I’ll be the first to admit that I have a distinct bias in writing this next line but, Tucson is a little bit different.
OK, very different.
It’s a place where you can, well, be yourself, whoever that might be. I first arrived in Tucson in the fall of 2007. Bluntly put, I utterly, purely, and emphatically despised the place. I despised “it,” it being, my narrow, rigid and limited experience of both the city and our university. I blew past seeing Tucson’s history, culture, and people that I have now come to love. I was listless and adrift, and though I didn’t realize it then, there was one major thing missing in my life: connection.
A lot has changed in Tucson since 2007, myself included. I would say that many such changes have been for the better. Look at downtown; look at the new boutiques, coffee shops, bars, and yoga studios. Look at the apartments, bridges, and transportation infrastructure. For example, in a few weeks, the Tucson Sun Link will officially be open for business. We now have access to the 4th renovated parking structures, and the new Courts Complex; the list goes on and on. Downtown is becoming a place more and more people want to be, eat, live, and work. I’m one of those people.
Everyone here has a story. Each of us is unique. Yet, what seems to make Tucson different from the other cities that I have lived in, is the probability of two strangers to start up a conversation, to exchange stories, and, yes, potentially connect. This is one thing I love about living here, and it is one of the main reasons that in January 2014 I decided to move back to Tucson.
My name is Tolan Thornton. I graduated from the University of Arizona in May 2012, where, during five years, I received an excellent and exquisite education. Though I had a unique set of opportunities while here, met some fabulous and amazing people, I still wanted to leave after getting my degrees. I was determined to make something of myself, whatever that meant at the time, and Tucson didn’t seem like it would have the type of work that I was hoping to find elsewhere. I was wrong. Six months ago, I moved back to Tucson, this time with a purpose. To change the world.
I want to do so by beginning connecting the dots. What dots you ask? Many dots, any dots, but dots here, in Tucson, in one of the one of the oddest, hottest, “funnest” and most distinct places in which I’ve ever lived. People, ideas, opportunities— they’re all here. All you have to do is connect them or connect with them. The choice is yours.
Having been fortunate enough to travel more than once in my life, I first came across the idea of a shared, “rentable” workspace when living in Beijing. Having just graduated, I was intrigued, but let the opportunity pass. What could a place like that really offer? I wasn’t like them, whoever they may be. I wasn’t a techie or a freelancer; I wasn’t a creative or knowledge worker. I was a recent graduate, fascinated in the world. Pure and simple.
After coming back from China, I moved to Brooklyn intending to live and work on the East Coast. The game plan was to get a “real job,” a respectable job. I was to become a “real adult,” a respectable adult, not just someone who traveled and failed to get a work visa so that he could stay in Asia. Again in Brooklyn, the shared “coworking” spaces popped onto my radar. “Hummmm, interesting,” I thought.
I then moved on with life, executing my plan and applying for dozens of “real jobs”, safe, secure, and respectable jobs. I was on track to the successful life. Maybe. Moving to Europe for the summer, I had lofty dreams and big ambitions. I had given up my guilt-trodden trip to follow the traditional corporate trajectory, and once again, the world was my oyster.
Work, play, (a young) man’s search for meaning— first, Austria, Belgium, France— I had an itch to see travel the globe, and I also wanted to “figure things out.” Having rarely taken time to think about what I actually wanted in life, I slowly began tinkering with the idea of trying to start my own business. I was smart, and how hard could it really be? OK, new plan. I was going to be an entrepreneur, whatever that meant at the time. Following this newly anointed path, I off-handedly discovered that, in 2013, Paris had at least five legitimate coworking spaces. I was broke, and so I decided to instead work from a friend’s small one-bedroom apartment.
Why spend money when you don’t have to? When I couldn’t take being alone anymore, and had about two Euros to part with, I would splurge and would work in the local cafe. Six hours for one espresso. It seemed like a fair trade. Then there was Morocco. Though there were no shared working spaces for rent, there was the Marrakech Public Library. It had no wifi, and the space had odd hours, particularly during the month of Ramadan. But it was free, and that made sense to me. Anyway my business venture idea was going slower than planned; sometimes it didn’t seem to be going at all. Oh well, I though, how often do things actually work out the way we plan. Almost never, at least in my case.
