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The two-tier tradeoff of living in Madison

Published On: Sep 25 2013 01:22:15 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 25 2013 01:37:56 PM CDT

Balloon over Capitol Dome

By Rebecca Ryan

Every summer when we visit the San Francisco Bay area, something in me stirs.

How, I wonder, would our lives be different if we lived here?

Two years ago, I came close to finding out. I had a significant consulting gig with Groupon Mobile in Palo Alto. I was in the Bay Area so often I developed routines: Philz for coffee, "my" breakfast spot, rented a house in the Berkeley Hills where I hosted friends for dinner. I had reached a point where I knew that if I truly lived there, I would become part of the Silicon Valley scene.

Except I didn’t live there. Not really. I was a visitor from a place my clients described as "near Chicago."

And because I don’t live there, my life is different. Better in some ways, but less vibrant in other ways.

All of us who choose Madison make trade-offs for living here.

Madison is too small for a repertory theater. Too small for a WNBA team. Too small for a Container Store. In Madison, the power players attend weekly Rotary.

We don’t have the density of young, ambitious talent that Silicon Valley does. We don’t have Infinite Loop or Sand Hill Road. We don’t proffer cultural badges of honor to kids who start companies—maybe even drop out of college—to chase great ideas.

For all of its "best places to live" awards, Madison is simply an affordable, Midwestern college town. Which is why Caucasian retirees love it. They don't care about upward mobility; they want to live a good life and prefer to do it on a budget. They don’t want the hassles (traffic) or worries (crime) that come with larger cities. They want to be around UW’s vibrancy and enjoy their farmers' markets and their Concerts on the Square.

Don't get me wrong: I love Madtown for many of these same reasons. But living here comes at a cost, too. If you're not a Caucasian retiree—if you're a young professional and/or Latino and/or African American and/or have a tank full of ambition and drive—Madison may break your heart.

Madison is an easy place to live, but it’s a funky place to grow your career. Living in a tier-two city like Madison comes with an opportunity cost. Your career, your opportunities, your network—all will be limited. For all of our virtual ability, studies show that physical proximity is the great prosperity-maker.

You probably have friends here who are stuck in their jobs. They've reached the highest rung of the ladder they're on, and there’s no other ladder in sight. One of my pals held prominent positions in Washington, D.C., but can't land a job here. People tell her, "You’re overqualified."

(Ranty sidenote: Can you imagine any NBA team telling LeBron James he's overqualified to play for them? C’mon, Madison, if you want to raise your game, you need to hire people more competent than your most competent people.)

Another pal who worked for a venture capital firm admitted that when it comes to attracting top talent to Madison, the pickings are slim. Those who relocate to Madison not only step off the fast track to come here, many are never able get back on. The best we can do, she admits, is recruit people who are near retirement.

In other words, if you’re ambitious and still have some career runway ahead of you, working in Madison is bush league.

There's a reason people pay a premium to live in tier-one cities like New York, Los Angeles and Austin. Yes, rents are higher and car commuting is brutal. But bigger cities mean more potential contacts, a higher probability that you’ll find your tribe and more job options.

Many of us living in Madison daydream about making lives and careers in other places. Each of our lives and careers could be carried out in another place. Where is yours? And why did you choose Madison?

Rebecca Ryan would love to hear from you. Email her at

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