In the World is Flat, Thomas Friedman says that not so long ago if you were born outside of the US and you wanted a highly successful business or research career, your goal would be to get to the US as soon as possible. Nowadays, Friedman concludes, that’s no longer true. You can be highly successful wherever you’re at.
His example was India. Not that long ago an Indian who graduated from the top university would want to come to the US for the best jobs. Now they can do just as well (or better) staying in India. Much of this is due to the telecommunications boom which makes it trivial to communicate across large distances along with the rise of offshoring. In fact, I email or chat with co-workers in Pakistan almost daily.
The world is becoming a much smaller place. It’s relatively easy to hop on a plane and be anywhere in the world in less than 24 hrs. So that raises the question: In order to be successful, does it matter where you live anymore?
Many people say that if I only lived in this place or that place then I would be successful, but some of the most successful people have lived in the middle of nowhere and become the leader in their industry:
- Gates: When Bill Gates moved back home to Seattle to build Microsoft, it was a sleepy northwestern town. It was the rise of Microsoft that turned it into the thriving technology mecca that it is today.
- Buffet: To be successful in finance, the common wisdom is that you have to live in New York, yet Warren Buffet is the richest and best-known portfolio manager. He built his business far away from New York in the heartland of Omaha.
- Walton: You can’t get further out in the middle of nowhere than Bentonville, Arkansas, yet Sam Walton built his retailing empire from there.
So very successful people have built businesses out in the middle of nowhere, but what about the intangibles like the weather — don’t they contribute to your happiness and eventual success? I find myself falling into this trap sometimes. My thinking goes, if I lived somewhere like San Diego, I’d be happier due to the weather which would lead to more success in my life.
I lived out in San Diego for a year where it is always 70 degrees, sunny and rarely rains. In the Chicago area, we get weather like that about 2 weeks out of the year. Every other day is either too hot or too cold.
But the most recent research has dispelled the myth that your external environment makes you happier, as I learned while reading the Happiness Hypothesis:
People who live in cold climates expect people who live in California to be happier, but they are wrong. People believe that attractive people are happier than unattractive people, but they, too, are wrong
He goes onto to say that studies have repeatedly shown that demographic and environmental factors have very little influence on happiness. People are happy based on the people around them and their internal goals. Conveniently, these are also the things that make you successful in business. The most important factors are daily persistence toward a goal (achieving Everyday Excellence), and surrounding yourself with good people.
Now, an argument could be made that the best people when it comes to technology, for example, are in Silicon Valley. But remember it’s so easy to work together now from different locations. Many of my favorite web applications were built by teams scattered all over the world.
And not being in the same place as everyone else in your industry can be an advantage because it prevents group think. Buffet is able to be more independent in his stock choices because he’s not influenced by wall street.
There are some exceptions. As my relatives in Tanzania will tell you, it’s hard to become a huge business success in a third-world country with no access to markets, education or private property, but for most people your location should not restrict you.
I would concede that location is not irrelevant, it’s just not as big a factor as it used to be, and you shouldn’t let it be a barrier to your success. It doesn’t matter where you’re at as long as you’re the hardest worker.
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.