Updated: Nov 14, 2019
Not long after I moved from London to LA in 2012, I started receiving emails - usually from strangers - asking for advice on handling the transition from the UK to the US, be it logistically, emotionally, or financially. These emails have continued to arrive in a steady trickle ever since: This week, after six and a half years of living here, I got two more, and took them as a signal to share a few things that I've learnt about starting a new life in a new city.
In random and non-exhaustive order, here they are.
Do It Before You Get Comfortable
I was 24 when I moved to LA. I had a green card, but that was about it: no steady job, no long-term place to live, no idea how to drive on the other side of the street in a city where (pre-Uber) there was no other way to get around. I also had only been to LA once (!!!) before, and I knew about three people who lived in the city. Then, when I was 27, I did a very similar thing when I decided to move from LA to New York: I came here with no permanent living situation, and no idea how I was going to make enough money to survive.
Am I glad I made both moves? Absolutely. Would I do things the same way now? Absolutely not. As we age, we become more entrenched in our social and professional networks; more averse to discomfort and risk of any kind; and more easily drained of the gargantuan amounts of mental and physical energy you need to start afresh in a completely new place.
All of which is to say: if you are dreaming of a bold relocation and are still in your twenties (plus child and mortgage-free) do not waste any time in trying to make it happen. Because the older you get, the more likely it becomes that you just...won't.
Establish Your Own Hierarchy of Needs
Psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (1943) famously outlines the five essential kinds of human need in a handy pyramid format. And while these basic conditions - physiological, safety, long/belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation - might be broadly universal, living in different cities has taught me that different people actually need very different things (or rather, different degrees of those things) to truly flourish.
If you're planning to live elsewhere, it's worth spending some time contemplating what truly makes you feel good, and assessing whether those needs will be met by the place you're contemplating. For example: if you're happiest in nature, New York is probably not your city. If you thrive on spontaneous human interaction, LA won't do it for you.
But if you're still far from the level of self-awareness it takes to know what brings you contentment, then move anyway: Living in different places is a highly effective way to figure this stuff out.
Material Culture Might be Flattening, But Non-Material Culture Is Still Deeply Nuanced
Material culture - clothing trends, dance moves, coffee shop interiors - is become increasingly (and alarmingly) homogenous in many major cities around the world. But nonmaterial culture - the norms, values, and communication styles that lie at the deepest roots of those cities - continues to shape daily life in a way you can't perceive by scrolling geotags on Instagram.
This is especially true in the world of work. The way that people think about work; the number of hours they work; the way they choose to dress, communicate, eat, and take breaks when working – all these aspects of working culture are uniquely informed by the city and country in which the work is taking place. Learning how to navigate these nuances takes time, emotional intelligence, and a lot of humility. Factor this professional assimilation into your game plan.
Speaking Of Game Plans...
Make one! Especially if you are self-employed. Lots of people move to new cities to start new jobs, which means they also get an inbuilt routine, financial stability, and a social network. When you're doing it entirely alone you'll have none of these foundations to build your life upon, which means that you need alternative strategies in place.
So... Establish a retainer with a client in your home city before you move, so you have a guaranteed cashflow once you arrive. Live with someone who has been based in your new city for a while, so they can help you get the lay of the land and hopefully introduce you to some likeminded people, too. Go with a solid financial cushion in your bank account.
Also: Have a clear professional goal in mind, and set some personal intentions. These will provide an invaluable rudder on days when you feel directionless (something that can happen in any city, but is exacerbated by being far from wherever you call home).
If you're lucky enough to be in a position where you're able to contemplate relocating through choice, my ultimate advice would be to just do it – if only to take advantage of an immense privilege that so many people dream of. Moving to a different country has been, at times, draining, lonely, expensive, and stressful as hell. It's also the best decision I've ever made.
A Few Notes on Working in Los Angeles
Anyone who tells you LA is devoid of culture doesn't know much about LA: It's a city literally filled with people making living off their creative skills.
Work/life balance is far more firmly entrenched in LA than New York. People work hard, but they also tend to stop working at a civilised hour. It is not uncommon to be invited to dinner at 6.30pm.
If you're wondering why people are out having brunch at 11am on a Tuesday, it's probably because they're employed in the entertainment industry, which is seasonal by nature. People will shoot for intense spells that last months on end, and then have three weeks off between jobs. Let them eat their brunch in peace. (They might also just be rich kids who don't have jobs; there are quite a lot of those people in LA, as well).
In my opinion, the city's sunny social disposition - often dismissed as 'fakeness' - is actually one of its more charming hallmarks. I don't want to be best friends with every person I encounter over the course of my day, but I'd still rather be met with a smile than a scowl.
The city's car culture makes organic networking almost impossible. This means that you have to be proactive and unapologetic about 'getting out there' if you want to have a chance of making friends and getting paid. If you're not OK with meeting total strangers for coffee and turning up at random events by yourself, working in LA will be hard work.
Don't try to be in more than two to three places during the course of a work day, unless you want one of those places to be in your car, on the 10 freeway, cursing yourself for thinking you could beat the traffic. The traffic in LA is bigger than you and your to-do list. Never forget it.
A Few Notes on Working in New York
If you didn't arrive as a professional, you're going to have to learn how to work like one – really fast.
Things that don't fly in New York: Being late. Being sloppy. Working slowly. Talking too slowly. Walking slowly (that last one most of all).
Everyone works late. No-one makes dinner plans before 8pm, earliest. You're probably not going to eat until 9pm. Stop whining about your digestion and sleep hygiene and just roll with it.
Work also starts early, no matter how many Negronis you had at dinner the night before.
Expect a contract. Send a contract. Sign the contract. Respect the contract.
Everything about this city is set up to enable you to work - and play - as long and as hard as you'd like: You can always get food delivered. The subway runs all night. Lots of bars are open till 4am. It's not that weird to schedule a meeting or work call at the weekend, etc. Because of this, it's on you to establish your own boundaries around work – or not. (Many people choose the latter).
Everyone is very, very busy. You will only ever see your friends when you a) serendipitously bump into them on your block (but then spend the whole day together on a city-traversing odyssey) or b) plan dinner with them 3-6 weeks in advance, and then schedule said dinner on iCal.
There are dozens of events in New York on any given night of the week, and most of them are work-related, at least tangentially. These events are often draining to attend, but if you work in media, or marketing, or really any creative industry you have to go to at least some of them. Sorry, but you just do.
The city is overcrowded, overpriced, and loud as hell. It's also home to some of the most brilliant minds in the world. Just when you think you can't hack it for another day, you'll have a conversation or a meeting that will leave you feeling like there's nowhere like it on earth. This is how New York gets you.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs View
Material Culture Learn
Non-Material Culture Learn