Once you take a Bonsai tree out of its' box, it can't return to the same container -- says the old saying -- because the roots expand too quickly, making a new box needed for it to grow again. Fearful of stagnation and constraints, I have never shied away from pulling myself out of my environments. But when do you stop doing this?
The year of 2004 was spent thinking and talking a great deal about this, with the return-to-Vancouver scenario being one of several possibilities for post-Paris, whenever that is. Indeed, it's been almost 10 years since I left Vancouver for Singapore, ending up in San Francisco and then Paris; and over a decade for Toby, my co-adventurer in life, since he followed his dream of being a software engineer in the heart of the computer revolution at Next and then Apple. But can we return to this box we left? If it's a question of roots, have they embedded themselves too deeply elsewhere in places that can't be nourished in a context like Vancouver. Or do these roots need a place to return to so that some harvesting of our experiences can begin? And what is the importance of this place to our identity and values, both current and future?
I know these are central questions many global knowledge workers (for lack of a better term) like us are wrestling with, which I've written about before briefly in "What is Home?". Substitute Vancouver with any other city, village or place that was once your home, but is now a geography at the periphery of your professional and personal world, and we find a generic and timeless dynamic many people can relate to. Personally speaking, I know, like John Donne's two twin-compasses in his A Valediction Forbidding Morning, the strong roots I have in Vancouver -- a fourth generation Vancouverite -- have enabled me to explore the world relatively grounded, and without much existential uncertainty. I'm clearly lucky. Less so for Toby, who immigrated to Vancouver has a young boy from England, and has now spent more time outside of Canada than in it, even though paradoxically he feels more Canadian than anything else. He feels the angst of rootlessness more than I. But I won't speak for him here. Only that we both get sentimental when we hear Neil Diamond's beautiful song,"I am... I Said", especially the lyrics that go like this:
L.A.'s fine, the sun shines most the timeReplace LA with where you are, and New York for where you're from, and you realize you can easily be lost between two shores. Between two different versions of who you were in time and space, and between two different stories about what you need to live and be happy. If nothing was missing in our new place, we could easily let go and move on. That's hard to do when you're from Vancouver, when you've been raised with the gold standard for good living, when your soul is Pacific Northwest through and through. I'm sure a Buddhist could do it, but detachment can be over-rated. Besides, I don't want to let go; some passions are worth holding on to, cravings like the cleansing smells of cedar and salt water after long rain. Or when the horizon is a dimensional blur, like a water-colour painting, a thousand shades of grey. Or on that odd day when the sun is shining and everything is fresh and intensely crisp in focus, so much so that it feels unreal, like we've never been outside before. But the best thing about the scarcity of sunny days is the collective vibe of the city, jumping from zero to full speed as people rush to the seawalls or mow the lawn or do anything outdoor oriented as an offering of thanks and appreciation to the weather gods.
And the feeling is 'lay back'
Palm trees grow, and rents are low
But you know I keep thinkin' about
Making my way back
Well I'm New York City born and raised
But nowadays, I'm lost between two shores
L.A.'s fine, but it ain't home
New York's home, but it ain't mine no more
So sensing a life phase change, every time I go back, I try on for size the idea of coming back for good, or at least a long period of time, a relocation idea that our parents of course actively encourage. (Although this idea of living in just one place I find so limiting and lacking in imagination, so what we'll end up doing is most likely living in multiples, appropriately fitting for a post-modern world.) Sometimes the vision fits, and I'm full with the deep satisfaction that comes with coming full circle. In these visions, I could see myself walking along the Stanley Park seawall with family in tow. I could see myself disappearing for hours in Granville Island, looking for the Parisian treats I miss. I could see the house on Bowen Island where we'd have long, languorous summer dinner parties with friends, still in our bathing suits, still slightly salty and tingly from an afternoon swim. I could see the funky converted warehouse near The Cannery where my Innovation Centre would be located, where I could gather interesting talent -- thinkers and doers -- from the very best places to catalyze an spectrum of worldchanging activities that do well by doing good.
© Richard T. Nowitz/CORBI
But this is the extent of my forward visions, with the professional side (versus the pleasure side) being the weaker in focus. And if I'm honest with myself, the main drivers affecting my positive feelings for Vancouver come from two other sources: my sense of personal past, and the abundance of family living there, with all of the blessings and constraints this brings. When I think of these feelings, I recall what an amazing childhood I had which took advantage of everything BC had to offer: stunningly beautiful surroundings, good affordable education, good affordable healthcare, and a chance to do activities on a regular basis: sailing, skiing, hiking in virgin territory, camping, float-plane flying with my father -- in short, adventuring of all kinds that many Europeans can only dream of. Also, when the prospect comes of having your own family, the critical mass of kin around you is always alluring. I myself benefited from growing up within a larger, crazy extended family, where the bandwidth of learning was so much higher than a smaller nuclear family. But many people are recreating this, forging their own non-kin based tribes to fulfill a similar social function, so there is no reason why we can't do the same wherever we are, although as a disclaimer, we are by no means suggesting we can do this without our wonderful families (which we can't!).
