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10/10/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Zadie Smith On Manhattan's 'Sociopathic' Ambition

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The essay about saying goodbye to New York City is practically a literary subgenre unto itself. It revolves around some common tropes: Early intoxication with the city's charms, exhausting and anxiety-ridden attempts to "make it," and the eventual conclusion that, at a certain point, the endeavor is simply not worth it. As Joan Didion wrote in 1967 of her decision to leave New York City for the West Coast, "It is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair."

In a new essay for the New York Review of Books, "Find Your Beach," Zadie Smith chimes in on the "New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" conversation, revisiting some familiar themes on the anxiety of making it in Manhattan, and on the changing landscape of a city that was once a cultural mecca but has increasingly priced out its population of artists and intellectuals.

Although Smith makes it clear that she won't be bidding the city farewell just yet, the place she once knew seems to already have ceded itself to some twisted version of the American pursuit of happiness.

Manhattanites, Smith says, can generally be characterized by a near-pathological obsession with finding themselves -- "in the personal growth section of the bookstore ('Find your happy'), and in exercise classes ('Find your soul'), and in the therapist’s office ('Find your self')." The pressure to "make it" here is not just about about achieving a certain level of money and power, it's also about creating a life of perfect, well-rounded happiness (or at least the semblance of it).

Smith's investigation into the state of ambition and unhappiness in New York centers on a giant beer ad on the side of a building next to her Soho apartment, whose tagline "Find your beach," Smith wryly describes as "pure Manhattan." For Smith, the ad comes to represent the New Yorker's "near obsessive" pursuit of happiness:

"The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if—as in the case of this wall painting—it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty... It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak."

Finding one's beach requires a certain level of ruthlessness, Smith explains, and the quest attracts (and creates) a very particular type of person.

"You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality," Smith writes of the "hard-minded" multitaskers who inhabit the island. "A reality shaped around your own desires -- there is something sociopathic in that ambition."

Smith does have a point: Ambition as a personality trait has, in fact, been linked to precisely the opposite of "finding one's beach" -- psychologists have correlated ambition with higher incomes, but lower levels of self-reported happiness and life satisfaction. And the ambition that New Yorkers display in spades may just have a little something to do with the fact that Harvard data recent found New York to be the unhappiest city in America.

"The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization," Smith concludes. "Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next."

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