11 Lessons I Learned After 3 Years In New York City

1186 1116 Benjamin H.

Three years ago on this date, I left my hometown and flew to New York City with what now seems like very little. Of course, I didn’t have as much money as would have been ideal, and I didn’t know everything there was to know about this city, but I also didn’t even know what I wanted to do for work. When I look back and think about what I really had when I made this move, it really feels like close to nothing.

I had the support of my friends and family, and for the most part, they were really rooting for me to succeed. I had ambition, and a vision of the person I figured I wanted to be. And I had years of experience wanting more. I had years and years of sitting in my bedroom in the bay area just dreaming of myself as this iconic businessman who had it all.

When I was gearing up to move, I read countless articles about why everyone should move to a new city. I read all the stories, tips and tricks, and reflections on what it meant to make this transition. I remember sitting on a San Francisco train thinking about what I would one day write about the lessons I actually learned a few years later. It turns out that I really have learned a ton of lessons, I have grown a lot, and many of my expectations of myself are different– some even more ambitious than they were before. Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned in my 3 years in New York.

1. Strong relationships don’t fail because of distance.

I have always valued my friendships and my relationships with my family. When I was leaving for my new life, I remember thinking about how difficult it would be to maintain my relationship with these people. I was worried that they would forget about me, I would forget about them, or things would just naturally drift away because of the distance.

That’s not really how it works. My best friend moved to Chicago shortly after I moved to NYC, and we are stronger friends now than we were when we saw each other every day in high school and college. I have friends from school who I haven’t seen in 2-3 years, and I still feel like a part of their lives. This September, I was in the wedding of 2 close friends I made as a teenager. It was fantastic. 

I’ve learned that a relationship isn’t always about going shopping with someone and having a barbeque. While all of that is fun and preferable, friendships live in my heart, they live in my aspirations and my memories. I hold them very close to me, and distance hasn’t changed that. If a friendship fails, it would fail for reasons beyond distance. I haven’t lost a single friend with my move.

2. I have to be the most me I can be.

The times I’ve been the most successful have been the times I’ve been the most me. I’ve learned that if something isn’t a fit for me, I can’t try to squeeze into it. This is a lesson I’ve learned over and over, and it just gets better with age. When I make a joke and people laugh, it’s because that joke was real and authentic to me. When I do great work, it’s because I really do care about that work. I’ve learned that when you try to make something happen, it’s a lot harder if it’s not something that you actually care about. I’ll say it once, I’ll say it a thousand times. I have to be me.

3. Friendship is just showing up and rooting for someone.

I’ve learned that when it comes to friendship, all I really need is for someone to believe in me, and root for me. All I need is for them to want what is best for me, outside of their own interests. All that matters is that someone understands what I want and really thinks I can accomplish my goals. Bonus points go to anyone who wants to help. And through that, I’ve learned that this is all I need to do to prove to myself that I’m a good friend to others.

4. You can’t compare your life to others.

Not all of my friends want the life I’ve been building for myself. And I certainly am not looking to create the lives that they’ve built for themselves. Part of growing up is understanding that. I’m always having curious conversations about people who have taken a different direction than me, and I have realized that it simply is just not about that.

We all have different paths, and it’s supposed to be that way. We all have definitions of success. We all have things that make us happy. I’ve learned that not everyone is going to be impressed when I reach my ultimate success. There will be a day when I’m giving a talk somewhere speaking about the book I just released, stepping into a car afterward that will take me to my Manhattan Penthouse, and there will always be someone who thinks it’s sad that I’m still single with no kids and away from my hometown.

And when my friends who have chosen different paths than my own reach their ultimate success, I’ve learned that I don’t need to compare that to where I am on that ladder. I’m not on that ladder. I’m on a whole other ladder living a whole other life. All I need to do is be happy for them and excited that they’ve done what they’ve done.

5. You have to work really hard if you want something to happen for you.

I grew up feeling like I was special. Like I was destined for stardom, and all I needed to do was wait for that greatness to happen. The reality check that happened in the last few years is that I am exactly average. There is nothing about me that makes me a shoe-in for millionaire-hood. I am not a genius, and I don’t have more connections than any average joe looking to make it big.

I looked around and realized that the people who seem to have it made, don’t just have it made. They made that happen. And there was a shift within me where people were being promoted instead of me, and I had friends with better apartments than mine. I wasn’t naturally growing into the rich talented superstar that I always figured I would evolve into. Something clicked. I realized that the only way to make something happen is to make it happen.

6. Nobody cares about you as much as you do.

This is a classic, and a hard one to learn. You grow up with a family who wants you to succeed, teachers who force you to succeed, and as a younger person, I really was just a product of that. But a company doesn’t need to have my best interest in mind when I go to interview to work there. Someone doesn’t just have the idea to give me more responsibilities at work. I learned that in order to become what I want to become, I need to add value to everything I do. And when I want something, I have to talk about that and learn about what I myself need to do to make that happen. At 25, nobody is going to write me a note saying why I couldn’t do it. If I want something to happen, I have to do it myself. I am my own best resource and my own best friend.