More than not, I struggle with the idea of returning to Vancouver. And this gets harder with every passing year. We've known people who have returned, and the results have been mixed. Most people invariably become depressed, alienated, and feel the loneliness of a "repatriate"; that feeling that while you have changed profoundly your surrounding environment hasn't experienced the same kind of shift, or at least, not by your reckoning. Not only are your old friends doing more or less the same thing with the same people and often complaining about being in a rut, they seem little interested in your experiences abroad, either threatened by them because they reinforce just how pedestrian their lives really are, which may or may not be true (more likely just an insecurity, the exotic being an illusion and relative). Or worse, they genuinely couldn't give a hoot about these experience or simply can't relate to them, so locked into their own world it doesn't even occur to them to ask about what's going on beyond the limits of Vancouver or Canada.
More positively, other repatriates just reconcile themselves, often quite satisfactorily, to the fact that Vancouver is a lifestyle choice, rather than something that's good for the career. (Again perhaps a false tradeoff but with some truth to it.) Then lastly there are the neo-Buddhists (if not in name, in practice) or the Green Digerati (high tech professionals with social and eco values) who feel that Vancouver is their reward or escape after years of working so hard in the rat race, a small sanctuary of sanity where people can be "whole people" again or be hedonistic on the cheap. But the stance of many of these people is more passive, the goal is retreat versus being an an active participant in a community, which is why we have so many amazing artists and successful professionals in Vancouver but nonetheless consciously apathetic ones.
I struggle mostly because of the mindset. I get frustrated with the narrowness of vision in the collective zeitgeist of Vancouver and amongst the people I talk to. Admittedly, part of the problem is that I may be talking to the wrong people. In fact, when I'm taking the pulse for getting "back in", many of the people I consult are asking me out to "get out" because I have seemed to have done it so successfully. The message: stay out, don't come back, life is worse here, you have more options outside. I think this is in part a failure of perspective and imagination; and I get angry when they ignore the facts of how lucky they are compared to most places on this planet. But saying there are starving children in Sudan just bounces off people's consciousness; the negative play rarely works. And part of what they say is true. There has been a malaise, which is easy to get into when you're sunlight deprived and it rains four meters a year (which it does in my parents' backyard on the North Shore.)
Clearly, impoverished mindsets can be just as damaging as a lack of material assets. Perhaps it's the cumulative effects of ten years of decline -- decline from poor politics, decline from the Asia Financial Crisis after math, decline from the shifting fortunes of a resource-based economy -- and the disappointment that in the wake of Expo '86 Vancouver didn't become the world-class centre it was promising to be. Perhaps it's also something in the grey concrete urban landscape, a poor architectural colour choice for a rainy dark climate, which is something we could have learned from cities like Stockholm, which has happily hued buildings of red, green and yellow, so much more uplifting to the eye. Perhaps it's the type of people Vancouver attracts, or the potent BC bud that's abundantly smoked. All of this combined seems to create this lackluster, this lacking in the kind of verve that makes San Francisco and Shanghai and London tick, places where the future is being created in overdrive. While I don't want Vancouver to become these places (heaven's no!) I naturally want to bring some of this can-do ethos back with me because some of this is needed for any kind of reinvention. I naturally want to return to my home city some of the knowledge and insight I've gained by working aboard with the best companies, most interesting people and innovations, and leading concepts of the day.
But how? Whenever I come back with new ideas to share, possibilities of what we could do if I returned to Vancouver, possibilities that have all become realities elsewhere in places like San Francisco, SIngapore and London, they all get shot down or dismissed because "they wouldn't work here." Some of this critique may be true. Having an innovation centre that helps multinational corporations, for instance, probably won't fly in Vancouver because there simply isn't the density of companies located there. A regrettable fact and this could change in the fullness of time. But what about an innovation centre designed to stimulate local innovation, local industries? An incubator of sorts that in turn becomes a magnet for the best and the brightest, much like some of the think-tanks I've been involved with (say GBN Global Business Network or SRI Stanford Research Institute). What Alex Steffen says at Worldchanging, What Seattle is Missing, may also apply to Vancouver.
Then the obvious strikes me: I'm in the better futures business. I help people imagine new worlds, new options and possibilities, and how to make them happen. And I often do this in far more protracted and problematic places and cases, whether it be poverty-stricken Africa or with a company in an industry in terminal decline. BC, once a "have" province, can certainly have anything it wants provided it creates the conditions for creativity, and has leaders who can image new possibilities together with the discipline and courage to fulfill them. While I'm sure we have the former capabilities, I'm not sure about the latter.
Graveyard of Ambition
Within this musing context, I was delighted when a friend-of-a-friend, Paris Simons, forwarded this magazine, Vancouver Review, to me. I'm scanning for things like this to help me in my personal long term scenario research, so please keep these coming! Clicking through the webpage, I discovered this article by Paul Delany, "Graveyard of Ambition: Does Vancouver murder dreams?"
