When my wife and I decided to temporarily leave our lives in Portland, Oregon to move to Medellin, Colombia, we had a general idea of what to expect.
My wife is Colombian-American and we had visited many times prior, loving it every time. We also had a few freelance/consulting options lined up but planned to go regardless of whether we were working or not.
Now a year in, the experience remains a roller-coaster, albeit one that we can mostly predict but now know where the seat belts are located. Once you’re fully immersed in it, you come to fully appreciate that the expat experience is both personally and professional profound, as you sit 4,000 miles away, feeling disconnected from the world at home as it pushes forward.
But because you’re not a student cradled by academia or working on a short-term project with a familiar US-based company—or on sabbatical or retirement—the reality of daily life looks and functions much differently than what many trying to relate with you back home have experienced once. When you’re working and living abroad in a developing country, any type of challenge that you had in the U.S. can easily be amplified by 100. And forget about any type of security.
Which is why working and living abroad creates a special type of club. There are only a handful of expats out there who know what it’s like, what it takes to do it right, and how it changes you as a professional and as a person. And while you live this personally profound experience, you can’t help but feel insecure that everyone back home thinks that you’re on some type of extended vacation.
I won’t lie. It’s tough. It challenges professional muscles that you didn’t know that you had. It forces you to stare down your flaws in the mirror each morning. It requires a different kind of strength to persevere, adapt, and follow-through—even when your bags are prematurely packed and you’re ready to leave the insanity behind, drink an actual large cup of coffee, and use American euphemisms without having to explain what they mean.
But—and not to sound like a Hallmark card—all of these experiences packaged together really are the beautiful, dynamic adventure that we anticipated and hoped for. It’s why we moved here. To power through the good and bad, to learn how to adapt like never before, and to emerge from it with great stories, exceptional professional experiences, and a new toolbox of skills—and muscles trained—that I might not have known how to use fully before.
I’m a firm believer that adventure and experience shape professional abilities. I’ll bet that large cup of coffee that the more unique experiences someone collects over time, the more dynamic and effective a particular person will/can be in the work place. It’s a type of education absent from resumes, but never short on potential and growth.
All that said, here are 10 things that have blown up my professional world, showing me a new perspective on what growth really means—with the caveat that I’m very much generalizing one perspective and experience:
1-What you thought you knew about communication will change dramatically. You’ll become very good at verbalizing every aspect of a direction…and learn how to really, really listen.
I'm the director of a team represented by four different countries. I was born on a farm in rural Iowa and have never quite been able to shake my Midwest accent, giving me a full menu of rural idioms and American euphemisms. Which might be folksy in a Pacific Northwest board room, but make zero sense to Colombians—or even Australians—most of the time.
I’ve become very good at framing a vision and providing direction in the most neutral way possible, being mindful of slang, euphemisms, and buzzwords. It’s forced me to have an internal dialogue about what exactly I want to communicate before I take it to the team. It’s also helped me become really good at understanding context, guessing intentions, and assessing the emotional environment. It’s helped me to truly listen and seek to understand before pushing forward.
2-You learn how to really tune in and feel what’s happening, including cultural norms and differences—rather than simply watching as a passive observer.
U.S. Americans have strong opinions, often just to have them and to appear engaged. They also vent. For many, it’s a great way to burn off steam at a happy hour, behind a closed door, or at lunch with colleagues. But Colombians don't do this, at least not professionally or like U.S. Americans do. For them it’d be rehashing a negative experience that doesn’t contribute to happiness. Often, they put the issue out of sight and out of mind, never to be revisited.
For us U.S. Americans on the team, this seems like unhealthy suppression. “But, but…we’re not going to talk about how to change it, or next steps, or opinions on the matter??” Working and managing a team abroad clues you into these nuances and provides an antenna for not only appreciating the small, subtle differences—but also understanding how the small things add up to create a bigger picture of cohesion, morale, and growth.
3-Empathy takes on monumental new meaning. Seriously.
The Colombians on my team are saints for working in English. Imagine trying to articulate complex marketing strategies in your second language. Over time it would become beyond frustrating, causing tension and misunderstandings. U.S. and Colombian work environments also could not be more different. Colombia is very relationship-based, and I would argue that the U.S. is very transaction-focused. In the U.S. we prioritize efficiency and completed to-do lists, while weaving in relationships if they fit conveniently or help accomplish a goal.
