Los Angeles is a hard city to truly love. Not because it’s “always thrusting you away like an unwanted orphan” as John Fante once put it, but because it’s difficult to understand. Sure there is a lot to like—the weather, the food, the space—but love requires something deeper. It requires a deep understanding.

LA is a city that continually obscures its own history and forgets what it has going for it. So it’s no wonder that “getting” it is so difficult. I lived in LA for 5 years and I just could not understand the city, especially in light of other cities I loved like New York or New Orleans. But only after I randomly read a bunch of books that gave me a glimmer of understanding—a hint into its past as a real place with history and people and life—was I really able to appreciate this unique and special place.

It’s a city that launched its own literary genre and some of the greatest American authors who ever lived. It’s a city with amazing architecture (though it loves to tear that down). It’s a city where the second oldest athletic club in the United States costs $100 a month to join. It’s a city that once had amazing public transportation—where you could ride from downtown to Long Beach on a streetcar (which, btw, is what the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is about). It was once the home of everyone from Upton Sinclair to Wyatt Earp and his family. I mean, seriously.

Los Angeles is a city that you’ll love more the more you know about it. These books will help. Plus…they’re amazing.

The Works of John Fante

I found John Fante through Neil Strauss, who considers Ask the Dust one of his favorite books. I read it in one day, LOVED it and subsequently read everything by Fante I could get my hands on. It’s like people have been hiding this writer from us—and LA’s only attempt to recognize him is the silly little “square” they named after him Downtown. Fante’s Ask The Dust is the west coast’s Great Gatsby. Fante has benefited from some recognition—mostly thanks to Bukowski championing him in his later years—but because the book is about Los Angeles and not New York City, it is mostly forgotten. Better than Gatsby, it is a series. In one year alone, I read seven Fante novels, one biography by his son and a book of letters between John and H.L Mencken. Arturo Bandini, the subject of his most famous series, is a wonderful example of someone whose actual life is ruined by the fantasies in his head–every second he spends stuck up there is one he wastes and spoils in real life. Of historical note: Fante tells a side of Los Angeles that most people don’t know existed, a side that for some inexcusable reason has been completely forgotten. From Bunker Hill to Long Beach to Malibu—Fante’s works cover all of Los Angeles, usually in different eras. My favorite Fante books, in order, if you need more guidance are: Ask the Dust, Dreams from Bunker Hill, The Brotherhood of the Grape, Full of Life, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, The Road to Los Angeles, 1933 Was a Bad Year. Once you read those, you will almost certainly enjoy Fante/Mencken (HL Mencken was a mentor of John’s), and Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving.

The Works of Raymond Chandler

If Raymond Chandler doesn’t make you love Los Angeles, no fiction writer can. I read every book Chandler published plus a biography in about a week and a half. I’m not sure what drew me to these books originally, but what kept me in them—literally one right after another without stopping—was how great they are. Chandler was a writer who the critics hated but the people loved, which is usually a pretty good indicator that he was onto something. Noir fiction appeals to me because it does what writing is supposed to: immerse the reader in a vivid, entertaining world. That it also happens to hold great insight about life, power, and people is extra. Chandler never forgot that. It’s why you should read him—you’ll be captivated and learn about the city, about people and about the time period. He too covers the full geography of Los Angeles county from the old gambling boats off Santa Monica to Pasadena to Riverside to Big Bear Lake. Chandler often changes the names but it doesn’t matter. You want to live in his Los Angeles, it just feels so much more interesting. Ranking his books in order of my favorites: The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, Playback, The Long Goodbye, Trouble is My Business, The High Window, The Little Sister, Farewell My Lovely, and The Simple Art of Murder. Also read and liked: Raymond Chandler Speaking, Chandlertown, and Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (which has some excellent photos).

Southern California: An Island on The Land by Carey McWilliams

Carey McWilliams was a famous public intellectual who lived and loved Los Angeles. It is his words that are inscribed on the statue in Pershing Square:

Then it suddenly occurred to me that in all the world there neither was, nor would there ever be, another place like this city of angels…Here indeed was the place for me, a ringside seat at the circus.

But I prefer a different line from him. In his biography of Southern California he remarks that Los Angeles, which possesses some of the most unique and special geography in the world—from mountains to ocean to desert to valley all within a few minutes drive, should take our breath away. But at the same time we can’t help but feel that with all this potential, the city and culture somehow disappoint us. It’s true. This book explains how and why the city came to be. It also gives you a glimpse as the where some of those problems come from.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

This is not a book but it’s one of the most unusual documentaries I have ever seen. It’s about Los Angeles…as it has been portrayed in the movies over the last one hundred years. As far as I know it will never be traditionally released due to rights issues but it’s usually available on YouTube. The film professor who made this is basically the greatest LA tour guide and historian who ever lived. If you don’t like reading, watch this moving. It’s like a cliff’s notes of all the books here and then some.

