137: The Most Important Decision Facing Creatives Today: Interview with Richard Florida

Anyone who has has bought or sold a home knows the three rules of real estate: location, location, location. As it turns out, realtors can teach us creatives a valuable lesson.

137: The Most Important Decision Facing Creatives Today: Interview with Richard Florida

In the last 20 years we’ve gone from flip phones and no global Internet access to smartphones and wifi hotspots in our pockets. With the rate of technological innovation and the ability to work from anywhere doing anything, we can live wherever we want, right?

Not so, according to bestselling author, University of Toronto professor, and urban studies theorist, Richard Florida.

This week on The Portfolio Life, Richard and I talk about the power of place and why geography matters so much, especially to those in the creative class. Listen in as we discuss why you can live in fewer places than ever, and the lifecycle of migration to and from iconic metropolitan areas.

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To listen to the show, click the player below (If you’re reading this via email, please click here).

Show highlights

In this episode, Richard and I discuss:

  • How to know if you’re a member of the creative class
  • What people want from work beyond a paycheck
  • Why “cool” matters and what it really means to creatives
  • The role of city leaders in developing communities that attract creative talent
  • Why you can’t live and work from just anywhere with wifi
  • How to take socio-economical information and practically use it
  • Why cities with higher inequality have greater opportunity for creatives

Quotes and takeaways

  • “When a place gets boring even the rich people leave.” –Jane Jacobs
  • “Don’t sacrifice your passions for money, it’s always a mistake.” –Richard Florida
  • Choosing where you life is the most important decision because all your other choices flow from it.
  • The creative class has the opportunity, ability, and responsibility to do something about the bigger issues in society.
  • Not all places are created equal.

The creative class has the opportunity, ability & responsibility to do something about the bigger issues in society.

Jeff Goins

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Why do you live where you live? Given the option, where would you move to do the work you love? Share in the comments

Click here to download a free PDF of the complete interview transcript or scroll down to read it below.

Episode 137

RF: Realizing that the place you choose to live — whether you make a conscious choice or not, you’re making a choice — has a critical effect on your ability to do everything in your life.


[0:00:21.9] JG: Have you ever wondered what makes some people successful and other people not? This is a question that has bugged me for a long, long time. Because everybody has a different opinion about it. Some say it’s all about luck. Others say hard work, you just have to hustle through it, and yet my guest on this week’s episode of The Portfolio Life says it’s something entirely different. Place.

Professor Richard Florida is the author of The Rise of The Creative Class and a number of other books that have come after it that all deal with this idea of the geography of creativity and why certain talented individuals are attracted to certain places in the world and in a certain country over others. This explains all kinds of interesting thing about why certain economies emerge and why some people become so much better than their peers by hanging around with other people who are doing interesting work.

It’s a pretty interesting thing yet it’s something that I have suspected for a long time. He takes a fascinating scientific approach to it that I love hearing about. I hope that this episode encourages you and even challenges you that success is within your grasp if you’re willing to make a few important changes, which professor Florida talks about.

So, without further ado, here’s my chat with Richard Florida.


[0:01:35.8] JG: Well, professor Florida, thanks for taking the time to chat with me today?

[0:01:39.9] RF: Oh, it’s great to be with you Jeff.

[0:01:41.6] JG: I want to talk about something that I hope you’re not tired of talking about, which is this term the “creative class”.

[0:01:47.1] RF: No, I’m not tired of talking about it, I kind of like it.

[0:01:50.6] JG: Yeah, well I want to talk about what’s changed since you wrote The Rise of The Creative Class, but before we get to that, what is the creative class, just in a brief definition?

[0:02:00.9] RF: You know, before I wrote the original book in 2002, people talked about “knowledge workers” or “think workers”. Or economists, they had a term they called “human capital”, that’s what we were, we were human capital. The way they typically define that is whether you had a college degree or not. If you had a college degree, you were a human capital or a knowledge worker and if not, you were somebody else.

