Monday Musings - Monday Musings (What's Up with Austin?)

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Hi friends,

Greetings from Austin!

The Texas capitol is the subject of today's newsletter because I just published a long-form essay about it. People are always surprised when I say that Austin is a mediocre city, but a great place to live. It took me a few months and almost 5,000 words to unwind that paradox.

You can read my full essay here or the abridged version (without the pretty photos!) later in today's Musings.

But first, here's what I want to share this week:

  1. Writing Under a Pseudonym: I've long encouraged my Write of Passage students to write under a pen name, especially if they're dealing with sensitive subjects. This piece by "Charlie Bleecker", written as part of the Write of Passage Accelerator program, is one of the best pieces I've read on the subject. In it, she shows how writing under a pseudonym has made her writing more raw and real. If you prefer something shorter, here’s her Twitter thread about it.
  2. Saving the Liberal Arts: The world is over-indexed on STEM education and Liberal Arts programs are a fraction of what they once were. It's time to change that. In this essay, I present a plan for improving Liberal Arts schools and helping people live a more contemplative life.
  3. Paul Graham's Career: A YouTube video about one of my heroes. He's an outstanding writer and the founder of Y-Combinator, the world's most influential startup studio. Anecdotally, I've heard more people credit Paul Graham for changing their lives than just about any other person.

What's Up with Austin?

Note: Once again, this is an abridged version of the much longer essay I just published on my site. I strongly recommend reading it there.

Austin is one of America's fastest-growing cities.

Since moving here, I've had a bunch of people say: "Tell me about Austin." After saying the same thing a million times, I collected my answer into an essay and today's edition of Monday Musings.

If you're looking for the TLDR, here's a quick summary: Austin is a mediocre city, but a great place to live.

Some things are worse than that though. Since you need a car to go everywhere, it’s riddled with traffic and a clamor of ambient noise. Also, the buildings look like they were built in a rush by contractors on a budget and architects without taste.

And yet, Austin is a delightful home. The people are down to earth. Instead of defaulting to “drinks at a bar” people meet up for active, outdoor activities like paddle boarding. Technologically, it has its finger on the pulse of the future, as much as any American city.

Moving to Austin is the geographical equivalent of saying: "I don't read the news anymore." The people moving here are tired of others telling them what to think, which is why Austinites are less likely to police your speech. That makes it a good spot for people with crazy ideas. Like the Texans around them, people here are skeptical of authority. That skepticism shows up in the underbelly of Austin's tech scene, where people are pursuing radical visions of the future. There's a passionate cadre of Bitcoiners in town and there are crypto ads everywhere.

Even the food scene is rebellious.

Many of America’s cutting-edge food companies are based in town. Never have I seen so many foods with an adaptogenic mushroom base (or heard so many people talk about psychedelic trips, cold plunges, MCT oils, or zero-gravity float tanks). Intuitively, it also seems like Austin is a food hub because Whole Foods is based in town. Aligned with its farm-to-table ethos, the restaurants here are uniquely up-front about their ingredients.

Austin’s experimental scene comes from the synthesis of youth, prosperity, psychedelics, technological dynamism, a free-thinking spirit, and a stubborn belief that the world can be radically improved. There's a growing scene of shamans, life coaches, and sound healers here too.

— —

Keep Austin Weird

There's a saying in town: "Keep Austin Weird," which expresses some of the frustration with how the city is changing.

Austin was once a humble university town with a kind of funk that felt more like Berkeley than stereotypical Texas. But now, it's commercializing. No place illustrates the evolution of Austin more than South Congress Avenue. The closer you get to downtown, the more you see the sterile and hyper-contemporary aesthetic that defines so much of modern urban architecture. These new buildings clash with Austin's native culture.

The "Keep Austin Weird" vibe is still alive though. One of my favorite things is the number of coffee shops and restaurants that operate out of food trucks and converted Airstreams. Many restaurants also have beautiful backyards with string lights and long wooden benches that create a communal feeling.

On the theme of “Keep Austin Weird,” Austin signage has a sense of humor. The trend was started by a Tex Mex spot called El Arroyo, and now a bunch of restaurants compete for the wittiest signage.

Austin's skyline is changing fast.

40 years ago, Austin was a tiny town with few high-rises. Now, new buildings are going up so fast that the skyline will look different by the time you finish reading this newsletter.

Austin will struggle to preserve its culture though. The people coming here aren’t moving to Austin as much as they’re moving away from other places. Thus, they’re trying to replicate the culture they wish they had in their former cities instead of embracing the one that’s already here.

— —

City Marketing

From a city marketing perspective, one of Austin’s major disadvantages is that it’s not very photogenic. It doesn’t have the California cool of Los Angeles, the views of San Francisco, the grandeur of New York, or the neon-lot buildings of Miami. Even the neon signs are chiller in Austin than they are in Miami. The ones in South Beach are extravagant. They color up the local buildings and have louder pastel colors. In Austin, the neon signs tend to use simple primary colors and are more functional.

Austin is an anti-scene.

The people aren’t pretentious and want to repel the ones who are. It's super casual too. In New York, I wore a suit once a month. In Austin, I never dress fancier than business casual. If there was ever a home of athleisure clothing, Austin would be it.

It’s cool to be ambitious in Austin but uncool to be too ambitious. The grindset is frowned upon. Some of the coffee shops don’t allow computers on Sundays and people will scoff at you for skipping social events to work. Steady and sustainable is the name of the game.

— —

Social Life

The combination of weather, water, density, green space, and constrained ambition makes Austin a highly recreational place. People take their hobbies seriously here. People here also like to paddle-board on the lake and the public pools are packed during the summer.

Socially, Austin is a place where you can make last-minute plans. Since the city is small and somewhat dense, your friends are never more than a 15-minute drive away. Easy access to big backyards and public parks means that people tend to hang out in groups.

Austin has a singular kind of charm. It's a uniquely communal city with great people and a bunch of greenspace. Living here has made me healthier and more focused. Since moving here, I’ve played a bunch of golf, gone on a few hunting trips, hosted a few Jeffersonian dinners, and taken up swing dancing lessons with my girlfriend. My spiritual life has expanded too. I do Bible study with a Hasidic rabbi every Thursday and another one with a Christian men’s group on Saturdays.

Though I’m not ready to say “Texas Forever” like Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights, Austin is my home for the long term.

Photo of the Week

Austin also has one of the best walkways in America.

These evening walks are one of the best things about living here. Though I took this photo a year ago, it already looks outdated because the skyline is changing so fast.

People either call the water "Town Lake" or "Lady Bird Lake" in honor of Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the former first lady of the United States. During his presidency, the two of them spent a bunch of time LBJ’s ranch in the Hill Country, an hour’s drive west of town.

Lady Bird went to the University of Texas in Austin and met the president in town. LBJ proposed on their first date at the Driskill Hotel, a classic spot in the heart of downtown. After LBJ died of a heart attack in 1973, Lady Bird took on a beautification project for Town Lake in the center of town. She led the initiative to clean up the lake, and create a walking and biking tail around it that I use basically every day.

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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