Next up, London. More public libraries, an additional lack of wifi, increased levels of personal and professional frustration, and more coffee, lots of coffee, though this time I was paying for everything at an exchange rate of 1.75 US Dollars to one British Pound. It hurt. Especially the regular purchase of so many cups of coffee. However, I did meet some really interesting people, and I fell in love, twice. Once was with the city. At this point, my business project was still not off the ground, and I began to think that I was neither an entrepreneur nor a freelancer. I wasn’t getting paid a single dime, and to make things worse, I discovered that I am only perhaps 10% as smart as I once thought. Starting a business is hard. Being yourself, no matter who you are, no matter where you are, can be hard too. I imagine that both take practice, and, being flat broke seemed much less romantic than successful people might later recount in a conversation or interview. This is what I now think.
One of the many things that I was lucky enough to see and try while in the city was Campus London. It was awesome, definitively so. I felt at home, and hoped never to leave. Campus London was established in 2012 by Google. It is now one of 7 global innovation hubs that the tech giant helped form, each of which is a distinct place that seeks to foster connection through collaboration, mentorship and networking. I won’t go into the concept too much, if you’re interested just Google it. (After all, they did fund much of it). But, to make a long story short, spending time at Google’s London Campus was transformational in how I have come to think, live, act, work, and play in the world. Now, no matter where I am in this moment, I aspire to be a better version of myself. I aspire to the best version, the most authentic version, a real, and, admittedly flawed version of myself. And, in knowing this, I imagine it will only be possible to do so by regularly interacting with wild ideas and other exceptional individuals. I don’t know what’s going to happen, in my life or yours, but do see an immense amount of value in leaving my mu apartment and/or the traditional office space. Why? Because of chance for connection.
For me, I now realize that I’ve been looking for an environment, a special place, one that is stimulating and balanced, authentic and peaceful. Ideally, one that is in a space that is relatively quiet; one with others people, professionals and creatives, who are smart, respectful, curious, and open-minded. I’ve been looking for a place, this place, a special space, a home away from home. A workspace that can help challenge my preconceptions of what work is and can be, of what life is and can be, of what I am and can be, with others. That being said, it’s odd to me that such a place might exist here in Tucson. When coming back to Tucson, my mind was blown. For me, I’m talking about downtown, about the rekindling, re-invention, and remaking of the once thriving, formal capital of Arizona: Tucson, a place that many of us call home. I am talking about the people who come here, live here, and stay here, at least for a while. I am taking about the people who bring passion, purpose, and meaning not only to their own lives, but also to the lives of those around them. I’m talking about the dozens of minorities and international groups that are here because they want to be; I’m talking about the multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-ideological mixing of all that Tucson has to offer. Conservatives and liberals, local one-person shops and giant multi-national conglomerates, you’ll find them all here. Infants, students, PhD candidates, professors, artists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, investors, businessmen and women, retirees, and young families just starting out.
You name it, and Tucson might have it. If not now, maybe later. Sure, it might sound cliché; I write this in knowing the risks. But, despite such risks, I believe that sharing something like this idea, this idea of connection, it matters. Life matters. Your life matters; my life matters. Let’s make them count, independently or together; all we need is a chance. This is Tucson, and I am here to stay, at least for now. I am here to live life, my life, to be myself, and to connect with others, lots of others, often here at Tucson’s newest coworking space, Connect.
OK, now for the pitch: ready or not here it comes.
Connect Coworking, something that was and is, in my mind, unexpected, elegant, and exciting. Of course, for you, it could be different. Your experience will likely be different than mine. After all, they say no two humans are exactly alike. I imagine coworking spaces are like that too. Heck, you might despise it, just like I despised Tucson when first moving here in 2007. But hey, on the other hand, certain places, particularly the people within those places, they have a way of growing on you. In any case, it’s nice of you to read this, and who knows, maybe soon we’ll connect, and together, we can change the world.
Right here in Tucson, Arizona.
by: Tolan Thornton, Consultant, Entrepreneur, and Life-Long Maker of Mistakes