So I thought back into lots of things I had read by classical economist and I thought the way our society was shaping up, it wasn’t just our education who determined what we do and who we are, it’s the kind of jobs we do. So, I went back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they have data on over 800 actual occupations, actual jobs and I identified people that do work that requires their knowledge, their mental skill, their cognitive skill and their creativity.

Creativity in fact I think is what makes us all human. You see it every little bot and girl, it’s something we share. So that would include the typical knowledge worker, the business professional, the management worker, it would include the science and technology worker, the engineer or the scientist, the person who works in a high tech startup at Silicon Valley Company. But it also includes artist and musicians and people work in entertainment and media and writers and journalist and all that sort of thing.

Initially, I was kind of skeptical and I really was. So we did two things: one, we look at the share of people who do this kind of work across every city in the metropolitan area in the United States and we actually traced it back to 1,900. We couldn’t do that for every city in metro but we can do it for the country as a whole. When the statistics came back, I was shocked. More than a third of us in the United States were involved in this kind of work where as a century ago in the year 1,900, less than 5% of us did this kind of work.

But when I looked across cities and metros, there were some places where less than 15% of people did this kind of work and other places were nearly 50% of people did this work. So I was like, “Oh my god, this is much bigger than I think,” and just for folks listening in, my view was, if the blue collar worker and the man in the grey flannel suit and the organization man was the kind of typical worker of my father’s era, this creative class worker, this person who works with their mind and their creativity, this scientist, this business professional, this manager was really the kind of worker and class of our time.

[0:04:14.6] JG: So how do you know if you’re a member of the creative class? Is everybody now a member of the creative class?

[0:04:18.8] RF: Well, I write them a personal note in the mail and they pick it up and then they know they’re officially in. I don’t think people know. I think one of the reasons the book became so popular and a bestseller is because people said, “Oh yeah.” I didn’t expect that, I was writing a social science tone, with lots of statistics and data, but people picked up the book and said, you know, they told me this. That they never happened to me. I’ve written many other books.

“Oh, you’ve described me, that’s the way I am,” and I think the reason I did that is because I was just out in the field talking to people and kind of looking at them and talking with what their motivations and desire and passions were. So, I think increasingly though, people have come to see and one of the things I wrote in the book is that it’s not just what we do, we kind of share a similar set of values.

The creative class is more purpose driven, it’s more meaning driven. Money is important but it’s not the only thing. I looked at what people want in work; what they want in work is not just a big salary and stock options. Yeah, that was on the list, but that was more like your fifth or 10th. What they wanted was a great environment to work in, great peers, great coworkers to work with, to work on great challenging projects, to have flexibility to do their work. To be able to dress the way they want. So all of these things became really important to people in the work they do.

[0:05:30.7] JG: Yeah, you told the story that I thought was fascinating, you were on the campus of the university and you ran into a tech company I think, if I’m remembering correctly, and they were just sort of hanging out on the quad or something. And what you — I think this was actually in Pittsburg — and what you realized was all of this students, this graduates who were sought after for employees for this different companies that we’re trying to get them to come work for them, they were leaving Pittsburg, which one time and still today, in many ways has a lot of industry there. They were moving to places like Austin because it was cooler, not just because they’re getting paid better, better employment opportunities but because the environment of the city was more appealing to them in terms of their lifestyle. Am I remembering that story correctly?

[0:06:17.1] RF: Yeah, I’ve actually became friends with the guy who I profile, it was the guy with the earrings. He’s made quite a migration, he’s moved to a few places and actually back in Austin now to become one of the leading designers in the world. Yeah, I think what Pittsburg was really interesting for me because I moved there to be part of the economic revival of the city. I was hired to run a research center at the Carnegie University which is key to that revival to help work with the mayors, to work with city officials, the universities. Heck, my students took over many of the leading positions in economic development and technology transfer.

You know, what we were doing wasn’t working and I tell the story in that book, when I went off to do a sabbatical at Harvard, I learned that one of our big tech companies was moving to Boston. Not because Boston gave it financial incentives or bribes or tax incentives but because the people they needed to do the work. So I came back, and the story you described, I asked my students you know, “How many of you want to stay in Pittsburg?” and not a hand went up.

