WHAT YOU GAIN WHEN YOU MOVE OVERSEAS
When you first step off the plane and into the humid, pungent chaotic reality that is your new life overseas, you are usually giddy with anticipation, delighted by the newness of a new land. But once you get hungry, all you worry about is food. The romance of travel checked by the practical needs of survival.
And that’s to be expected. If you can’t successfully cross the street or figure out how to buy lunch, no amount of new cultural experiences will offset that basic need. Once you meet that practical, physical need, you return to your fascination with the new. And this can continue for a while - vacillating between practical responsibilities (job stressors, shopping for food, taxes, kids, school, vaccinations and a million more things) and stimulation - focusing on the next new cultural experience (each of which promises to be more titillating and enlightening then the last). It’s a cycle that can carry on for quite a long time.
And in the midst of this reactive cycle, questions about where you're going with your life, well… you just hope that this whole life purpose, spiritual enlightenment, career development, growing up thing kind of takes care of itself and you try not to think too much about it.
However, you do eventually figure out some semblance of a plan for your life overseas (or at least most of us expats do, for those who don't… well that’s a story for another post). After surviving the initial ice-bath of total immersion in a new culture, and outlasting the first months of Adrenalin-fueled curiosity, and progressing through a few years of figuring out life, you should to a point where you’ve got to figure out where things are headed, and what you want to do with your life when you grow up.
A very small group of people are born with this innate sense of what who and what they’re going to be when they grow up. They’ve never doubted their calling, and I loathe those people. The rest of us have to figure things out as we go along, regardless of where we live.
The real risk is that someday we wake up and realize that we're living a life we never choose, doing something that we don't especially like and that we're not especially good at. We get by, but it’s a lot of surviving, toughing it out to the weekend, and not a lot of flourishing. This is no way to go through life, its certainly not what you hoped for when you moved overseas, and you've wasted far too many years living like this.
But what's a person supposed to do? There isn't a road map or even a user's manual to our lives, and if you decided to figure out life overseas, you've added an extra layer of complexity to the whole deal.
And that little point, adding complexity to an already confusing life, that is absolutely brilliant.
No, seriously. Whether you intended to or not, moving overseas sets the difficulty level a few notches higher in life. Stress? Higher. Confusion? Higher. Demands for flexibility? Higher. Communication difficulties? Higher. Risk of burnout? Higher. Risk of malaria / typhoid / food poisoning? Higher.
But this expat life teaches you a few things, if you're quick enough, open enough to grasp the lessons.
You learn what it means to be a strong outsider.
If you can learn to thrive in a place where you're an outsider, you gain so much. This lesson is paid for through sleepless nights of jet lag, moments of confusion at restaurants, immigration offices and dusty bazaars, through patience as you realize you've been charged three times the normal rate because you’re an outsider and you're committed only paying twice the normal rate.
You've been stretched in ways that few people outside of the expat world will ever understand. And once you've awoken from the romanticized dream of your expat life, and then persevered through the victim's mindset of how every driver in this country is trying to cut you off in traffic, then you can start to embrace the beauty and unique opportunities that you find in your chosen home.
You gain a new perspective.
And that is something special. Becoming someone who is able to see the world from two vantage points at the same time? To navigate the windy, rocky ridge top between seemingly incompatible worldviews? To savor the richness of life you've crafted despite having fewer physical things, less physical comforts, and way less personal space? To begin to comprehend the sacrifice that someone has made to honor you, a stranger, as their welcome guest? Those lessons are priceless and cannot be conveyed in any MBA program. To become strong enough that you'd consider what it means to not only survive in a different culture, but also recognize that you're changing and growing through your experiences, and that realization gives you an extra resource to draw from as you endure difficulty and confusion. It's growing in wisdom and humility and confidence because you're stepping outside of the single rigid perspective that you used to cling to, but now realize that you have a new perspective on life and circumstances. What was once "unacceptable" is now "tolerable" because you've been stretched and challenged.
Your capacity for focus is increased dramatically.
In some ways it's like learning to juggle while riding a unicycle. You've learned to juggle knives? Good for you. You've learned to ride a unicycle? Odd, but bully for you. The ability to do both at the same time? Now we're talking about something that few people will manage to ever attempt, let alone succeed at because it's absurdly difficult. And that's what it's like to try to grow in the midst of chaos. The point is this: Embracing growth while living overseas isn't a simple premise. It's not just adding one more thing onto a busy schedule which means you'll have to postpone an hour of Netflix from Wednesday night to Saturday afternoon. It's about a mindset shift that says they're going to chase after something worthwhile no matter the chaos of life and culture that is surrounding me and strip away my attention from the things that I've decided that I want to pursue. You learn to control your impulses, say no to the opportunities that are good, but maybe not right for you, and to see who you are when stress and fatigue strip away the social niceties. You learn who you really are, not who you wish you were. And dropping that self-deception helps you know what you really want to focus your time, energy and passion on. To reference Greg McKeown (author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less): You make the decision that eliminates a thousand other decisions (and a thousand other distractions).
You learn to seize opportunity with fierce determination.
And that's what the expat who's learned to thrive despite difficult situations has learned to do. They have stopped waiting for things to be "perfect" and they've decided that now it the time to become initiative in their growth as an individual. You aren't waiting for the perfect opportunity, the perfect season, the perfect teacher to present themselves because you've realized there aren't any such creatures. Instead, you look for a sliver of an opportunity, the slightest chance and seize onto it with a dogged determination to make the most of that chance.
You aren't willing to hide or follow the crowd.
They're not willing to hunker down and wait out the confusing parts of this life, because the confusing parts of life are the ones we grow most during, and growth is what you really want. You don't want to be stuck with the current version of you for the rest of your life. And while that growth is going to look differently for each expat, and the path may not be the easy tricks what you read about in LifeHacker or a 30-day challenge that you hear about on Tim Ferriss, but honestly, the type of people who are willing to move to another part of the world and immerse themselves in an adventure, probably were never that interested in following the masses on the easy path anyway.
You decide what you're going to trade your life for.
Living overseas wakes you up in a way that cannot is nearly impossible when you're surrounded by people who all live and think the same way. Interacting with people who are functioning from a different set of core beliefs and consequently live their lives in pursuit of things that you maybe will never understand causes you to begin to notice the core assumptions about how you live your own life. And awareness of those assumptions about what's important to you gives you the incredible important opportunity to make a decision about what you will pursue with your life. Do not waste those moments of lucid clarity into what you are going to live your life for. For clarity’s sake: Do NOT waste those moments of lucid clarity. They are the moments when we change the direction of our lives, and they are priceless.
Please: Don't sell yourself short.
What you may call "surviving", "getting by" or "hanging in there" is so much more than that.
It's preparation. It's the stretching of a soul. It's the compression and frustration and tearing that needs to happen to you in order to grow into the next chapter of your life. Failure and frustration create a hunger to excel and succeed. The confusion of being lost makes finding your way all the more sweet. Difficulty and adversity grow us, but the twist of being an expat is that you've voluntarily chosen this path, despite knowing that it's more difficult, has more adversity and will change us in ways that we might not yet be fully aware of, and yet, you chose this.
We tend not to appreciate things that come easily, and the high cost and the waiting make success all the more cherished, if and only if we are willing to pursue them to their proper end in their proper timing.
Don't sacrifice the things that truly matter for things that don't. Don't short-circuit the process to growth. Don't escape from difficulty. And don't sell yourself short. You're in the process of refinement and the end state will more than make up for momentary challenges you endure.