How to survive your first year living in NYC
At the time of writing I’m approaching the end of my first year living in New York City, more specifically in the East Village of Manhattan, one of the most boisterous and lively parts of one of the most energetic cities in the world.
NYC isn’t for the faint of heart. My own journey has had its fair share of bumps in the road, and getting settled here definitely takes a while.
I’ve written this brief guide with the intention of helping others who are making or contemplating the move.
Disclaimer: this is just my perspective, and like all opinions it’s subject to change.
I’ve become more interested in goal-setting and being accountable since I moved here – especially as I’ve been working solo for much of the past year.
When it comes to executing on a plan, one can look to the technology world for two differing opinions.
On one hand Peter Thiel suggests you can achieve a 10 year plan in the next 6 months, and on the other Bill Gates says “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
For better or worse, I found the latter to be true – both this year and looking back at what’s happened further in the past.
Moving to NYC you will probably massively overestimate what you can achieve.
The dense networks here mean you can move quickly, but on the flip side that density can work against you – everyone is just busy, and way finding takes a while.
It’s like a spider’s web – you can weave it and utilise it, but you can also get stuck.
When you’re making a plan for your first 6 or 12 months, take a moment to consider if you’re overestimating what you’ll be able to get done.
And when making a plan before you arrive, just know it’ll almost certainly completely change.
People really are helpful
You know what they say about New Yorkers being in a rush all the time, where they speak with such bluntness you’ll blush?
Not strictly true. Sure, things move fast and drivers impatiently blast their horns, but people in New York tend to be welcoming, positive and helpful.
I can’t say exactly why, but I suppose it’s connected to a general American trait of hope and positivity, excited about tomorrow rather than looking back on yesterday.
And to make that exciting tomorrow happen, you’ll find people will happily connect you with others and forge alliances (see ‘Networking’) below.
Strangely this sunny outlook becomes more obvious when Europeans and especially British people visit. They seem a bit…well, negative. And I know this isn’t (usually) their intention, just a critical eye and a dry sense of humour. But this attitude change is really noticeable when you’ve been here a little while.
I heard this one a lot before I arrived and didn’t give it enough attention.
You have to be really specific; on what you do, what you’re about, what you want, whether you want poppy seeds on your bagel. This can be enormously frustrating, especially if you’re a polymath or just a curious soul with an interest in many different things.
I railed it against it for a long time, then realised I was both doing myself a disservice, and that there was a skill I could hone.
As Steve Krug’s book says ‘Don’t make me think’.
Or to quote his namesake Jobs; ’Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’.
To get traction in NYC you need to be specific. One way of the best ways of doing that is to make things simple.
Know what you want.
Boil it down to its simplest elements.
Pick one core element to put out there.
Amplify and accentuate it.
Become renowned for it.
And yes, this may be simple. But it’s not easy.
Let’s do lunch
Finding a decent working lunch is pretty hard work. There are loads of restaurants of course, but if you want to find a place to eat for under $15 avoid lining up for half an hour (bizarrely, New Yorkers are far more tolerant of queuing than you’d think), you’ll need to do your research.
My recommended lunch spot: delis. Quality is variable and buyer beware, but find a good spot and you’re set. My local is Westside Market – as a grocery store its eye-wateringly expensive, but lunch from its salad bar is fresh, tasty, and under $8 for a big salad bowl and a bottle of water. Boom.
Pro Tip: If you’re on a budget do not meet people for lunch, only early (or late) coffee.
Let’s not do brunch
New Yorkers love brunch. They love to go out for brunch.
However, I believe brunch to be overrated.
As Anthony Bourdain explained, in many kitchens the A team works Friday and Saturday nights because that’s prime time. So it’s the B team, probably recycling the leftovers, who are serving up brunch. Chefs hate doing brunch service.
Thus brunch tends to not be particularly good. It’s also consistently overpriced, and breaks my own personal rule of not eating in a restaurant what I can make to a similar level myself at home.
One Sunday a few months ago we had a couple of friends over for brunch. On arrival at our apartment they assumed they were there to see our place for the first time before we headed to a local restaurant. The look on their faces as they saw me finishing up their plates of food for consumption on the premises was a wonderful mix of shock, confusion and almost disgust that a person of gainful employ in Manhattan would actually make food in their own kitchen. At a weekend. For other people.
The odd social brunch occasion is definitely a good way of integrating yourself into New York culture, but generally speaking let’s not do brunch.