What I found is, even though I thought Pittsburg was a great city with great architecture, great neighborhoods, great industrial feel if you will, great universities, they wanted to go to places like Austin or New York or san Francisco, or Seattle, I could go on. There are self-evident places — Boston — that had this kind of more up to date outlook, that were more diverse, more open minded, more to do, more young people, more fun, more energy was the word they used, you know? I was puzzled over this, “What do they mean more energy?”

But as I dug into it, what they really were saying is “a place that’s open to my skill and ability”. It’s not just a fun place, it’s not just a place with coffee shops and latte bars. Not just a place with great music, it’s not just a place that values gay people and women and young people. It’s a place where I can make a difference, where I don’t have to be a middle aged white man that everything about this city says it’s open to talent and ability, not gender or race or ethnicity. So that’s what they were seeing and we were witnessing in this country a great migration and it’s still continuing.

With anything, it’s gotten more of this creative class people to a really, a couple of dozen, maybe 20 metropolitan areas, and again, what places like Pittsburg have bounced back, what places like Detroit or building themselves fine little creative clusters. We really still see this migration to these 20 or so places that have fully grown creative economy. That’s been my work, it’s trying to tell people, on the one hand, where you choose to live is really important — I wrote a book on this called, Who’s Your City? — where you choose to live is really the most important decision you’ll make.

And it’s how city leaders, business leaders, and mayors, you’ve got to get with this thing and it’s not just about building a convention center and a couple of stadiums and giving business tax rates. You’ve got to make yourself an exciting place and I call it “quality of place”, not quality of life. You’ve got to have a place people want to come to.

Click here to download a free PDF of the complete interview transcript or scroll down to continue reading it below.

[0:08:56.4] JG: Can you elaborate a little bit more on that? You talk a lot about the power of place in your book and in your work and why geography matters so much. In fact, you cited that study where you realized that not all places are creatively equal, where some places have more of these creative clusters than others. Why is place so important? Especially if I want to do creative work or I want to do something innovative in my career, why is moving to one city over another an important decision and how do I make that choice?

[0:09:25.3] RF: Well it’s so puzzling, you would think, with the internet and technology and cellphones, smart phones, you could live anywhere you want. In fact, you can live fewer places than ever — there’s a couple of reasons you know? One is because your professional network, your ability to get work, especially if you’re not working for a big company. If increasingly you’re working as a freelancer or shifting jobs because companies aren’t loyal to you anymore, the place you live is where your professional network is and where the people who do your work.

The second thing is, many of this industries themselves are concentrated, you want to be in movies, you pretty much have to go to LA. If you want to be in finance and investment, I guess you go work for Warren Buffett, right? But other than that, you’ve got to be in New York or London. If you want to do music, there are a few more places; you can go to LA or you can go to Nashville, you can go to New York, but there aren’t a lot of places. So in many of these fields, the opportunity set is pretty constrained.

Then I think, the other thing is, what I talk about in my book is, you want to find friends, there are a lot more people like you in a big city like New York or LA or Chicago or even San Francisco or Boston. If you want to get married, you’ve got to go with the boys and I heard that in my research, “Yeah I moved to XYZ and it was fine but I had no friends. My work was great, I worked for this interesting company,” and what happens if you get laid off? Where do you go to work? There’s no other jobs, you’ve got to move.

So I think for all those reasons that in my book I call it quality of place and of course that means having a great job market. I called it “a thick labor market”. Having a great market to meet other people, I called it “a thick mating market” and then having all the other things people like to do, places to go out, places to do things, places to meet your friends and I said this, not just a lot of bars. You know one of the things that really stuck me is when I asked young people, they said, “You know we can’t afford the recovery time.” They want things that are more interesting to do to wind down rather than just go get obliterated.