It’s the complete opposite in Colombia. Nothing can prepare you for how to flip the switch or how to maneuver from one of these environments to the other, once you’re in it. But at the end of the day, transitioning between the two worlds provides a daily lesson in empathy, understanding, and patience. The work will always be there. And in time after a few team challenges, these differences balance out and add to the team dynamic, rather than detract. It’s all a matter of listening, understanding, and placing importance on people.
4-Your definition of success changes, and mostly for the better.
Let’s face it. Unless you’re working in a traditionally developed country, you’re going to have adjust your expectations and approach. Mostly for sanity and self-preservation. But also because it’s a terrible environment for your team to work under the umbrella of impossibility. In a developing country, it’s a given that nothing moves fast, but you also discover—and often terribly ungracefully—surprising metrics that have nothing to do with sales numbers, lead generation, or occupancy rates; but much more to do with relationships, people, and their capacity for doing great things.
This is mostly common sense, and in the U.S. we, too, value relationships even if viewed as a means to an end. But in a place like Colombia you find that by focusing solely on genuine relationships with team members, with no other agenda, all of the other pieces somehow just fall into place. There are no number of Gantt charts or board meetings that can give you a similar result here.
5-You find inspiration in new places, but ultimately your values and process stay the same.
This one hit me hard because I had to rewrite my routine. But once the culture shock wears off, you find that getting outdoors and nature still works wonders for self-care and creativity, daily exercise keeps you grounded, and the people around you provide the best feedback loop and community.
6-You become a master at learning how to hae 3-4 contingencies in your back pocket.
As they say, the best laid plans…And this isn’t cynicism. It’s simply the reality of managing anything in a developing country. You can pretty much count on someone being late or never showing up, not communicate changes or delays, or assume zero liability for any major disasters. Especially when approaching a project or strategy from a U.S. perspective, I find myself, even with small errands, reaching deep for a third or fourth option when all else fails. It empowers resourcefulness and industriousness, builds patience, and provides a pleasant surprise when something actually works according to plan.
7-Your true leadership style takes shape when powering through homesickness and expat fatigue.
There will be days when the thought of leading a team in a country that has exhausted your endurance literally sounds worse than a twelve-week seminar on ergonomics and office kitchen safety. Working hard to lead when you’re craving home and ready to throw in the towel is not only the definition of leadership, but the benchmark for taking your leadership skills to the next level. It’s not easy, but after a few cases of trial and error, it will be these leadership experiences that I’ll remember and borrow from for the rest of my life.
8-You learn how to become a pro at failing with grace. And seeing it positively.
Being confronted with limited resources while meeting U.S.-style expectations could be a recipe for missteps and disaster. But it’s just part of the process of swimming against the current as an expat living and working abroad. There will be both big and small failures throughout the day, and most often it’s an accumulation of the little things that will really get you. There will be processes, or lack of, that don’t work. At all. I got kicked out of the immigration office here because of a basic and harmless miscommunication (and an overzealous security guard…).
You’ve heard the coach-speak before: it’s not about how many times you fail. It’s about how you bounce back and the personal/professional tools you use for coping and holding your head up. Unfortunately this is also a lesson that must be experienced to be learned, because it’s easy to read and comprehend. It’s much more challenging in the moment when you’re not accustomed to a barrage of unexpected challenges.
9-You become painfully aware of your own privilege and catch yourself being the worst type of urban know-it-all. And if you don’t think you’re doing it, you’re usually lying to yourself.
Simply being able to momentarily step away from a privileged U.S. life is a privileged experience all its own. And then you find yourself saying things like “in the U.S., we do it so much faster and better by doing X, Y, Z.” You catch yourself applying privileged standards to processes, cultural norms, and a way-of-life that don’t necessarily need your wisdom or revisions. Sure, U.S. business efficiencies work extremely well. But we are also fortunate to receive the education and professional experiences to inform this know-how starting at a very early age. It’s drilled into us, and sometimes not always for the better. Tread with cultural sensitivity, humility, and empathy when helping colleagues in a developing country find the best direction or solution.
10-Even in the toughest moments, you’ll strive to be grateful for a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the people around you.
We can live here without the reality of needing to set anchor. We will be back in the US shortly and can count this as an invaluable experience as we go back to the comfortable life we knew and know. So many not only don’t have the means for this type of experience mid-career, but don’t have the advantage to pick and choose the different experiences that they can participate in throughout life. For that I am extremely grateful, and incredibly thankful for those who have helped steer this journey.
I know I’m missing a lot. What would you add?