Is Your City Holding Back Your Career?

Fifteen years ago, there were glorious predictions about the “end of geography.” Email and video chats would render cities obsolete, and we’d all be telecommuting from tropical islands (or at least our comfortable suburban homes). That hasn’t happened, of course – and Jonah Lehrer, author of the new Imagine: How Creativity Works, argued in a recent interview that cities are more important than ever. “You still need to meet in person,” he says. “Something intangible happens when people come together in person and share the same zip code. I think we’ve learned the limits of electronic tools.”

Citing the work of theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, Lehrer notes that “as cities get bigger, everyone in that city gets more productive. They invent more patents, they invent more trademarks. No one knows exactly how to explain this, except people are like particles – if you bump into enough other particles, you get some sparks. This friction is a function of density – crowded sidewalks and random bumps –  and that’s where the good ideas come from.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone needs to move to New York or Beijing. Living in the midst of crowds can create new ideas, but even some suburban locations (notably Silicon Valley) can be innovation hubs. The secret, says Lehrer, is “horizontal interaction.” If knowledge remains siloed within companies or industries, it doesn’t matter how dense or vibrant your community is. You need a culture of trading ideas and war stories, and encouraging broad-based connections (programmers who are friends with salespeople and designers and investors and scientists, not just other programmers). Silicon Valley triumphed, says Lehrer, because its culture fostered interactions, from the informal (frequent drinks after work with people from various companies) to the formal (because of employees’ short tenure at startups – an average of only 2 ½ years – they frequently made new workplace connections).

So ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my city allow for random and interesting interactions (connecting at coffee shops or running into people on the sidewalk)?
  • Does my city have a cluster of people working in my industry?
  • Does my city have a culture of networking and information sharing?

If not, it might be time to move – your future success could depend on it.

How has your city shaped your professional prospects? What advice would you give others starting out?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.