Los Angeles: Portrait of a City by David L. Ulin and Kevin Starr

Even though I haven’t lived in LA for 4 years (I live in Austin now), this is the book I have on my coffee table. Yes, it is expensive. I think it’s like $60, but damn it has some of the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen. From the first known photo taken in Los Angeles, to the tragic photos of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel and the Rodney King riots, this book encapsulates the entire history of LA in amazing photos.

A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory by Norman M. Klein and City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis

I am putting these two books together because they are somewhat academic but nevertheless spectacular. Both are historians who explain Los Angeles’ strange tendency to obscure its own past. A city of reinvention, it likes to deny that it was ever once something else, or god forbid, something better. As Mike Davis points out, Los Angeles once had a world famous stone arch which celebrated the entrance to the Selig Zoo. Every child in the city had seen and loved the animals which decorated the arch. When the zoo closed, everyone forgot about the arch and it was dismantled. A few decades later they found most of the animals in a junkyard in Fontana. Can you imagine this happening to the lions of the of the Central Park Library? Only LA could wipe out it’s own history this way.

The Price of Experience: Power, Money, Image and Murder in Los Angeles by Randall Sullivan

If you liked any of Bret Easton Ellis’ fictions of Los Angeles like Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms then you need to read this book. Because it is basically the real life version. Joe Hunt, a delusional genius creates a Ponzi scheme called the Billionaire Boys Club with a group of friends. Living the high life in Los Angeles they eat at the best restaurants and shop at the best stores. They lived in one of the high rises in the corridor between Beverly Hills and Westwood, which I believe still stands. Most incredibly, one of their marks is actually a con man who ends of conning them. As the wheels begin to come off, they descend into violence and murder. And this all happens during the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA. This book is just a fascinating look at the kind of culture that LA had during that era and the worst it brought out (and brings out) in some. This is a truly underrated book.

LA Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City by John Buntin

This is not related to the video game. It is an excellent book about Los Angeles, crime, the police force and it’s dark period of the 30s, 40s and 50s. I prefer some of the primary sources but this book is great, especially the parts about gangsters like Mickey Cohen. I saw the writer give a talk about it at the Los Angeles Athletic Club a few years back—itself a place that features into the book—and got a lot out of it.

4 Books About the Movie Business (because you can’t understand LA without understanding the biz)

The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood and The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Reality Behind the Movies by Edward Jay Epstein are the first books I was told to read before I moved to Hollywood. They explain the actual business model of the Hollywood studios (hint: it is NOT box office receipts) and this helps you understand why your actor and writer friends live and act the way they do. It’s why writers can have a house in the Hills without ever having made anything, for example. I also like Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Pete Guber Took Sony For a Ride In Hollywood because it explains just how incompetent and awful studio heads actually are. Finally, for a glimpse of some old school Hollywood glamour, check out The Kid Stays In The Picture: A Notorious Life by Robert Evans (it’s also a great documentary). Evans is nuts. I’m not sure how much there is to learn about the city itself but it is a fascinating story of some of the people who made the town in the last half of the 20th century—better than fiction. I think it shows you how far hustle and hype and heat contribute to success in LA. And that faith in yourself—deserved, delusional or not—goes a long way.

Los Angeles is an important city to understand. It’s just as old as San Francisco, but it seems like it went wrong somewhere along the way. It had its own version of the Lower East Side (Bunker Hill, which you’ve probably seen in LA Confidential). But where is it now? They tore it down. It wasn’t simply some diabolical plot to destroy a city (sorry, Chinatown) but mostly apathy and as we said earlier, a lack of understanding. The people who live there fundamentally do not understand their own heritage and thus they allowed it to be wrecked, often in the name of “improvement.”

When I left Los Angeles I needed to move out of there so badly. I was just so tired and sick of it. So much about LA is broken and not what it could be—how can a city that very intentionally embraced the car and had forsaken all other forms of transportation have such horrible roads? How could a city with so many sports teams, professional and college, basically not be into sports? How could a city known for it’s awesome weather basically be unbearable when its hot and shut down when it rains? And yet, understanding and reading about it—a lot of which happened after I left—made me love and miss it again.

So understand it now before it’s too late. You’ll thank these authors—not me—if you let them teach you.

This post appeared originally on Thought Catalog.

Meet Your Worst Enemy

April 21, 2017 — 7 Comments

No matter where you are and what you’re doing, your worst enemy is always with you—your ego.

“Not me,” you think. “No one would ever call me an egomaniac.” Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as a pretty balanced person. But for any person with ambitions, talents, drives, and potential to fulfill, ego comes with the territory. Precisely what makes us so promising as thinkers, doers, creatives, and entrepreneurs—what drives us to the top of those fields—makes us vulnerable to this darker side of our psyche.

