How Seattle changed me

posted by Jeff | Friday, December 23, 2011, 12:14 PM | comments: 0

I think I've started this post a half-dozen times, even before I moved back to Cleveland. I've thought about the differences between Cleveland and Seattle countless times, in every way conceivable. I'd make lists in my head about how the two places are different, comparing and contrasting. When we got back, everything seemed different, but I couldn't figure out what changed. Then it hit me that Cleveland really didn't change... I did. At some point, I'll feel comfortable talking about what instigated the realization, but for the moment I'll focus on what the realization means for me and my perceptions.

Seattle changed me in ways that I never expected, and I'm not sure if it was for better or worse. Probably a little of both, but mostly for the better. Growing up and then staying close to the place you were born comes with a lot of risk that your perspective on things will be limited. I always thought I was pretty open minded, and in many ways I was, but my imagination never quite grasped what was possible in the world. Two years and 2,500 miles doesn't make you a world traveler by any means, but for me at least it sparked visions of what could be for me.

It starts with my view on culture. I'm not talking about nationalities or ethnicities (though Seattle definitely immerses you in fantastic diversity), but rather the very will on the part of culture to drive forward and advance humanity. Most of the people I met in Seattle are driven to do greater things in every aspect of their lives, whether it be for their career, their kids, charity work... anything. I'm not saying they're all successful all of the time, but there's a desire there that is uniformly high compared to what I've always known in Cleveland. Maybe that perception is colored by the fact that it's a tech-heavy city, but I don't feel it here.

In fact, by comparison, Ohio is a place where state government is dysfunctional in an epic way, voters actually passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and no one places any emphasis on trying to solve problems. Do you know how embarrassing it is to live a mile down the street from a church with a billboard that has the biblical equivalent of "God hates fags?" No wonder I couldn't sell my house. Who would want to live here? While I know some individuals who are full of positive energy, the dominant culture lacks it completely.

My view on money, and people who have more of it, also changed considerably. Picture me in my early 20's, working for a fairly well-to-do suburb. There are a select number of people who have a bit of money, or at least you perceive they do because they have bigger McMansions and expensive cars. And every last one of them thinks they're better than you, and most will let you know it. Many of them did. It's probably where my distaste for The Man started. I'm surprised since returning to see how many of these people are still around, acting the same way.

But combine the driven culture of Seattle with the fact that pretty much everyone around you makes six figures, and the rules change. Some people buy expensive cars, but some are content to drive a Hyundai. People give as much as ten grand a year to charity, some even more. Few think that they're better than you, because frankly there's some degree of parity in terms of career, success and money. A lot of the pretentious bullshit melts away. The well-to-do are just better people.

Naturally, the professional impact of Microsoft was huge for me. While my biggest post-departure complaints about the company rest largely in the domain of talent development and utilization (they're not very good at either), I appreciate that the company mostly sees the value in its people, from a compensation point of view. It pays fairly, gives a ton of time off and springs for excellent benefits. Sure, you could argue that they can afford it, but there are a great many companies large and small that can afford it and don't fairly compensate their people. The company generally treats people as adults as well, holding them accountable to results without dictating how and when they should work. Perhaps my industry is one of few to offer this luxury, but I've learned to flatly reject any employer that can't trust its people to get work done.

My first encounter back here was with a company that insisted you work 8:30 to 5:30, without exception, and you dare not lunch for more than 30 minutes. It was never part of the pitch to work for them either. It was the strangest thing I've ever seen. People were not empowered to solve problems or encouraged to think for themselves. Innovation was dissension, and not tolerated. It was awful, and as I learned in my job search, fairly common. If companies like that exist in Seattle, they have to be rare.

My view of money itself changed dramatically. First, I loathed people with money, because I thought they were all dicks. Then I paid off all of my non-mortgage debt, and busted my ass to start making up for the fact that I haven't saved much of anything. I know now that money doesn't make you a dick unless you choose that path. I know that wealth is less about how much money you make and have, and more about how low your expenses are.

And what do you do that's such a big deal? I don't think you have to cure cancer to be awesome, but working hard to give the appearance that you're awesome annoys me to no end. There appears to be a desire among "successful" people here to let you know how great they are by way of their success, even though their success serves little beyond ego. These are not people who impress me. The woman working her farmer's market stand every week in a Seattle suburb impresses me more, because she's kind to my kid and encouraging people to locally source their food. If all you can do is wear a shiny suit and look down at me from your car, you might be "successful," but you're a douche.

What I keep coming back to though, time and time again, is that people here seem constantly bound to constraints by choice. That's a little harder to quantify, but it's a blanket phenomenon that covers all of the things that I dislike about Cleveland and Ohio. Maybe it's not even that Cleveland is stuck, but Seattle culture largely casts aside constraints. People give you the feeling that anything is possible, at every scale from your family unit up to the global economy.

And of course, stuff is just nicer in Seattle. Yeah, there's a vanity aspect, I'll admit it. There are mountains, nice houses, awesome places to hang out and a lot less decay from failed industry. Energy is cheaper, there are no state or local income taxes, religion, race and ethnicity is diverse and the air is cleaner. If preferring all of that makes me a snob, so be it.

On the surface, it might sound like moving back was the wrong choice, but that's not the case at all. The changed me recognizes that the financial advantages (caused by the disadvantage of not being able to sell my house) are a huge win, and when an actual spring rolls around in a few months, and we can drive to theme parks and other destinations, there's no doubt that it will all feel right. There's also the plan that this is not a place we'll spend more than five years in. I think we're pool and palm tree people.

Do I feel like I'm better than some people? Well, yes, if they're homophobic car-they-can't-afford driving douchebags, yes, why wouldn't you? What's particularly strange is that a part of me wants to be my college activist self and try to change things, but I also don't want to be invested in a place I don't want to stay.

As you might expect, there's also an underlying force that drives a lot of my decision making, and that force is named Simon. It's augmented by assuming a weird 50's-style "breadwinner" position, where I am the provider for my family. Everything that I want to do requires me to think about how it affects Simon's future, and Diana's happiness. They mean the world to me, and while I'm careful not disappear behind their needs at the expense of my own, I have to look out for them.

I've seen how a better life and a better world are possible, and that's what I want for me and my little family. It's what I want for the world. My tolerance for people who get in the way of that is small. As much as I try to see the world as a gray area, experience is making me feel like people are either in the world to make it better, or get in the way. It's probably not a constructive way to view the world, but even with that awareness, it's hard to change.

I don't know if the changes in me make me a better person. In some ways they do, other ways, probably not. It's just another step in my desire to be self-aware. I've changed.


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