So I think all of those things make for an interesting city. One of the things that’s happened since I have written the book, which is really surprising to me is the amount of young skilled creative class people who have poured back into the inner city. I think yeah, I saw the glimmer of that trend, but you look at what is happening from cities from Los Angeles, to New York, to Chicago, to even Detroit and Miami, the number of young people moving into formerly dilapidated industrial zones and remaking them is quite shocking actually and lots of others have studied this.

I think what they’re finding is that young people want to be around vibrant exciting places where they don’t have to drive, where they can spend more time doing the things they love, where they can be around other people and have interesting things to do and that’s part of being a creative person. You can’t turn it off, you want creative stimuli around you. So I think all of those things mean that we’re not only working differently, we’re living differently as well.

[0:12:09.1] JG: I spoke to somebody who is talking about places that have historically been creative hotbeds, hotbeds of creativity like New York City, and that over time this person observed that these places become more and more expensive to live. New York is a great example, San Francisco, and then what happens is the places that were made interesting and I guess the creative by artists, those same places tend to push those people out because they’re expensive places to live. Have you seen anything like that with your research?

[0:12:38.2] RF: Well, we should talk about in about a year and I’d like to come back. It’s what my new book is a large part about. So I am working on a new book now which is just about done. It’s going to come out right about a year from this conversation. A couple of things; Jane Jacobs who was my mentor at the greatest Urbanist, late urbanist now, she’d be approaching 100 years of age if she was still alive. When I met her after I wrote — so she lived a little bit longer than when I wrote Rise of the Creative Class.

When I saw her last, she said something very interesting to me, “When a place gets boring even the rich people leave,” and what she meant by that is, the artists and creatives cultivate a neighborhood and then it becomes more status oriented and attracts professional people and then yuppies and then the super rich. Then it becomes boring and even they leave and it goes to recycle. I think we’re seeing that. I don’t think we’re seeing that in lots of places.

So I think we’re seeing it in Manhattan and obviously there’s been a lot of — Patty Smith has said it’s terrible and David Byrne from The Talking Head said it’s terrible and Moby said, “With that I moved to LA.” We are seeing parts in LA although what we’re seeing is a nest of migration of artists into downtown LA, which is very interesting and we’re seeing it in London and in tech, we’re certainly seeing it in San Francisco because San Francisco has now displaced the Silicon Valley as the number one center of venture capital, the downtown neighborhoods of San Francisco.

What’s happened of course is we have this competition for limited space. We have the art galleries and the artist and the tech companies and the rich people and the yuppies and they all want to live in the same very small number of neighborhoods. What’s generally been happening though, aside from a movement of artists from New York to LA, what we tend to be seeing is that people are spreading out in those areas. So they’re moving from Brooklyn and Brooklyn is becoming more expensive and they’re moving to Queens or they’re moving to Jersey City. Or some people are moving out to Hudson New York.

So I think in London the same thing but I do think it’s an issue and many people in my field say the big part of the problem is that we’ve not built enough urban housing. That we’ve been building suburban housing and we’re limiting the development, we have too many lands use resurrections that limit the development of urban housing and too many people don’t want more housing. So it pushes the prices up. But it is a very real issue and it’s an issue that is really reared his head in the past several years. That said, I think it is still having a limited effect. It hasn’t really caused New York or London to tumble down. They are still ranked as premier creative centers, but I think that’s now reaching a tipping point.

[0:14:59.9] JG: So what are — this is super interesting and I’m just wondering, what’s the practical implications of all of this? You write in The Rise of the Creative Class that it’s time for the creative class to grow up and take responsibility but first, we have to recognize who we are and you talk a lot about that in the book. And I often talk to people who want to do creative work, want to write books, or make music, or whatever and they’ll list these long lines of excuses or reasons why they can’t succeed because they don’t live in this place or they can’t just up and move their family across the country, or across the globe. And I’m just wondering, how do you respond to that? How do we take this very interesting sociological information and make practical use of it?