Freud described the ego with a famous analogy—our ego was the rider on a horse, with our unconscious drives representing the animal the ego tried to direct. Modern psychologists use the word “egotist” to refer to someone who is dangerously focused on themselves, with disregard for anyone else. Each of these definitions is true enough but of little value outside a clinical setting. The ego we see most commonly goes by a more colloquial definition—an unhealthy belief in your own importance. It is, as Bill Walsh put it, “where confidence becomes arrogance.”

Most of us aren’t egomaniacs, but ego is at the root of almost every conceivable problem and obstacle we have, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all of the time—and at the expense of others.

We don’t usually see it this way. We think something else is to blame for our problems—most often, other people. We are, as the poet Lucretius put it a few thousand years ago, the proverbial “sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady.” With every ambition and goal we have—big or small—ego is there, undermining us on the very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing.

Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. The second you believe in your greatness, the artist Marina Abramovic explains, that’s the death of your creative career.

Pioneering CEO Harold Geneen compared egoism to alcoholism: “The egotist does not stumble about, knocking things off his desk. He does not stammer or drool. No, instead, he becomes more and more arrogant, and some people, not knowing what is underneath such an attitude, mistake his arrogance for a sense of power and self-confidence.” You could say they start to mistake that about themselves too, not realizing the disease they’ve contracted or that they’re killing themselves with it.

If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. One early member of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything.

The ways this separation manifests itself negatively are immense: We can’t work with other people if we’ve put up walls. We can’t improve the world if we don’t understand it or ourselves. We can’t take or receive feedback if we are incapable of, or uninterested in, hearing from outside sources.

We can’t recognize opportunities—or create them— if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to those of others, what we have is not confidence but delusion. How are we supposed to reach, motivate, or lead other people if we can’t relate to their needs because we’ve lost touch with our own?

Just one thing keeps ego around—since it certainly doesn’t serve any productive purpose. It is comfort. Pursuing great work—whether in sports, art, or business— is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to our insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.

But it is a short-​term fix with a long-​term consequence. Which is why we must fight it.

We all have goals: We want to matter. We want to be important. We want to have freedom and power to pursue our creative work. We want respect from our peers and recognition for our accomplishments. Not out of vanity or selfishness, but of an earnest desire to fulfill our personal potential.

While we hold up humility as an admirable trait, the problem is that we’re not sure it can get us to the goals above. We are petrified as the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells put it, that if we are humble, we will end up “subjugated, trodden on, embarrassed, and irrelevant.”

I’ve spent the last two years working on a book about ego, and I’ve heard some version of this paradox from many people. They would nod vigorously in agreement with me that ego was bad, that it destroyed creativity and happiness, that they knew plenty of toxic egomaniacs who had wrecked themselves. And then they would say, “But a little bit of ego is still important though, right?”

Even people who despise ego and aspire to humility, who plan to be humble once they are successful, are worried that actually enacting those beliefs would sentence them to a life of obscurity or weakness or failure.

Allow me to address that fear right now: One does not need to be an egotistical asshole to be successful. In fact, this is one of the most misleading and destructive myths in all of Western culture, right next to the idea that one must be a drug addict to be a successful musician or starving to produce great art.

The idea that only the swaggering, all-knowing, and ruthlessly ambitious succeed is a lie. One that has discouraged so many people with so much potential—and worse, encouraged many more to crash and burn.

History bears shows the truth. For every Douglas MacArthur or George McClellan, brilliant but laughably convinced of their own greatness and power, there is a George Marshall, a general who accomplished far more (far more quietly) and coveted far less credit along the way. For every Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian (who while successful are also spoiled and entitled), there is a Katharine Graham, who was born into greater wealth and did far more with it.

Ego is certainly there in many of the greatest and most dizzying tales of success—but it’s there in some of the greatest stories of failure and self-implosion as well. Howard Hughes. John DeLorean. Ty Warner. Lance Armstrong. Richard Nixon.

When creative people warn against ego, they aren’t relying on Freud’s definition or any psychiatric diagnosis. They are using the colloquial definition—referring to the dangerous inflection point where our notion of ourselves and the world grows so strong that it begins to distort the reality which surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.” It is this belief in our own greatness or specialness that can undo our creative abilities.

The reasons why ego is a career-killer instead of the killer-advantage people tell themselves it might be are two-fold:

First, the essence of creativity is a deep and continuous connection to the world around you. To product lasting and meaningful work, one must understand themselves, other people and their craft—not delusionally but intuitively. If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits artistic expression by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. So the artist must possess a certain amount of realism because that realism is critical to great art, great writing, great design, great business, great marketing, and great leadership.

