Austin is weird because yesterday I saw a bonafide cowboy in a beat up, old pickup truck talking to a startup geek about his Google self-driving car. I didn’t get a chance to hear their exchange, but I could hear the tone of their conversation, and it seemed like one of bewilderment—and maybe a little bit of fright.
But that’s what I love about this city.
Other Texans will tell you Austin is nothing like the rest of the state, and it’s true in some regards. I was born in Texas, and spent the first three years of my life in a little one-stop-sign town called Cut-N-Shoot, Texas (no, I’m serious, it’s a real place). I grew up in California, but my family spent just about every other summer in The Lone Star State. Dallas, Houston, Midland, Odessa, Brownwood, and Whitney, we were all over.
So I know and agree that Austin is a wildly different place than much of the state.
But Austin actually is more Texan in more ways than you might think. It’s a super honky, two-steppin’, BBQ lovin’, strong principled, “don’t tread on me” city.
I think the difference is that, in Austin, with the tech community moving in full-force over the last few years, there’s a disparity between cultures that doesn’t exist much on the coasts—and also doesn’t exist much elsewhere in the middle of the country. That fabled “middle America” pundits often talk about is literally here colliding with startup geeks.
Cowboys at raves.
Founders at rodeos.
Ranchers at your tech event with an app idea.
Kids from poor neighborhoods learning how to make robots.
Developers and designers meeting to play pool and drink beer.
Cowboys trying to wrap their minds around a car that drives itself.
It’s so weird.
With SXSW descending on the city this past month like a swarm of bats, I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of people about what I think makes Austin great.
Its diversity and its openness are what make it great.
It’s opportunities like the ones I just described. Opportunities for youth and new ideas to learn from age and experience—and vice versa. Opportunities for kids from the poorest neighborhoods to learn how to code. Opportunities for people of different races, religions, and vastly different cultural backgrounds to run into each other at a bar on 6th Street and strike up a conversation about what makes them tick. Opportunities to work in a community garden on the east side. Opportunities to visit ten breweries in the same day (not recommended). Opportunities for those in the tech community to not just solve first-world problems, but to really dig in and figure out how to bring some of that opportunity to those who may not feel like they have access to it.
This diversity of experience, worldview, thought, and skillsets is what makes every day interesting and exciting. You literally never know who you might meet, or what they might do.
In today’s political and social climate, I can’t pretend this diversity is easy. It’s not always, and I think Austin is experiencing the tension that comes with being a growing city where two ways of life are running directly into one another every day.
But tension is good when it’s tense for the right reasons; when it puts people in a position where they feel like they want to learn from other perspectives rather than being immediately defensive in the face of them.
Austin is a good tension.
America doesn’t need less tension; America needs more good tension.