The Bustle and the Void

Just the other day, Durham moved up in the ranks of Forbes’ best cities for business. We jumped 17 spots, up to no. 14 this year from no. 31 in 2011 (look here and here). For those of us who have lived and worked here for some time, this news may come as no surprise. And here at PARAGRAPH, we’ve talked previously about why our fair city has become such a draw for creative, smart, forward-thinking minds. But there’s one problem with rankings of this sort: While they give our city well-deserved attention, they paint only part of the picture. Sure, these accolades cite all the on-paper, measurable reasons why you (yes, you!) should bring your life and livelihood to Durham. Lower costs of living and of doing business, higher rates of job growth, more educational resources--the stars are all aligned. But Forbes fails to capture what living and breathing and thinking and producing in a place like Durham actually means on the ground, how those shreds of context end up influencing not only the way we grow our business but also our ability to generate good ideas.

Some may wonder what North Carolina has that can compete with the always-humming atmosphere of big cities like New York. In that sort of setting, direct stimuli seem to be at your fingertips every minute of every hour of every day, and (on the face of it, anyway) there appears to be little need to worry about where your next idea will come from. It’s already out there, waiting to be encountered on an afternoon walk across the Williamsburg Bridge.

But what matters most isn’t the sheer volume of stuff going on around us or the collective effervescence that a cityscape can foster. What seems to really count is what you (yes, you!) are able to extract from a space. The bustle of urban life may promise unrelenting inspiration, but unless you’re already switched on, that raw content can go to waste. At the same time, the relative quiet of small-town life can feel absolutely stifling, but there’s a catalyst around every corner if you’re willing to keep your eyes open.

In short, there’s potential for doing good, creative work wherever you live. More than the latent potential of any one location, I'm convinced it’s a matter of how you choose to interact with your surroundings.

It took me up until three years ago, when I moved to Durham, to start believing that.  Even though muses can come in both beautiful and ugly packages, I always thought the latter worked best, and I figured the disarmingly twisted face of the big city was the only place to find things that would spur me to work. I had no doubt that momentous work and personalities did in fact emerge from perfectly pleasant settings where utter triumph and defeat seem to occur rarely if at all. But, so I thought, why put your neck on the line unless there’s something wrong with the status quo that you just can’t stomach? Said otherwise, I thought there had to be something at stake. There needed to be something in my face that left me with no choice but to do, create, act, change. Without a counterpoint, there could be no point.

That last sentiment is something I still agree with wholeheartedly. It’s just that I no longer think there’s one mecca out there where everyone who’s doing anything of importance should be.

I’d be surprised if I’m towing this line all by myself. In our attempts to live full-time in a place of urgency and creative wildfire, many of us keep so busy that we work ourselves into a state of distracted pseudo-productivity, so overstimulated and mentally fragmented that we aren’t able to cobble together anything worthy of an audience. Or, we try to carve out the down-time and white space that will help us bounce back fresh from the frantic nature of the lives we feel compelled to lead. As with anything else, there needs to be balance, but that’s easier said than done. For me personally, the pendulum will always swing back and forth between city and country. Between my three-year-old self running around shirtless in the expansive backyard of our semi-rural Florida home to the three years I spent tracing the streets of Boston, feeling intoxicated just from the buzz of the city around me. From one extreme to the other, I need to switch gears every now and then to stay sane and feel renewed.

But by some stroke of luck, Durham has also turned out to be a place where I can strike that balance without having to run haphazardly over the world. It’s not very often that I feel so anxious that I have to get away for a change of scenery. Here, I’m not crippled by a constant bombardment of tragedy. At the same time, this is not a picture-perfect place where no battles are won or lost, where nothing is at stake. This is a place where real people grapple with real issues, and those people inspire everyone who comes into contact with them.

Right now, at least, the slower-paced life I have in Durham lets me get into a rhythm of work that I can sustain.

Which locale works best for you?


Gwen McCarter, Strategist

The PARAGRAPH Project is a marketing research and strategy firm based in Durham, NC. We are, at times, a strange brew. But this is what works for us — and inevitably, it works for our clients. The types of people who work at PARAGRAPH are strategists, anthropologists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, negotiators, students and builders. Herein lies our value.We are able to look at problems from many different perspectives and apply this diverse point of view to solutions for our clients. After all, if we conduct the same research in the same ways as our competitors, what advantage do we gain? By using old research methodologies in new ways and inventing new methodologies unique to each client’s research objectives, we quickly explore more territory to find insights often overlooked. We believe creativity is the missing link between useful information and actionable inspiration.