From this connection and understanding stem all the other important parts of the puzzle—for instance, we cannot reflect truth if we’re incapable of seeing any. We cannot take or receive feedback if we are too conceited to hear it or if our own reality overpowers the objective standards we need to measure ourselves against. We cannot connect with others if our attitude and approach pushes them away—or pushes us above them. We cannot recognize opportunities—or create them—if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. We cannot be truly confident unless we have an accurate accounting of our own abilities. And we certainly cannot relate to, reach, motivate or compel other people to follow our lead if we’re not able to grasp their deepest and often hidden human needs.

One of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything and everyone—especially our audience. In other words, you can get too wrapped up in your own head.

In his recent exploration of what makes for bad art, Toby Little, put it well when he said, “Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self.” Ego blocks us from hearing that. Even works of fantastical fiction and surrealism require not only knowledge of human nature and truth, but in the course of their execution will require the artist to receive, evaluate and integrate feedback if they hope to successfully deliver their message. A creative can’t get better or learn if they think they’re already perfect. Which is why we find that when it comes to the art itself—despite any bluster and marketing—the artist must be humble and dedicated and open.

Second, managing a creative career requires a connection to one’s audience as well as a network of relationships with managers, clients, bookers, agents, and other industry personnel. Ego makes the management of these relationships and the cultivation of this audience difficult, if not impossible over the long term. There is an almost unbelievable scene told in Zac Bissonnette’s fascinating biography of Ty Warner, the creative and marketing genius behind the billion dollar Beanie Baby empire. At the peak of the toy’s popularity, Warner decided to abruptly discontinue selling Beanie Babies to sell Beanie “Kids” instead. Everyone around him told him these new toys were ugly, that he was making an enormous mistake. Fearing his wrath, most employees stopped challenging him (and when they did he’d say “Who’s the billionaire here?”) On the eve of the launch, one trusted advisor stood up to him, predicting failure for this new product. Ty’s response: “I could put the Ty heart on manure and they’d buy it!” he told them.

Needless to say, “they” did not buy them. The same behavior that propelled Ty Warner to massive success also propelled him right through and out of it—in fact, he narrowly avoided going to jail just a few years later. John DeLorean, the brilliant engineer and car designer followed a similar trajectory. He was brilliant creatively, but no amount of brilliance could compensate for the destructiveness of his ego. It was ego and his inability to work well with others that drove him out of General Motors. His ego mired his new company in chaos and dysfunction. Ultimately, instead of being able to reflect on these failures and resolve them, he hatched a plan to save his company from insolvency with a $60 million dollar cocaine deal instead of, you know, anything but that.

When people say “But a little bit of ego is a good thing,” they’ve considered the matter only superficially. What they mean is that success requires a certain confidence, a faith in oneself—and in that they are correct. But it’s critical that we make the distinction between confidence and ego.

The mixed martial arts pioneer and UFC pioneer Frank Shamrock has observed that of the two, only confidence can bear weight. “Confidence is important,” he said, “But ego is something false. Humility is the way to build confidence, and ego is hugely dangerous in this sport, because if you’re running on ego you aren’t running on good clean emotions or cause and effect. You bypass it to support a false idea. It’s all garbage, the ego is garbage.”

Confidence is based on what is real—it is earned. Ego is based on delusion and wishful thinking—it is artifice. Confidence doesn’t alienate us from others. On the contrary, it allows us to relate to others better—because it has removed insecurity and fear from the equation. When you are confident you can be empathetic and vulnerable. Ego makes us an asshole. Confidence—as anyone who has ever stepped foot into any martial arts studio can tell you—has the opposite effect. Confidence is calm, compassionate, curious, careful. That is: it is all the things one needs to be creative.

And yet, we hold onto the vestige of the idea that ego is something worth retaining. We tell ourselves that we need a certain brashness to succeed, why? Fear. Pursuing great work—whether it is in sports or art or business—is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to that insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.

It is a short term fix with a long term consequence. Because we know how those stories end.

Not happily. Not with cheering crowds but with jeering boos. And self-loathing. And disgrace. And self-implosion.

Think Lance Armstrong training for the 1999 Tour de France or Barry Bonds debating whether to walk into the BALCO clinic. We flirt with arrogance and deceit and in the process, grossly overstate the importance of winning at all costs. Everyone is juicing, the ego says to us, you should too. There’s no way to beat them without it, we think.

Which is why we must resist the impulse towards ego in our creative pursuits. We must suppress it early on so that we can learn and work and not be distracted. When we experience success, we must learn to replace the temptations of ego with humility and discipline. Finally, we must cultivate strength, fortitude and our own standards so that when fate turns, we’re not wrecked by failure.

To put that briefly:

Humble in our aspirations

Gracious in our success

Resilient in our failures

This post first appeared on 99U.