10 Life Lessons I Learned From 10 Years in New York

I’ve seen a lot in my 10 years in this city.

I’ve had good roommates and bad roommates and no roommates.

I’ve had good commutes and bad commutes and no commutes.

I’ve watched fireworks from rooftops, sipped cocktails in speakeasies and danced the night away in converted chapels.

I’ve fallen in love with people and places and moments in time.

There’s been laughter and tears, blood and sweat, successes and setbacks.

But despite all the highs and lows, the wins and the woes, I stayed through it all. I guess that’s what being a New Yorker is all about: I simply outlasted everything that came my way; I persevered and persisted and pushed through despite all the odds against me.

They say that living in New York for 10 years makes you a “real” New Yorker. Personally, I don’t agree. It really doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here, what matters is the conviction with which you want to stay here—your ability to wake up each morning and recommit to your dream, your diligence, your determination.

When people say, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” they aren’t just talking about your livelihood—they’re talking about your way of life. Because living in New York is a struggle no matter what your resources might be. New York challenges you not just financially or physically, but, most of all, mentally.

Being a “real” New Yorker isn’t a rite of passage, it’s a lifestyle. Being a “real” New Yorker has nothing to do with time and everything to do with heart. Being a “real” New Yorker asks more of you than just not moving somewhere else for a decade. Being a “real” New Yorker is an expansion of spirit, a commitment to love, an openness to opportunity, an excitement to evolve.

My fingerprints are all over this city. But the city’s imprint is all over me even more. Little by little, day by day, New York has shaped me into the man I am today. That man is so different from the boy who arrived on a bus 10 years ago.

I’m stronger but softer. I’m wiser not wilder. I’ve learned and grown and matured in ways I never anticipated I ever could or ever would.

But one thing’s for certain: I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

Below, I share 10 life lessons I learned from my first decade in this wondrous city. I hope they help you expand your horizons. I hope they help you keep a clear mind and an open heart. I hope they motivate you to stay focused on possibilities.

I know they have for me.

10 Life Lessons I Learned From 10 Years in New York

1. Look up.

New York is an awe-inspiring adult playground of architecture and art, rhapsody and romance, success and skyscrapers. But it’s also a tough place to live. I always tell people that New York is an active type of love—one you have to intentionally cultivate and choose to invest in. It takes grit, guts and gusto to make a life here. No amount of money or privilege or access fully takes away the assault on your senses, the unexpected plot twists, the reminder that you are but one of millions of selfish strangers trying to make a name.

And that self-centeredness is only compounded in today’s culture of smartphones and on-demand technology. Even in the world’s most dynamic, diverse and vibrant city, it’s easy to be heads down, eyes to the ground, nose in your phone.

But here, in the birthplace of skyscrapers, all you ever have to do to reconnect is to look up.

We didn’t build skyscrapers for people in planes; we built skyscrapers for people on the ground. They are symbols of strength. They are beacons of hope. They are triumphs of human ingenuity. We looked towards the sky, and, together, grabbed a piece of it.

All around us, there are constant reminders of the good in humanity, of the fruits of our collective labor, of our common history.

The hope and inspiration you seek is all around you. You just have to have the audacity to see it.

2. Just say hello.

As strange as this sounds, despite all the hustle and bustle, it’s easy to feel lonely in this city of millions of people. All those faces—all those strangers—pass by without so much as a nod or a polite smile. The noise of the city builds until it feels like it drowns you out. And then there’s little old you, just longing to be understood.

When I first moved to New York, I remember feeling a strange mix of conflicting emotions. On one hand, I felt like everyone was all up in my businesses. I had to completely redefine what “personal space” meant to me in this new place of jam-packed subway cars, slim sidewalks and constant traffic. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I felt unseen, unheard, unknown—like no one noticed me or I could dip in and out of society and not even a single soul would bat an eye.

Having just moved here from a college campus teeming with young adults who yearned for connection and conversation, it was an incredibly jarring experience to land in New York and feel like no one truly saw me.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that everyone else probably felt the same way.

But then something began to shift within me. Slowly, I realized that I could be the one to break the mold—I could be the one to just say, “Hello! How are you?”

I think Augusten Burroughs captures this sentiment well:

“I used to feel so alone in the city. All those gazillions of people and then me, on the outside. Because how do you meet a new person? I was very stunned by this for many years. And then I realized, you just say, ‘Hi.’ They may ignore you. Or you may marry them. And that possibility is worth that one word.”

All of your greatest relationships and memories start with hello. But you’ll never make them if you don’t muster the courage to say that one simple word.

So, just say it.

