Vancouver and Toronto Personal Growth Models: A Theory

Having lived for a little bit of time in Toronto as an adult, and more time in Vancouver (but an equal amount as an assertive, aware, reflecting adult), I’ve noticed some key differences in the way things get done in each place. I have shared my observations with some others who have spent time in both places, and it has been fairly well-received as capturing the essence of the difference. (And it is all strongly infused with the particulars of my own experience, which is slightly skewed towards the corporate and tech-focused portions of both cities. I’m confident that I’m comparing apples to apples in that sense at least. The mileage of other scenes in Vancouver and Toronto may vary – such as, say, in the public space advocacy realm.)

It makes total sense to me – in that Richard Florida way that people go to and stay in the city that “feels” right, that fits both the way they already do things, and the way they want to keep doing them.

Toronto

The way I see it, Toronto makes no apologies for its hard edges. The work atmosphere is very competitive, and, while the culture of individual organizations may vary, the general atmosphere strikes me as very pressure-driven – on a broad scale, it seems to me that people take their responsibilities quite seriously, are quite hard-working and committed to seeing things done right.

Most people perceived this negatively; and indeed, these stresses can manifest themselves in various ways or are reflected in everyday experiences. But under this enormous pressure – which I interpret as being both external, from without the individual, as well as internal, originating with individuals putting pressures on themselves – come diamonds. Incredible end products that can cut through steel, that have withstood all the rigor, scrutiny and obsession of passionate professionals. This stuff is made to last, and people run both themselves and the things they make through their own wringers to break it and make it better, long before anything else will get the chance to. People seek out, and get, feedback in all its constructive and or downright ugly forms, all in the name of failing faster and improving.

Vancouver

Vancouver prides itself on very different qualities. There’s a depth of sensing and intuitiveness in the air and the people. Here, we would prefer to grow things – and things grow by being nurtured, by having an environment that supports things flourishing. And boy, do we ever want things to happen organically. The image in my mind for this, naturally, is that of a tree. We imagine things growing large, subtly immovable.

For me, this has manifested itself in the incredible difficulty that I have experience in getting good feedback. People here don’t want to cut things down through taking the wind out of people’s sails with bitingly honest feedback – and that is often how being critical can feel like. We think that nurturing something or someone to be strong, observant, to anticipate the dangers, and to become resilient, are the ways to build something that lasts. Guiding people gently – a form of pruning, perhaps – is perceived as being more worthwhile than the kind of cutthroatness that is much more often associated with Toronto.

Now for qualifying statements

Of course, for everything I’ve written in the above two sections, all manners of counterexamples exist: there are, I’m sure, managers pulling no punches in Vancouver, and cultures that avoid giving good feedback that stifle employees and their potential in Toronto. And workaholics who can stand to stay in Vancouver probably do really well here, because it probably looks like they do even more compared to everyone else than if they were in Toronto. And I’m certainly not trying to slam anyone on either coast – coming to this theory has helped me articulate what and how I appreciate each place better than I did before.

What I’m more interested in is how these qualities can reverse themselves, taken to the limit; as well as how the makeup of the particular industries I’ve observed in Vancouver and Toronto contribute to my perception. For instance, I heard someone from the Vancouver Economic Development Corporation describe Vancouver as “post-corporate” – something like 90% of our business activity comes from companies with less than 500 employees (SME‘s, although sizing may vary) – certainly a contrast from Toronto, one of the (if not flat out the) oldest settled and commercial areas of Canada. In Vancouver, events like DemoCamp probably compete with the weather and outdoor activities, as well as people’s sense of wanting to take care of themselves if they are feeling out of balance. That’s the Lotusland stereotype – but the generalization has to come from somewhere.

This is not a new observation – Montreal and Toronto have been having their spitting match for years. I certainly do not have enough experience with any of the other cities in between Vancouver and Toronto or northeastabouts to extend this any further.

But as I’ve been saying to the people that ask, I find a combination of both these aspects rounds things out nicely. I’ll take my ass kicked in Toronto any day, as happily and easily as I will remembering the joy of breathing easy in Vancouver. The key is to be proactive in observing the dynamics of one’s own individual personality are shaped by the surrounding culture, and communicating what’s needed – whether that’s breathing room in Toronto, or more rigorous feedback in Vancouver. I need to kick my own ass when I’m in Vancouver, and I need to take things less personallly when in Toronto.

One Comment

  1. Hi there

    Having just passed the 2 year mark in Vancouver I’m still forming my opinion of what it’s like to leave Toronto and do business in Lotusland.

    I find both cities have a similar mixture of workaholics, laidbacks, and middle stream folks. Aggressive driving seems to be the norm in Vancouver and surrounds but drivers don’t use the horn with the same frequency and gusto as they do in TO.

    Your reference to Vancouver as a growing tree really hit home. That’s it. That’s what is so different here. There is a nurturing sensitivity that can be misperceived as cliquish.

    Thanks for writing this.

    Posted July 18, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] this is anecdotally interesting to think about, and I’ve written about this before as an east coast-west coast thing, I think it’s important to think about as we broaden the criteria for participation in […]

  2. […] (You can read Karen Quinn Fung’s post on life in Toronto and Vancouver here.) […]

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