Taxes and tips
This will feel like an affront to being with. For everything from cocktails to cabs, haircuts to doormen, you will be expected to tip (amounts vary – there are plenty of resources and handy graphics online to help navigate this peculiar sub-economy).
Add the 9% NYC sales tax on most goods and that $10 happy hour mimosa won’t feel like such a good deal (yes – in the real world $10 for low end fizzy wine and some orange juice is not a good deal in the first place).
However, this strange mix of feeling simultaneously frustrated, sympathetic, ripped off and confused will wear off.
3 months in you’ll grudgingly accept it whilst still inadvertently under/over-tipping. 6 months in you’ll not even notice the 30% you just paid above the listed retail price. (That doesn’t mean you can’t still hate the system though)
Get out of town
Living in Manhattan in particular you will likely feel a strong need to escape the city. This feeling will probably increase in intensity as either winter lags and/or summer hits peak.
Whilst US domestic flights are surprisingly expensive, on the upside there’s a wealth of interesting places to visit within a couple of hours by train or car.
You can try The Hamptons, Montauk, Catskills, Jersey or Fire Island; head over to Boston, Washington or Philladelphia; or keep it local with a trip to Coney Island, Rockaway, or Flushing.
Just make sure you get out at least once every 2 or 3 months. It’ll do you a world of good.
Networking, Frog Kissing, Finding Friends
This justifies its own blog post, but simply put, people in NYC love to network.
There are broadly two types of networking:
- the one that’s often called hustling (sometimes includes a ‘spray and pray’ of business cards)
- the one which is probably more well known as conversation. I personally prefer this one.
There are now a bunch of handy ‘business dating’ tools to help with this of course, as well as meetup sites and more analog methods.
In either case, because of the density and speed of the place, you’ll probably find yourself kissing a few frogs as part of your networking and way finding experience. The good news is that this is ok. Everyone else knows this too. This can create a somewhat transactional feel at times, but on the flip side no one’s going to get too upset if you ghost them a little.
After a while of going to broader work-related events I realised the most important thing (for me at least) was finding a tribe – a small group of like minds, the people where you feel aligned, at home.
There are tons of bigger events where you can make quick connections, and if that’s your preferred way of meeting people then go for it, but I found the slower method fitted better with my approach to work and life.
In my experience you’re most likely to find them through interests rather than work. Everyone here is seeking connection and community even if they may not admit it. Typical networking events don’t go deep enough, so shared interests that aren’t related to work (especially as everyone works a lot) are great ways to kindle relationships. Pottery, soccer, gardening, whatever.
This will take time. Your tribe will be small, and keeping in touch with people is not easy, but put some energy in and you’ll be just fine.
Pro Tip: You will become more flaky, as will those around you. Rather than playing calendar tennis weeks or even months ahead, call or text someone when you’re in their neighbourhood and see if they want to join you.
Get out of the bubble
You will end up in a bubble. Again this is more likely to happen if you live in Manhattan. You can escape by getting the hell out of dodge (see above), but also just doing something a little different to the norm.
I did a little bit of charity work and youth mentoring and it led me to see different parts of the city and meet people from walks of life I wasn’t usually exposed to.
With the rapid pace of life and the desire for the new, NYC can harden you quite quickly and make you take some things for granted.
Get out of the bubble.
Routine & Rhythm
There is plenty out there on productivity hacks so I’m not going to delve into that side of things.
What I’ll say on routine is that it helps a lot when things get tough (and they will). This could be when your job isn’t going so well, or no one is hiring you as a freelancer, or when the winter should have finished 2 months ago.
Keeping a decent routine staves off a lot of bad habits, and New York is an easy place to let bad habits grow, particularly with regard to diet, sleep and work/life balance.
Maybe more than routine it’s about rhythm – finding one that works for you, even if the drumbeat is a little off. Not having a rhythm can be quite unsettling, so even if your routine is all over the place, you can still find a rhythm to your days and weeks – whether a regular place you go, or just being aware of the times when you move fast and times you go slow.
You’ll soon find alignment with the tempo and rhythm of the city and all its idiosyncratic parts. Once you’re in tune with those rhythms, you’ll be set.
And that’s the lot – 10 suggestions to help you survive your first year in NYC.
You may be thinking this place sounds like hell.
Certainly not – it’s one of the most energetic, exciting and ambitious places around.
Sure, it has its fair share of downsides, but follow these steps and your best instincts and you’ll be in the groove before you know it.
If you’re new in town or planning on making the move, feel free to drop me a line to say hi and introduce yourself.