The High Cost of Boring

Let's keep Madison weird

When a city becomes boring, even the rich people leave.
– Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I know there is a luxe style section in this month’s Madison Magazine. And “luxe” is usually associated with abundance. Especially the monetary kind.

But this month’s column celebrates the bohemians, the freaks, the decidedly un-luxe. Let’s talk for five hundred words about the unique economic value of being weird.

A couple weeks ago, I got a voicemail from a higher-up at the Texas Workforce Commission. He was practically breathless, an extraordinary demonstration of enthusiasm by a labor economist. “Rebecca, we think we’re seeing an anomaly in our data! Our workforce isn’t getting older, it’s getting younger.”

As some of you know, it’s my business to study where young talent cluster. And for more than ninety percent of American cities—including most cities in Wisconsin—the news is not good.

So, how to explain Texas’s trend? Yes, Latinos tend to have larger families than Caucasians, and Texas is home to many. But that’s not all. Texas is importing a thousand workers a week from other states and countries.

“Keep Austin Weird” is a key factor. In a sea of red Texas conservatism, Austin hangs a giant blue awning. Austin’s weirdness is central to its ability to attract smart, creative workers from Silicon Valley, Boston, Singapore—and Madison—who smash the accelerator of its economic engine.

Richard Florida proved the connection between weirdness and growth. He showed that cities with a high tolerance for gays and bohemians also had significant growth in high-tech businesses.

Some people—notably those I’ve met from Waukesha County—misunderstand. They say things like, “I know computer programmers, and they don’t seem gay.”

They’re missing the point: A city’s openness to drag queens, purple-haired kids and unicylists has a positive impact on its ability to attract and grow jobs of the future. Where the gays live, the geeks go.

Being weird pays off.

The alternative is sickening. Advertising.

A few years ago, one Wisconsin city paid big bucks for a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. The message? We’re open for business.

What the hell does that mean? That the city was closed for business before the ad ran?

This sort of bland, anyone-can-say-it advert is a last resort for cities that can’t differentiate in any other way. As Seth Godin says, “Advertising is the cost of being boring.”

Dear goddess, I hope Madison never becomes so boring that we have to take out an ad in a newspaper to tell people how special we are. Our weirdness should speak for itself.

In a world that wants luxe, I’ll take weird instead.

Postscript: Last month after my article on mass transit was put to bed (that’s magazine-speak for, “Hands off, sucker, no more editing!”) I learned that Madison Metro launched a new program for business owners, the Metro Commute Card. Google it.

Rebecca Ryan runs a small company in Madison. One of her team’s mantras is, “Let your freak flag fly!” Reach her at

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