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The psychology of Silicon Valley wealth

In Silicon Valley, even multimillionaires don't feel rich. One "escapee" from the Bay Area reminds us that there are other options.

Millionaires who don't feel rich? While this proposition will sound absurd to many people, anyone who has lived in Silicon Valley will recognize the never-ending quest for more success and riches reported in The New York Times.

One survivor of the tech bubble burst describes it well: "Here, the top 1 percent chases the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and the top one-tenth of 1 percent chases the top one-one-hundredth of 1 percent," he said.

The Times piece explores the psychology of relative riches in great detail, but gives short shrift to an important option: moving away.

This omission is not totally surprising, since I have come to believe that New York is actually one of the most provincial cities in the world. New Yorkers can't easily wrap their minds around the idea of living "somewhere else." A hypothetical exodus from Silicon Valley is given a cursory mention with more than a sniff of disdain in the article, "...he could move his family to the middle of the country and live like a prince in a spacious McMansion in the nicest neighborhood in town."

I lived in the in the heart of Silicon Valley from 1990 to 2000, and we used to wonder what it would have been like to have a preview of the cost of living there. If a fortune teller had told me, "The good news is that one day you will live in a million-dollar house. The bad news is that it will be a 1950's era starter home," would I have believed her?

In fact, there is more to America than Manhattan, San Francisco, and a vague set of ignorable flyover states. I found that hard to believe myself at one point. When you live and work in a place as dynamic as Silicon Valley it can truly feel like the only place to be. But in 2000, when our family had an opportunity to make a move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I agreed to a six-month "temporary" move. I had never been to North Carolina before and didn't know what to expect. I was sure I'd feel like an outsider in the South. Luckily I was wrong. I found the Triangle area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) to be a vibrant creative class community, full of writers as well as academics and techies who had come from all over the country. My stereotypes of a moving to a so-called "red state" were even pleasantly blown away by our experience in Orange County, which votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Conservative Senator Jesse Helms hated Chapel Hill and famously said that he could build a fence around the town and call it the state zoo. His scorn was endorsement enough for me.

To be honest, the first lifestyle draw to make our move permanent was the real estate differential, which at the time was about 4 to 1. With a growing family, who wouldn't be tempted by the opportunity to buy twice the home for half the money? At the same time I immediately felt like this area was a good place to reinvent myself as a writer, and I found that I enjoyed the chance to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. In Silicon Valley I felt completely invisible to the larger community, especially during the year that I took off from my teaching job when our daughter was born. In North Carolina, if you show an interest in something, people will ask you to participate. Writing opportunities, public radio interests, environmental conservation--groups to whom we'd been an afterthought in Silicon Valley were actually interested in talking to us out here. There is real community involvement in this area, and since it's on a smaller scale it feels more personal. After living in this college town for six years, it feels like the "6 degrees of separation" between any two people has been cut down to about 1.5. I didn't feel that at Stanford.

If you are feeling trapped, I encourage you to think outside the congested, expensive box that Silicon Valley has become, and not just by moving far enough away to afford a bigger home while taking on a two-hour commute. If you look, you'll find that there really are signs of intelligent life all over the country.