, they may remain hidden from our horizon, possibly due to the plenty of choice and noise associated with it. Hoping to first go and then find an opportunity is seeking for trouble, which is probably why some governments have attempted to get foreign workers only through invitation in the past. Although I suspect now that this was meant as a protection for both the job seeker and the employer, initially it appeared to me as an attempt to divide or demonstrate power.
It is very important to be able to find people with a similar mindset, which would allow us to work together on interesting projects. The most interesting results are obtained in small, cohesive groups, where everyone pushes towards the common goal and doesn't pull back in their direction. A powerful team is quite hard to built, but it is invaluable for every company. Unfortunately, not every place will have the people we are looking to work with. While we may be open to collaboration, the collective result may still make it impossible. It is for this reason why assigning the right responsibilities to the right people is a very important task.
We should remember that the company isn't the client and that no matter where we choose to work, we are still serving clients with their own set of needs. Sometimes a greater joy in our work may be experienced by closely collaborating with a client, where we can see the results and the meaning of our work. Many companies still need better ways to communicate meaning and spread a sense of cause. In some cases people start to question how much their work really matters, which decreases their motivation.
We should have a firm preference for the type of problems we are willing to work on (“picking the right battles”). This preference should then naturally lead us to the right company and the place over time. On the one side we need to be generalists to be able to distinguish which projects are worth working on and on the other we need to be specialists to be able to implement our ideas. There is a constant conflict in trying to be both at the same time, which has led many companies to build teams consisting only of people which are either the one or the other. In my opinion this is less than optimal, because external communication and synchronization always take longer. This is also creatively inhibiting in many ways. For instance, a programmer that needs to read code their entire day can actually become quite bad at reading entire sentences, which in turn can reduce their “information bandwidth”. I have experienced this myself before in a period where I was intensely concentrated only on code for prolonged periods of time. Then I found that reading entire sentences suddenly became much harder for me. So at the end I decided that a more balanced spread of my time would be more beneficial to me. But I needed to let go of the idea of being always at the cutting edge of the latest technology. This has then allowed me to see some details I was not noticing before, which in turn helped me to understand and evaluate some technologies better. Unfortunately, in many companies spreading your time across multiple activities is seen with suspect and some people may start accusing you of not really working. And it can be hard to find a company that both satisfies your desire to learn, but at the same time doesn't find it a distraction. While writing code nonstop is always possible, I found that this dramatically restricts and channels my thinking. If I had to describe it as a shape, it would probably have a thin and long form. It is the thin dimension that bothers me. This is why I seek to input some science for ideas, math to be able to eventually understand or describe a complex formula in terms of code, a bit of dynamics to eventually improve my animations, a bit of visualization for inspiration and news to keep me informed about the current developments in the corporate world (which may render my current skills obsolete) and so on. To me everything feels like a soup of some ingredients and spices that I need to choose rather than throw a single potato in boiling water. While the second can be done fairly easily, it is not necessarily sense-stimulating in terms of experience. The first can be much harder to get right, but if done well, it can be much more delicious.
Thank you for reading my considerations of how I would choose where to live.