'I Lived In 10 U.S. Cities in 10 Years—Here's What I Learned About America'

Not long after my 22nd birthday, I left my hometown, Lawrence, Kansas, to spend the summer with my then-girlfriend in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was still in college and had an internship there; I'd just graduated with an English degree but no direction. That's how my project, "10 Cities/10 Years," began.

At that relatively young age, all I knew for sure was that I wanted to write. While my upbringing wasn't exactly boring, I felt I lacked the worldliness any good novelist needed. Like so many aspiring writers, I wanted to travel. Rather than backpacking through Europe or joining the Peace Corps, though, I formulated a more ambitious idea: I would live in 10 different cities for one year each.

When my girlfriend returned to school in the fall, we broke up and I remained in Charlotte. Since I didn't have a reason to keep living there, I decided to pick a random city and move there when my lease ended. The next year, I'd do it again, and so on.

In June 2006, I moved to Philadelphia, a city I'd never even visited before. Exactly a year later, I moved into a friend's spare room in the Southern California city of Costa Mesa. After a three-month delay to the schedule—which happened thanks to various complications—I moved to San Francisco in September 2008. The next September it was Chicago, followed by Nashville, Seattle, New Orleans, Boston, and, finally, New York City.

I finished 10 Cities when I was 32. In that decade, I'd lived in a dozen homes and worked even more jobs. But what had I gained from the experience? Had I learned anything I wouldn't have learned if I'd just spent my twenties building a nest egg in one city?

Joseph Lyttleton Lived in 10 US Cities
Joseph Lyttleton pictured in Madrid, Spain, where he now lives, in 2022. In the seven years since he completed his "10 Cities/10 Years" project Lyttleton has been able to reflect on what he learned. Joseph Lyttleton

It's now been seven years since I finished "10 Cities/10 Years" and I'm only just figuring that out.

Starting over

I get many questions about my project: Wasn't uprooting my life scary? Wasn't it hard leaving friends and girlfriends behind? Wasn't I lonely?

The answer to all three questions is "Yes." There is little I enjoy more than exploring a new city, but it was never easy. Even in my best moments, there was always an undercurrent of anxiety.

The first months of each move were the loneliest. Making friends in new cities wasn't always easy, and, other than a few crucial exceptions, most friendships fizzled out once I left, maintained solely by Facebook updates, if at all.

Joseph Lyttleton Lived in 10 US Cities
Mardi Gras Crowds in New Orleans in 2012, where Joseph Lyttleton lived at the time. Lyttleton says that living in different cities allowed him to experience various American traditions firsthand, like New Orleans’ incomparable Mardi Gras festivities. Joseph Lyttleton

My schedule was especially tough on romantic relationships. Weeks before I moved away from Charlotte, I met a girl who made me question my project before it had even really started. Ultimately, moving was the right decision, for both of us, but that didn't make getting on that Greyhound bus any easier.

In San Francisco and Chicago, I lived with another girlfriend, but the strain of moving twice during the Great Recession and the usual difficulties of navigating a relationship ultimately doomed it. We split and I continued my journey.

Actually, the recession relates to another question I'm often asked:

How much did living in 10 cities over 10 years cost?

My goal was to have $3,000 saved before I moved on to a new city. That would, ideally, cover two to three months of bills and other necessities—depending on the city. Without any sort of financial support, I started "10 Cities/10 Years" at fiscal square one, and each year I returned to it, since I arrived in each new city without a job. But, as long as I found work, money wasn't an issue. Some years, that was easier said than done. Before the Great Recession, getting a job was simple. For instance, in Costa Mesa in 2007, my roommate knew a friend who managed at Barnes & Noble, so I was working within three weeks.

Joseph Lyttleton Lived in 10 US Cities
Joseph Lyttleton moved to Chicago in September 2009 and immediately began exploring the city’s famous sites. Joseph Lyttleton

Everything changed with San Francisco the following year. Having moved there as the global economy was cratering, I didn't find work for five months. At one point, to get by, I spent two weeks sequestered in a hospital for a medical study. Eating nothing but hospital food, I was given a daily drug cocktail and had my blood drawn every few hours to measure the effects.

In Nashville in 2010, after years of working retail, I turned to waiting tables. The clientele could be hit or miss—multiple customers in the South told me I was going to Hell because I wasn't a Christian—but tips were more lucrative than an hourly wage. From there on, serving became my go-to occupation. I bartended on Blake Island in the Puget Sound in 2011, offered amuse-bouche to movie stars at a four-star restaurant in New Orleans in 2012, served fish and chips at a pub in Boston in 2013, and brought mouth-watering burgers to the well-to-do residents of Brooklyn's Park Slope during my final year in New York.

