It’s better to be crappy than cool.

So if you are a young person wanting to work in a cool industry, you gotta live in a cool city. In the US, the cool cities are SF/NYC/Boston/LA. The crappy cities are more or less any major city in the Midwest like St. Louis.

I lived in Boston, i.e., Cambridge, for the last 12 years. I’ve also lived significant periods of time in Philadelphia, PA; Northern Virginia right next to Washington D.C., Fort Wayne, Indiana; Augusta, Georgia; Princeton, New Jersey; and Ann Arbor, Michigan. For about the last 6 years I wanted to live in the bay area-SF. I’ve been to the bay area about a dozen times and followed the tech scene closely and what people said about living there. Now I live in St. Louis. St. Louis is better than your cool city.

Comparing Boston and St. Louis is what I’m most capable to do. You might be surprised by this, but both cities have phenomenal universities. Boston, err Cambridge, has Harvard/MIT. St. Louis has WashU. Obviously the combo of Harvard/MIT can’t be beat in terms of academic weight. But having worked at Harvard/MIT for all of those 12 years, you don’t really feel that weight day-to-day. You work on your little niche. So working at WashU feels pretty much the exact same as working at Harvard/MIT. There are seminars, whiteboards, young people looking excited, coffee consumption, laptops, iphones. You know smart things.

Where WashU starts to exceed Harvard and MIT is physically. WashU has an advantage even Harvard/MIT can’t buy (see Allston), it has space. In fact, substantially more space, giving it a much bigger canvas to operate on.

The “college town” part of St. Louis around WashU is called University city (UCity), which is as Cambridge is to Boston. In UCity, there is a similar level of population diversity, more diversity of high quality restaurants, more recreational spaces, better maintained city infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, etc.) and more natural beauty than what you see in Cambridge. If you add it all up, it’s actually not even close. St. Louis wins.

Moving 10 minutes away from the university is the same in both cities. It’s lame. It’s chain stores. Not worth putting lipstick on either pig.

I’ve lived around five major universities. The people themselves are smart/cool/interesting/whatever-matters-to-you in the same way. It’s not a differentiator. Yet, if you want to talk kindness, St. Louis has much higher basal kindness. This matters. Their kindness will make you kinder. The human race FTW I’m not even joking.

Cost of living is well known to be dramatically better in the Midwest, so I won’t rub that in. And if you have a family or want to start one, don’t even.

Stop looking for a geographic cure. Check out a crappy city that has a good university. I guarantee it isn’t crappy and in most ways that matter, it will likely be better than whatever city you think you’d rather live in.