Drew Butler

The time I moved to New York City

December 09, 2015

Just over 5-years ago, I made a pretty big decision in my life. For years I had dreamed of one day leaving my home state of Michigan, but lacked any real motivation or grit to create a plan and put it into action. There are many reasons why that was the case, but chief among them were two of note: fear and complacency. Worst of all, these two feelings fed off of each other and each made the other stronger.

When I first dreamed of moving to another state

Sometime around 1998, the tech boom was at its height and I felt like I was at the bottom. I looked at cities like Seattle and the stories how IT professionals could pretty much write their own ticket. How people could work at a company one day, and the next, walk out and get a job across the street. The stories were surreal and full of hope.

Something I sorely lacked at the time.

At the time, I hadn’t yet begun my journey as a software developer. Instead what I knew was more general computer technical knowledge. I knew how to build computers and troubleshoot issues people were having. I was a computer technician. Which at the time, felt like the lowest of the low.

Even worse, while I was pretty good at it, I was not incredibly motivated to go beyond the “working at a big box store” phase of my career. The problems I face at the time were of the every day variety. Viruses from kids pirating software and music, crashed hard drives, and general problems with technology just being harder than it needed to be.

In my mind I thought often of what it would look like to work for someplace that did something that felt meaningful. To have my own desk, my own computer, my own contribution beyond the same 10 problems and solutions repeated day in and day out. In retrospect, I lacked the drive and imagination to see my way up.

Instead, I was locked in a loop, dreaming of what it would look like to move somewhere else, but seeing it as nothing more than the fantasies I read in my own time.

Time went on, from down to up

Eventually, I started teaching myself web development. I was lucky to have made a friend who showed me a world beyond HTML and CSS. I started learning Apache, MySQL, and PHP. I started building my own sites, my own CMSs, and teaching myself as much as I could. After some very down times, I moved home to live with my parents. I went back to school for a short time, cleaned up my finances a bit, and eventually landed my first job as a developer.

In retrospect, having had almost no experience nor education, I can’t help but feel like I conned my way into this first position.

Why would they hire a nobody with no experience like me?

Probably because I was cheap and unbeknownst to anyone at the time, I actually had some good potential. Thankfully they saw enough in me to take advantage of my lack of options and to give me my first foot in the door in a brand new industry.

And guess what? I actually did pretty well.

Over the next few years, I flourished in my new found career. I went from barely scraping by, to supporting myself quite well, and eventually leading many engineering efforts for a very large financial company.

Life was pretty good for a while, at least when it came to my career. Personally, though, I was at the bottom of a very deep a dark hole.

Climbing back to the surface

It was near the end of 2009. Over the course of the prior 2-years, I had gone from being engaged; to getting dumped; to drowning myself in video games. My personal life went from a lifelong high, to non-existent, and I felt like there was nothing else for me.

I dreamed of how I would get out.

I dreamed of other places.

I dreamed of being anyone but who I was.

Eventually, I found myself at the bottom of that deep, dark hole, and I dreamed of the end.

Instead of giving up, though, I clawed my way to the top.

I decided that if I wanted to be someone else, I would become someone else. Still Drew, but a different version. One who fought, instead of one who gave up. Someone who took action, instead of lamenting his failures and blaming circumstances, as if they were outside of his control. I got better. I became better.

It started with a dedication to lose weight. I started a diet. I started exercising several times a week. Eventually, I joined a gym and got a personal trainer. I started thinking about how I could be the best version of myself. I looked at the things I didn’t like about myself as variables that could be tweaked, instead of as constants that couldn’t be changed.

Because of this, over the course of 2010, I lost weight. I started to feel as if I was in control of my life and my destiny. At the same time, I also started to travel.

An exit strategy emerged

I visited Chicago, Seattle, and New York City. Places I had never been but had always imagined were the pinnacle of urban life.

Over that year, one thing became incredibly clear to me: I didn’t just want to dream about living somewhere else, I wanted to actually try it.

At first, I thought it might be Seattle. I dreamed of a place where I could work for one of the many amazing companies that I so idolized. I also dreamed of a place where I wouldn’t have to own a car. Where I was from if you saw someone walking down the street, you’d naturally assume they were too poor to own a car. Instead, I wanted to be where it was normal to walk down the street, instead of driving ridiculously short distances.

Walking is not a mark of failure. Walking is the most basic form of human transportation and should be a direct part of everyday life.

Eventually, I ended up finding a small company in New York City who was looking for a developer to join them. They were a brand new startup, just out of the accelerator program YCombinator. It took me moments to decide to apply, a week or two to land the job, and a few weeks later I was saying goodbye to everything and everyone I had known and was driving my life halfway across the country in a U-Haul.

The why of New York City was simple at the time. It represented a far extreme of life to me. One where you were a part of something so much greater than yourself. Where life was active by default and the only limits you had were placed on you by yourself. If you could dream it, you could make it happen.

If I were to put together a list of the top 5 most influential moments in my life, easily 3 of them have occurred since I moved to New York City. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I will never regret making that change in my life.

Change is an inevitable part of life. It is both a catalyst and result of growth. For me, a life without growth is a life devoid of meaning. For that reason, I will always seek to try new things.

New York on pause

So here I am, just over 5-years into my New York City experience, married with my first child, and I choose change once again. Next week Lauren and I will be putting all of our things into storage, driving with our son to live for a while with family in Texas, and we’ll then be traveling for a large part of 2016. This next year will represent one of the most significant change of our lives.

It is a scary proposition, but I will always choose change when so much growth is possible as a result. Our goal is to eventually come back here. To raise our son, and perhaps more, here in New York City. For now, though, there is a world to see and we plan to see as much of it as we can.

It took a lot of work to get here, but 2016 will be an amazing year.

Drew Butler

Written by Drew Butler who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter