Killing the stigma of living in a small town.
There are a lot of unflattering stereotypes about being from or living in a small town. People tend to assume you're uncultured because you're far from the big cities. In college, when I explained to new friends that I was from a small town, they assumed that I lived on a farm and milked cows as a hobby. I was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, so I've always found the "no teeth, hillbilly" stereotype to be pretty rude, but I can always shrug it off. The stereotype I can't seem to shrug off, however, is this idea that being from a small town means you can't be successful.
At first, I thought it was just me. I'm from a small town in Virginia, but after college, I lived and worked in our capital city for four years. Once I got used to it, I really enjoyed the city life. I built my photography business there, worked for a magazine, made friends -- it was great. But after a while, I felt like I had done all I could there. I wanted to go HOME. I had a great opportunity back home to run a wedding venue and focus on writing and photography more. I felt GOOD about the move, but I also felt embarrassed to tell people. I wasn't sure where it was coming from, but I couldn't shake this nagging feeling that moving back to a small town meant I had FAILED. Failed at city life, failed at being on my own, failed at finding success. I didn't want to be one of those stereotypes. You know the one I'm talking about -- the sad guy who still goes to all his high school football team's Friday night games, even in his 50s? I worried that people would think less of me for going back.
But I convinced myself that no one REALLY thinks less of you if you live in a small town. I was sure it was all in my head.
I was sure . . . until I drove up to my alma mater to speak to their hospitality management school. Some fellow wedding industry friends and I were invited to talk about the industry and give advice. During my introduction, I mentioned that I had lived in the city before recently moving back to my hometown.
After our talk, students came down to chat with the other panelists and get their business cards. One girl boldly walked up to me and said, “I am SO glad you said you live in a small town. I’m actually thinking of moving to a small town after I graduate, but I’ve been worried about it.”
I went on to explain to her that a lot of smaller, rural towns actually have booming wedding and tourism industries. She was so happy to hear that, and then she said something that made me want to weep and also hit someone.
“An ex-boyfriend told me I wouldn’t amount to anything if I moved to a small town."
I was devastated. After months of convincing myself that it was just me and my anxiety, the stereotype was staring me right in the face: living in a small town means you won't amount to anything. Someone actually said it. People actually think it.
But then . . . I came to my senses. I was angry, but I also knew this ex-boyfriend was wrong. I gave the girl a hug and tried my best to tell her that she could do anything from anywhere. Her address wouldn't determine her success -- she would. That night, I prayed that I had freed her from a lie.
See, I think there are two ugly lies that band together to make one big small town myth:
Myth #1: There are no opportunities in a small town.
I lived in the city for four years, and you know what's weird? An opportunity never came and knocked on my door! I still had to go find them all. Sometimes I had to make them for myself. Just like in a small town.
If you have the drive, work ethic, and an internet connection, you can make anything happen anywhere. You don't have to live in a big city to have impact or create opportunities for yourself. In fact, more people than ever are working remotely. In 2015, when the most recent data was published, nearly 4 million Americans were telecommuting to work. The same study found that 56% of jobs can be done remotely. Now more than ever, where you are located physically doesn't have to hinder your job prospects. The only thing that limits your potential is how hard you're willing to work.
And sure, maybe an opportunity will take you to the big city. That's good, too. Go. Explore. Learn. Grow. Stay there if you love it. But never feel ashamed to come back if you want to. It doesn't mean you've failed -- it means you get to bring all of your knowledge, your culture, your experiences, back HOME. Use all of that to improve the community that shaped you from the beginning.
Myth #2: If you live in a small town, your world gets small.
This was my biggest fear when it came to moving back home from the city. When you think about living in a city, you think about all the hustle and bustle of NEW and BIG. There are always new restaurants, new shops, big shows, big concerts, new plays, new people. Things move fast, and there's a lot of culture at your fingertips. It's easy to feel like you're at the center of everything hip and new.
In a small town, I was afraid all of that would stop. I didn't want to become the person who had never heard of the latest movie or never got to experience new foods and music and diverse people. But you know what's weird? I'm closer now than ever to an international airport. I still live near a train station, and I still have a car. It may take more time to get to new things, but new things are still out there.
So how do you keep your world big if your town is small? Make it a priority to keep experiencing new things and reinventing yourself. Keep in touch with all kinds of people, and never miss an opportunity to listen more than you talk. I'm a firm believer that nothing can broaden your world more than asking good questions and listening to the answers. I'm also a firm believer that anyone can travel, regardless of what your budget is. Personally, I'm always saving and planning for at least one long international trip each year. If I have to choose between buying a new pair of shoes and saving for that trip, I'm saving. See movies. Listen to different music. Try a new recipe. Listen to a podcast. Technology has made our opportunities for broadening your horizons endless. No matter where you live, only you can determine how big or small or colorful your world is.
I hope anyone living in a small town or thinking of moving to one hears me when I say that there is one thing that does determine your level of success, your happiness, your impact, and the size of your world. It's not your address. It's your HEART. The choices that you let it guide. The drive you feel from it. The impact you make with it. You and your heart are in charge of your destination. You and your heart are in charge of how big or small your world can be.
So do yourself a favor and block out the stereotypes. Ignore the ex-boyfriends. Remember that other people's opinions have very little to do with what's best for you and much more to do with what makes them feel better about their own choices. Make the right choices for you, and never let location determine your destination.