Our lives are so heavily influenced by aspirational thinking. We make so many decisions, big and little, based not no how we actually act, but rather on how we think we ought to act.

As I begin this writing I’m in Austin, TX, a city which sits on two sides of aspiration. Some come to Austin on the up and up drawn purely by its appeal as a music and cultural center. Austin has a genuinely extraordinary live music scene. New York City, the mother of all American cities, may match it on a given night across its vast boroughs, but the geographic concentration puts Austin in a class of its own. Austin has much to admire, and many aspire to it. But not everyone today is moving to Austin strictly as an upgrade.

For some, Austin is a compromise. Despite a rising cost of living and its own affordability issues, Austin is a decidedly and dramatically more affordable place to live than San Francisco and New York, two of the key sources if its recent migrant influx. While San Francisco and New York are themselves dramatically different cities, they attract remarkably similar people in that folks who are aiming to be the best and have the best; the ultimate aspirers. San Francisco and New York are desirable places that people aspire to live in. But, why?

In New York, there’s so much to do. You have all of the culture. You can go the theater on Broadway and visit world class museums. You can do yoga in Central Park. You can go to a different restaurant every week for the rest of your life. The young may aspire to go out three times a week; between the east village, lower east side, and meatpacking you’ve got plenty of choices without even venturing to Brooklyn where I’m told all the real fun happens.

San Francisco is not quite as metropolitan but you do have great food and nature. Considering the relative modest population compared to other major urban centers, San Francisco may have the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita. The nearby geography is quite extraordinary — few American cities are positioned in as idyllic a setting as the San Francisco Bay set by the rolling green hills of Marin. The scenery is eminently postcard-worthy. You can go for hikes every weekend and meditate at a tea house everyday. All this and more San Francisco, like New York, eminently aspiration-worthy.

People sacrifice a lot to live in these cities. They are principally expensive, but life remains hard even after the bills are paid. Some people take advantage of much of what these cities have to offer, but do most? The answer is clearly, no.

Most of the people I know who live in San Francisco spend their weekends watching Netflix like they would anywhere. Maybe they go to the gym or read a book. I’m sure everyone at some point went on a hike or meditated at a tea house. Many have probably even gone to Tahoe for a long weekend, once or twice. But shortly after the luster of a new places fades, most settle into the routine they’d have anywhere, whatever that may be. Admittedly some are more active than others. In a way, the people some find annoying who are constantly in the “scene” of their city are perhaps best utilizing their time, as that is at least an activity that can’t be replicated elsewhere. My own life is no better.

A few days ago I was in the beautiful mountain town of Roanoke, Virginia for a meeting. My assistant forgot to book my hotel so I had to make a snap judgment on HotelTonight. For an extra $20 I could stay at a marginally nicer hotel with free Wi-Fi. I obviously had no extracurricular plans for my evening in Roanoke so I figured the Wi-Fi would come in handy as I could crank through a bunch of work. Of course, I selected the nicer hotel figuring I’d get the best value with that. And, of course, I enjoyed the nicer room but failed to actually do any work; I didn’t once connect to that so-coveted free Wi-Fi. Clearly, my plan to work was only aspirational. The reality failed to live up to my aspirations, is so often the case.

Truth be told, I could have figured I’d be unlikely to get any work done that evening and opted for the cheaper hotel. Most people know they won’t take advantage of most of the benefits of a new city, or gym, or the cool perks of a hip new employer. Yet these factors influence our decisions anyway. It seems particularly egregious however when people select a city.

Many choose Austin for the opportunity to have music and culture while also a house and backyard, unattainable for all but the richest of rich in San Francisco and New York. But, how many people actually take advantage of that music and culture? Why not live in Dallas, which is even more affordable and accessible?

I think the answer rests in aspiration. Many see Austin, like a handful of other aspirational cities, a way to maintain an aspirational life while easing into reality. Real or otherwise, Austin is perceived a certain type of cultural center in a way that Dallas is not. In reality, I doubt many people are seeing live music in Austin any more than they would in Deep Ellum in Dallas. From what I’ve seen, Texas suburban lifestyle is pretty darn similar between Austin and Dallas. Of course, your friends can’t be replicated, so as long as the legend of Austin pervades and my friends keep moving there, it will probably have to be my Texas city of choice.

Aspirational Austin