As a kid in small-town Minnesota, Los Angeles is the city most of my childhood fantasies took place. After college and a couple years of flitting about, including a brief stint in LA, I moved out here for good at age 23. I’ve now been a resident for ten years, and in so many ways the City of Angels has exceeded my dreams.
But settling in here wasn’t easy. I made A LOT of mistakes figuring things out by trial and error (emphasis on the error) during my first decade as an Angeleno. I wish I had wizened old sherpa like my present self to guide me when I first moved here so I could have avoided some of these missteps.
Well, it’s your lucky day because I’m here to be that sherpa for you as you embark upon your journey. What follows are my biggest lessons distilled down into these ten commandments for getting started in LA. Good luck and bon voyage!
1. LA is a big small town.
You will quickly become less anonymous than it seems when you first land in Los Angeles. You will take an improv class or PA on a film shoot or join a beach volleyball league or whatever it is that you’re into, and thereby nudge your way into different social pockets of this city. These involvements will form your circle of friends, and each of those friends will have their unique circle of friends, and these overlapping Venn Diagrams will mean you have ties to an ever-expanding tapestry of people all over the metro.
It’s normal to feel like a nondescript pedestrian in a sea of faces when you first move here, and not just because that’s your Central Casting gig du jour. However, when you start to set down roots, it’s crazy how fast your branches will grow.
2. Play a clean game.
LA is also a small town in that people gossip and your reputation will follow you, so be nice and don’t burn bridges over small battles. It doesn’t matter where you live; this advice is universal. Your name is your best currency, so keep its value high.
3. Don’t be a dummy about money.
If you’re trying to make this expensive-ass city your home, you can’t live in fiscal denial, at least not long term. Be realistic about your expenses. Keeping a big buffer in your savings account can feel elusive, but even having a few hundred dollars socked away will come in clutch if you get in a tight spot down the road. Do not to get behind on bills because it will get increasingly harder to catch up if you do. This lesson spills over into the next two.
4. MacGyver your housing sitch.
Before Tim Gunn started bossing around fashion hopefuls, MacGyver was the king of making it work. I’m a devotee to the “make it work” mantra, as well. For me, rent has been the most critical monthly expense to offset in order to maintain my comfort, sanity, and keep working toward my artistic goals, which has led to some creative solutions over the years.
In my mid-twenties, I lived with my boyfriend to reduce my rent – yeah we loved each other, but honestly at least half of our motivation for shacking up together was money-driven. Even though we were already splitting the rent, I kept my ear to the ground for any leads on great deals, and in 2010, I found us a studio apartment in Hollywood for $420 a month!!!! It was such a steal that my boyfriend stayed at the building after he dumped me, thereby forcing me to move instead. Luckily, what seemed like cruel and unusual punishment at the time was actually a blessing in disguise because my boss referred me for an apartment manager job which has allowed me to live in LA rent-free for the past seven years. (Haha, that’s how you win a breakup.) The point is, there are hacks for this outrageous housing market if you look hard enough.
5. Get yourself a side hustle.
I know this tip comes off like the worst kind of glib Medium clickbait, but the gig economy is happening whether you like it or not, especially in large, expensive creative capitals like New York and LA. Instead of swimming against the tide, try to make it work for you by finding a well-paid trade that you actually like doing. The fact that your side hustle won’t come with old-fashioned benefits doesn’t mean you cultivate one with perks, like meeting new connections and developing your business skills, not to mention the potential for gangbusters success that could change the course of your career forever.
Don’t just default to driving Uber. A little time spent strategizing what endeavor might serve your other goals or be a great use of your skill set could unlock a lot of flexibility in terms of time, money, and ability to pursue your dreams in the long run. For an actor facing uncertain prospects, a headshot photography business or Reiki practice or successful Etsy store (these are all real examples), can give you a source of stability and good quality of life. For a TV writer like myself, freelance writing offers a great way to make money and get better at wordsmithing in between sexier opportunities to write on commercials or TV shows.
6. Re-consider your lifestyle.
You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. What worked for you back home may not translate to living your best life out here. Instead of maintaining your status quo, seek out new experiences and explore alternatives that might be a better fit for you. Maybe there’s an element of your life – like for me, transportation – that could use an urban update. Back in the Midwest, the idea of giving up my car would have seemed absurd, but as the old saying goes: When in Rome, use the Metro.
7. Don’t get distracted.
There is a lot see and do in this town – which is awesome and one of the many reasons I love living here – but don’t lose focus of what you come here to do. Duh, the weather is sublime. However, it’s more likely what drew you to LA was a desire to make a passion-driven professional mark. So don’t get distracted by shiny things along the way – or dull things, for that matter.
Trust me, it’s super easy to get stuck in a day job you’re not stoked about to ensure your basic economic security. If you’re not careful, years will go by without you realizing it. Thankfully I’ve been able to identify pretty quickly when a day job isn’t jiving with my long-term goals and leave before too much treading water has gone down, though there are definitely situations I wish I would have left sooner. I’m not encouraging you to be reckless, but some of my greatest outcomes have come from taking risks in the name of following my dreams.
8. Remember to enjoy your life.
You have to live your life because ultimately art is an extension of life. If you don’t fill up your well, you will have nothing to draw from. This is the other side of the “don’t get distracted” coin. It’s sad when people get so wrapped up in their work – or even worse, a quest for accolades or status – that they fail to relish in the wonderful people and experiences around them. Happiness is in your own backyard right now, you just have to remember to go outside and get it.
This city is incredible. The beach, the street festivals, the concerts, the museums: you could find something completely mind-blowing (hi, free public tours of JPL) or blissfully relaxing (I’m looking at you, Koreatown spas) to do in Los Angeles any day of the year. So don’t forget to carpe diem – and segueing into the next tip, I suggest finding someone fun to do it with!
9. Make friends.
This should go without saying, but I have a mean socially ambivalent streak. I can get wrapped up in my own little world, obsessed with my own little projects. If you’re a transplant to LA though, non-familial relationships will be your lifeblood. If you don’t make friends, when the going gets tough (it inevitably will), you will want to leave.
Plus, the influence of your friends goes far beyond simple companionship. The old “You gotta know someone” is trite, but true. Networking feels dirty, but actually investing in the lives of people you enjoy and admire feels good. Get to know the people in your life and those whom you look up to on a more than a superficial level, and there will be a cornucopia of benefits.
10. Be open to your evolution.
I moved here with staunch ambitions to be a movie actress. A few years in, I began to realize that writing roles for myself was the only surefire way to assert control over my fate as a performer. So I started writing sketches. And then a screenplay. And then I was hooked. I loved writing! I hadn’t considered it as an occupation because I was so into acting, but writing has become a significantly more fulfilling art form for me, and I would never have discovered it had I not been receptive to change.
Don’t get me wrong, the identity shift was hard at first, but I’m so glad I trusted my instincts and gave myself permission to grow in an unexpected direction. Perhaps your evolution will even take you away from LA, as it has with a number of my friends over the years, and that’s okay too. No one should stay in a place or line of work or relationship that isn’t right for them… not even if that place is my beloved chosen home.