7. You really can do anything you put your mind to.

In my time in NYC, in my time as an early professional, I have met some really cool people. I’ve gone to talks and heard millionaires talk about how they became millionaires, and I’ve met people who have done some of the things I want to do. And what I’ve learned is that the difference between me and someone who is a millionaire is simply that they did what it took to become a millionaire. Average people can do amazing things if they work hard. And I can be that one day. There really is no reason that someone else can be successful and I cannot. 

8. Negative people are a waste of time and focus.

I have always felt like a positive person who saw good intent, tried to be solution-oriented, and looked forward instead of back. When I came across people who are regular complainers and natural drama stirrers, I always felt like I did a good job of listening to them and helping them. I have realized that sometimes when people are complaining about things, they aren’t looking for a solution.

I’ve learned that there are just some people who thrive on drama and rely on negativity to function. I’m just not one of those people, and I’ve really never gained anything from anyone who dwells on gossipy negativity and doesn’t look for ways to make things better. So I’ve tuned them out and I’ve shifted my conversational effort to people who are productive about the way they think, and who can look to the lights at the ends of whichever tunnels we’re traveling. I can only move forward. I can no longer move back.

9. Age really is but a number.

I was 22 when I moved here, and I was 22 when I got my first role at ClassPass. I remember feeling like a prodigy because I was “so much younger” than the 25 and 27-year-olds I was surrounded by. In my 3 years here, so much has happened. It’s seriously unbelievable how much you can do in a year, in 2 years, in 3. Before I moved here and started my life, I thought about my life in 5 and 10-year increments. “Here’s what I think I’ll be doing at 30, here’s who I plan to be at 35.” Turns out that’s totally not how it works.

I have friends who are 28 who are wildly successful compared to their 25-year-old selves. They have taught me that I should be thinking in much shorter terms and that I don’t need to connect age with success. A friend and mentor of mine told me that I should stop thinking about what I’m doing at which age, and simply think about what I’m doing. Age is but a number.

10. Life and happiness are way less about money than I thought.

Growing up, all I could think about was my inevitable and eventual episode on MTV cribs, and what my dream home and dream life were going to look like. I figured I’d have a custom Range Rover and 2 Lamborghinis out front, and a home theater that would put the rest to shame. I dreamed of my majestic master bathroom. One with a shower and a whole other separate bathtub, my 10-year-old idea of the ultimate luxury.

I didn’t know how I was going to make that happen, I just thought it would just happen since I was so unique and special. 

When I moved to New York, I still had those dreams, but as years go on, I realize that it’s no longer my top priority. Now, don’t get me wrong– 20 years from now I’ll be bathing in Benjamins in my stand-alone tub, it just won’t be as important as I thought it would be. I am finding that what I actually care about is laughing– and feeling like I’m doing something cool with my time. I like helping people however I can, being involved in things, and turning ideas to in realities. 

Money makes all of those things easier, but I can’t deny the other forces with make me excited about my life. 

11. It really is all “about the climb.”

Teenage Miley Cyrus was right– It’s not about how fast you get there, and it’s really not about what’s waiting on the other side. I had a realization that my career is actually going to last into my 50s and even my 60s. Somewhere in my planning, I missed that. I used to think of 35 as my “success cutoff” age. As if to say 35 was the end-all-be-all of adulthood. Recently, I have seen a lot of people who are well past 35 years old finding new passions, trying new things, and doing really fun new work.

We celebrated my mom’s 50th birthday in California a few days before I graduated from college and moved here. At the party, she and her friends reminisced about days when they were younger in their careers. As I’m looking back, I’m realizing that those years were just the beginning for them. They have all broken off and done such cool stuff since the time they were 35. When my own mom was 35, she was a teacher who was still exploring and testing out cool new stuff, following passions that were risky and new to education systems.

She’s now in her 50s and she is doing the innovative work she’ll be in the books for, winning all kinds of awards and grants for new technology in her classroom, giving talks at big conferences for educators. In 2016, at age 52, she was honored a finalist for California Teacher of the Year. If she had thought of 35 as her own cutoff age, she wouldn’t have even scratched the surface. 

I was 22 when I moved here and I was young. I am 25 as I write this in my tiny New York bedroom and I’m still young. When I’m 35 and I’m doing whatever I’m doing then, I will still be incredibly young. Because what I have learned is that there really is no end game in life, there’s not one thing I’m really working toward. It’s just going to be all about me finding something cool and challenging and doing it just because I want to. Rinse and repeat. And I can’t really tell you exactly what I want to be doing at 35. Or 55. Or 75. All I know is how I want to feel about it. 

I want to be having a good time, around people who make me think and crack me up, and I want to be helping people somehow. And there’s not a specific job title I’m working toward, or salary I think I should have.

If I spend my time thinking about where I’ll be at these check-points and milestones, I’m going to miss what’s in between. It’s going to take a very long time before I’m 55 and winning awards for all of my brilliant work in whatever I end up doing. I’m at least starting to learn that life isn’t about titles and the end-games. I still have a ton of time to build my Ben Hawes empire, and I should enjoy it. 

It’s about the climb 🙂

Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think, and if there are lessons you’ve learned in your time as well. 

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Also published on Medium.