While he starts out in the same place I'm at right now, he ends up more positively. Here are a few passages I liked:
The city needs a more mature sense both of its own history, and of what remains to be built. Starting from respect for the city’s great endowment of ocean, mountain and forest, we should cherish the continuities between current developments and earlier phases of growth. Fortunately, Vancouver is still a city where there has been relatively little demolition (except in the West End), and where few buildings are out of scale or isolated from their context. Sometimes that context is an instant creation, as in the latest Concord Pacific development east of the Granville Street Bridge. Along with the towers there is new park space, plazas, shoreline walks, and connection with other kinds of city life nearby. The challenge, here and elsewhere, will be to make such developments helpful to less favoured parts of the city, and especially the desperate problems of the Downtown Eastside.
For the rest, laments about the “graveyard of ambition” need to distinguish between substantial hopes and mere opportunism. Ambition is not just a hunger for the new, or seizing money while it’s hot. It also depends on the existence of older buildings or institutions, of things that people hope to own or inherit. True possession of the future requires a deeper appreciation of the past, even in this young city (which is not so young in the sense that it has escaped the 20th-century devastations inflicted on cities in continental Europe). Vancouver needs more charitable endowments, more complex local skills, and respected traditions. Sometimes these complexities emerge from decline, as when Boeing’s troubles in the 1970s helped the rise of software and biotechnology in Seattle. Because diversification is by its nature unpredictable, it cannot be willed into existence by governments.
And I think this might be happening. I hear that many studies on the "future of BC" have been funded to this end (although my guess is that they will be designed to preclude fresh thinking.) But it's the doers I'm interested in. People like my old boss, Angus Reid, who I meet every so often to keep in touch. He is someone I could work with and will likely do so if I return, if the offer is still there. He is an exception -- we should have a list of these just to remind us that they exist -- of the entrepreneurial West Coast attitude that used to drive Vancouver, albeit less so than its' sister cities in North America. After selling his company to IPSOS, Angus is pouring his considerable energy and talent into projects that just might rehabilitate the idea that Vancouver and BC can become a world-class centre. One idea is to create an Aspen Institute-like event in Whistler, thereby attracting talent and hopefully the whole "creative cluster" of activities that happens around these institutions. (Vancouverites, please let me know of more of these developments and people. )
Delany also points to a timely comparative advantage that Vancouver should exploit:
We may lack ambition, yet there are still many people whose ambition is to come and live here. The shortage of power that I have described might even turn to the city’s advantage n a recent article in The Washington Monthly, Richard Florida [See Worldchanging review of his important book on the Creative Class] argues that US dynamism is threatened by fear of terrorism and the doctrine of preemptive wars:Vancouver and Toronto are set to take off: Both city-regions have a higher concentration of immigrants than New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. So too are Sydney and Melbourne. As creative centers, they would rank alongside Washington, D.C. and New York City. Many of these places also offer such further inducements as spectacular waterfronts, beautiful countryside, and great outdoor life. They’re safe. They’re rarely at war. These cities are becoming the global equivalents of Boston or San Francisco, transforming themselves from small, obscure places to creative hotbeds that draw talent from all over—including your city and mine.
Cities like Zurich or Stockholm have benefited by their traditions of neutrality and peace, inglorious as their prosperity may have been. British Columbia, which is bigger than France and Germany combined, has no army base and is probably the least militarized place in North America. In coming years, there will be more freedom to travel and emigrate to Vancouver than to a US that is becoming much more fearful of strangers. Perhaps that will be the limit of Vancouver’s ambition, to be clean, prosperous and safe. Should that be enough, in a time when darker passions seem to be in the saddle everywhere else? Or should we get off that lotus-root diet and start to move faster, look further, and build higher?
Perhaps it's time then to be proactive rather than reactive from afar, to co-create a better reality for Vancouver instead of patiently waiting for it to just happen, which means perhaps waiting until its too late? This is the conversation I'm having with myself, which presents some dilemmas and choices at hand. I'm sure I'm not the only expat doing this, as I have been connecting other Vancouver natives who want get back home to people within my local network, in everything from media to biotech. An Office of Reverse Brain Drain I'm sure has been established, or should be!
But for me, in many ways, a global sandbox is an easier place for me to play in than my own backyard where boundaries are more tightly subscribed and social networks more intimate and incestuous; where the emotional stakes are higher because you care so deeply for the place that's formed you and thus don't want to fail it in any way, or especially, in front of the people who are closest to you. Indeed, it would be hard to return to a place where all of those fledgling experiences and people from your past see the newness of what you're doing within an old paradigm of who you are, and often with outdated assumptions about where the world is going. That's what really scares me -- bumping into these perceptual speed bumps, not being able to get through these barriers of mindset that constrain possibilities -- and why returning to Vancouver with my visions in tact will take far more courage than moving to India or New York or anywhere else I may go in years to come. A dilemma indeed, but one I believe will be answered in the fullness of time and with the feedback of my network (which is you!) It's time like these that I wish people like Ivan Head, my old mentor who recently passed away, was here to guide me. He would have words of encouragement, wise council, and some connections to make. Another reason not to defer too much longer. The network can all of a sudden contract. I miss you Ivan.Posted by nicole at January 9, 2005 04:06 PM