My co-workers usually became my closest friends in any given city. Over post-shift drinks, we'd bemoan bad bosses and worse tippers. And since we often had cash in our pockets, we'd spend at least half our earnings on booze, just to pass out and do it all again the next day.

Every job had its issues—some more than others—but each kept me moving until I completed my project in September 2015. When I finally did, I found myself, once again, essentially back to square one.

Discovering the "real" America

I embarked on this project to become a more worldly writer, which has inevitably happened. I've seen parts of the country most people will never know. Whatever "real" America is, I'm pretty sure I've lived it.

City living is a great way to be reminded that America is uniquely complex, that there are millions of Republicans in "blue" America and millions of Democrats in "red" America. One of the silliest notions I've ever heard is that there is a "Real America." According to many politicians, because I grew up in a town of less than 80,000 people, I'm from "Real America." This concept, that "Real America" exists in the heartlands of the country, outside of our main metropolises, led me to wonder: What does that make the over 15 million Americans I lived among, in big cities, from 2005 to 2015?

Joseph Lyttleton Lived in 10 US Cities
Before Joseph moved to Spain, he spent a day being tourists in NYC in 2015 with his friend Maria (pictured), including a boat tour around the city. Joseph Lyttleton

After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I heard frequently about the "liberal bubble," but that never fit with the country I experienced. In the cities I lived in—many considered liberal strongholds—I met all kinds of people whose views fit more neatly in the "conservative" box. There was the transgender woman in New York who adamantly defended the U.S. government's use of torture on terrorism suspects after 9/11. There was the co-worker in Nashville who assumed, because I am an atheist, that I "sacrificed" children—her interpretation of abortion. For that matter, there were all the residents of so-called liberal cities who went to church every Sunday. I encountered all types of political and religious views over my 10 years; rarely did they fit in an easy category.

Overall, despite many differences, my experiences with my fellow Americans were largely positive. I had a random woman offer me a ride home from the grocery store when I was weighed down with bags. My roommates were usually people I met online who took a risk on a random guy from a different state. Some of my best friends over the 10 years were made while I sat alone at a bar, sipping whiskey. I think we Americans want to believe every stranger is a potential friend.

But the concept of any "real" America, whether the notion idealized by politicians, or otherwise, seems to be a myth. There is just America, a complicated, ever-changing country that is continually striving—and often failing—to be a "more perfect union." I will always have an affection for cities because they represent the true promise of the American experiment: millions of people from different backgrounds attempting to live as one. It won't always work. It won't always be pretty. But the American city, diverse but unified, is one kind of fulfillment of the grand promise of the U.S. Constitution.

What I learned over the 10 years

Because of "10 Cities/10 Years" I met hundreds of people I never would have otherwise. Though I may never see many of them again, those experiences make for great memories—and writing inspiration.

Of the many hard lessons I learned while traveling, probably the most important is simply to follow my internal compass. I can't count the number of people who told me I was making a mistake, that my project was impractical. I'd regret not having savings when I was older, I was warned. Now, approaching 40, all I can think is how much more I would have regretted not having done "10 Cities/10 Years." I'd much rather take a chance and fail than be haunted by "what if?" questions.

Joseph Lyttleton Lived in 10 US Cities
Joseph Lyttleton and his girlfriend, Helen, on a trip to Malaga, a city in the south of Spain. Lyttleton moved to Spain in 2016 after completing his "10 Cities/10 Years" project. Joseph Lyttleton

Could I have gained similar insights if I'd just stuck it out in one place? Possibly, but putting myself through that ordeal helped me appreciate my strengths and weaknesses. One strength I am proud of is my resilience. I completed the project while facing financial hardships, bouts of depression, and periods of isolation. I passed an endurance test. When life gets hard now, I remind myself of that.

What's Next?

I'm frequently asked if I'll ever do another, similar project. I can't imagine it; a decade feels sufficient. Having completed that marathon, I'm focused on a new type of long-term goal: enjoying life with my girlfriend in Spain. I've now lived in Madrid for five years, longer than anywhere since I left Kansas. There's peace to being settled, but I don't regret any roads I took to get here, no matter how bumpy.

If anyone's considering attempting something like "10 Cities/10 Years," I only have one bit of advice: Enjoy the hard times. They make for the best stories.

Joseph Lyttleton is an American freelance writer and editor living in Madrid, Spain. He's the creator of the 10 Cities/10 Years project and his novel, Yahweh's Children, is available to buy online. He regularly updates 10cities10years.com and can be found across social media platforms as @10cities10years.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.