 

3. Take your opportunities like your trains—as they come.

Opportunities are like trains. Some are perfect and right on time. Others are late and make you wait. And others will feel like unrequited love slipping through your fingertips.

But no matter how long it takes or how painful the wait, there is always another train; another opportunity will always present itself.

Your time will come. All you have to do is offer up your talents, push yourself beyond your fears and let the Universe do the rest. And, while you never know how long things will take. Rest assured that everything happens as it should—and in due time. After all, you can never be late to your life; you can only be late to realize that you’re right where you’re meant to be.

Have faith.

 

4. Slow down.

Time is a form of currency—it’s money you could be earning, memories you could be making, chances you could be taking. But, ultimately, it’s more precious than all of those combined because you can never make more of it.

And you can never get it back.

In the City That Never Sleeps, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that you’re never doing enough—it’s easy to be a multitasker or go-getter or schedule juggler. But life isn’t about doing what’s easy; it’s about doing what’s right. You’ll get everything you dream of if you just remember to slow down.

The true joys in life are experienced outside of time, in moments where things are fast and slow all at once. These are the moments that matter. These are the moments where we create art. These are the moments where love blooms. These are the moments where time does not exist.

Life happens when you learn to stop scrambling for more time, more money, more objects and instead appreciate the hidden meaning within each moment.

Take a beat. You might be surprised by the results.

 

5. Know when to break the rules.

New York is full of gritty people. There are rebel-rousers and misfits. There are corporate sharks and rule breakers. There are avant-garde artists and trendsetters. The one thing they all share? They know the rules of the circles in which they run. And they know when to break them, too.

In order to push the envelope—to make meaningful progress in anything—you must know what the rules are so that you can break them when the time is right.

That’s how you stand out. That’s how you make an impression. That’s how you get ahead.

New York is for the bold.

6. People over places.

You can be in the grungiest of dive bars and have the most epic night, or you can be at the trendiest restaurant and have the worst meal of your life. In the end, the only thing that separates the two is the company you keep, the conversations you have and the laughs you share. So, don’t worry about going to the swankiest spots and spending endless amounts of money to have a good time. It’s nice if you can afford to do that every once in a while, but it’s most certainly not necessary.

People matter more than places—period. Never forget that.

 

7. Offer it up.

When I was younger, I used to think people were silly for giving up their seats to pregnant women, children or the elderly on the subway. Being a selfish twentysomething, I was fully in favor of the First Come, First Served approach.

Now I know that I was the silly one.

There’s always someone struggling more than you. Even the smallest act of kindness can make someone’s day—or even save his life. Your compassion will have ripple effects beyond your wildest imagination. If you don’t really need it, give it to someone who does.

What do you have to lose?

8. Embrace change.

Change is built into the city’s DNA.

You never know when you’ll hit traffic or hear, “It’s showtime!” on the subway. You never know when a friend will cancel plans or when you’ll wander into your new favorite boutique. You never know you’re about to have the best dinner or pastry or coffee of your life.

We’re not meant to know these things beforehand. And that’s okay.

What’s more important is how nimble you are—the agility with which you can embrace plot twists, bounce back from disappointments and roll with the punches, regardless of what you think of the situation. So, lean into the unknown. Stay open to possibilities. Realize that things will manifest differently than you expected.

This flexibility will only help you in the long run.

 

9. Your experience is just that—yours.

In this city of millions and this planet of billions, each person sees, feels, thinks and interprets things differently than you—even if you are both present for the same set of events. What you experienced one way, someone may have experienced in an entirely different way based on their past, their expectations and their individual schemas.

The content of your life means nothing without the context in which it occurs. Try to remember this before you judge someone else for seeing something differently than you.

Hold yourself and others in the light of empathy and you can never go wrong.

 

10. Laugh it off.

Did you lose your MetroCard? Laugh it off.

You can always buy another one.

Did you miss the bag check time at JFK? Laugh it off.

You can always hop on the next flight.

Did you go the wrong way on the subway and fall even more behind? Laugh it off.

We’ve all been there.

New York has a strange but helpful way of reminding you of what’s truly important: Nothing aside from the love you leave behind really matters in the end.

Might as well laugh about the rest along the way.

Want more wisdom in your life? Check these out:

16 Life Lessons I Wish I’d Learned Sooner

17 Cognitive Distortions—and 12 Ways to Defeat Them

12 Timeless Truths to Live By

14 Lessons in Love I Wish I’d Learned Sooner

6 Life Lessons my Mom’s Death Taught Me

Which of these life lessons stood out to you most? If you’ve ever lived in New York, what other lessons would you add? Tell me in the comments below—or Tweet me @crackliffe.