[0:15:42.6] RF: Well I would encourage people to buy my book, Who’s Your City, or just go my website at creativeclass.com and take our place finder decision tool that we have built for precisely this reason. We built a simple decision tool. Every one of my students do an assignment on it to think about where they’re going to live and not only move after graduation but make their career. But I think there’s a couple of things.

One, I think realizing that the place you choose to live — whether you make a conscious choice or not, you’re making a choice — has a critical effect on your ability to do everything in your life, to pursue your career, your work, your love life, to educate your children, all of that. So just be aware of it like the way you are choosing your career. We have tons of dating sites and advice on marriage and tons of advice on career. We don’t have any advice, and I argue, I think choosing the place you live is more important because all of those other choices flow from it. So that’s number one.

Number two, I think don’t sacrifice your passion for money. It’s always a mistake. I talk to students almost every month who say, “I got this great job in consulting or finance and I am miserable.” Clay Christiansen at Harvard teaches a whole course now on your life strategy because he found that so many of the super successful people from Harvard Business School go off and make a lot of money and they’re miserable. Their marriages blow up, their lives blow up, their wives or husbands or kids don’t love them because they’ve not thought about the breadth of what makes a meaningful life. So I think if you’re a creative person, you’re naturally inclined to find meaning and purpose in your life and that’s what you should do.

And then thirdly and I think this is the big wake up call for all of us. I said in that book, the creative class should wakeup, should stop just pursuing their own passion and renovating their own little town house or their lovely country farm home or loft, and thinking with their friends in their little neighborhood, they could make urban tribe, make a great life, that there are bigger issues in society. And I think now in the United States when we see the rise of, not necessarily Donald Trump, but we’ve seen the rise of what happens in a backlash of angry people being left behind and my research shows this, those of us in the creative clash are doing pretty well.

Even when we take housing to account, we have a lot of money left over to spend on other things. It may not seem that way, but compared to people who work in factories or people who work in these low end service jobs, they’re the ones getting pushed out of these expensive cities. They’re the ones falling into poverty and despair. They’re the ones seeing opportunity dry up for their kids. So it’s not surprising to me that they are finding these more fringe political movements to be part of and express their anger. That means we no longer have an America which is a whole society but an America which is two or three societies.

So in that sense, the good news Jeff is I think young people get this and I think young people that I teach and young people around the country are saying “It’s not just enough for me to do well. I’ve got to be committed to a society to do well. I’ve to make sure that my society is more inclusive.” So I think that’s why we’re heading and I hope this is just a blip this split divided society, and I certainly know mayors, not our national politicians but mayors, republican and democrat all over this country are working to build more inclusive societies with more opportunity for all.

And the last thing I will say on that note, if you want opportunity and if you want to go to a city that provides opportunity, believe it or not, the cities with the highest level of — this sounds paradoxical, but the cities with the highest level of inequality, the cities that even have the most divisions are often have the most mobility. The cities like New York or LA or San Francisco, may be expensive and they may come up as having high inequality, but even for lower income people, working people, they have more opportunity. Because a bigger and better labor markets. So I think for all of those reasons, it maybe time where it looks like, “Oh we have to grow up, and we should but I think I’m optimistic looking for the long run.”

[0:19:16.8] JG: Wow, so great. Thanks for your time Richard.

[0:19:18.9] RF: Hey thank you Jeff. It’s a pleasure being with you.


[0:19:28.0] JG: Well there you go, that was my conversation with Richard Florida. I hope it challenged you. It certainly challenged me to think a little bit differently about not just having how to make creative work to succeed but rather where and who I need to help that work grow and spread and at the same time, I didn’t feel like just because I’ve lived in a certain city that I was somehow doomed to fail. So hopefully you felt the same.

A big special thanks to Professor Richard Florida for taking some time to chat with us and thank you for listening. I hope this helps you take the next step in building your portfolio. Thanks and have a great day.

RF: Not just what we do, we share a similar set of values. The creative class is more purpose driven, it’s more meaning driven. Money is important, but it’s not the only thing.

Click here to download a free PDF of the complete interview transcript.