Can working and living abroad help accelerate your professional and personal growth? I believe so. Here is why.
On 13 April 2017, I had my little anniversary – 11 years of living and working in London, UK. People who have never lived abroad want to know what it is like and whether they should consider it. The foreigners living in the UK I sometimes meet want to trade stories, commiserate about the challenges we face, or celebrate the small victories, such as finally opening a bank account. Therefore, I’ve decided to share some of my experience.
Having spent many years in the deep communism, I always had a desire to try living abroad, taking on exciting challenges. My father had defected when I was 14 and ended up living in Germany for many years. When I was finally permitted to visit him and heard his story, I was impressed by his courage and success, and saw what a person was capable of doing with sheer determination and hard work.
Looking back over my past 11 years in the UK, I haven’t always found it easy despite having a relatively successful career. When we arrived, I didn’t have a job, my eight-year old son didn’t speak English and I knew London from a couple of visits. A lesson learned here – do not think you know a city or a country if you experienced it only as a tourist, even multiple times. The reality may be remote from your impressions when staying in a lovely hotel.
So, what are some of the things to consider before making that life-changing decision? And, why should one actively seek out opportunities to work and live abroad? What’s in it for you, and why may this be a critical part of your career and personal development?
Learning how to live and work abroad
Everything is different at first when you start living abroad. Challenging situations you are put into immediately after your arrival will ultimately make you stronger. Everything from shopping, walking the streets, getting around, interacting with the locals, and just getting things done from morning to night is different than you are used to.
The secret to success, I believe, is to embrace the change. Put aside your desire to live exactly as you did in your home country. Live as a local. You will undoubtedly find it difficult at first, and frustrating at times, but the rewards are enormous including breaking your fear of change and doing things in a different way. You may find it is a better way you just did not know about.
Bringing this learning back home
Of course, this applies if you wish to return to your home country one day. Every nation has its local customs and peculiarities, let alone language nuances. I used to look at my watch when I got the answer of “give me two/ five minutes” and came back within that timeframe to remind the person the time has passed. The Brits found it hilarious. Another very important aspect of living in the UK is the weather, understandably a frequent subject of conversation. It can change very quickly – you see the sun is shining but by the time you get out, it’s gone. And when you finally have a good weather, you typically drop all your plans and go to the seaside or somewhere outdoors to enjoy it as it may not happen any time soon, so flexibility is key.
London is an exciting, vibrant and multicultural city, bursting with culture – lots of museums, galleries (most of them free of charge) and plenty of theatres featuring world-class performances. However, as a ‘local citizen’, you typically cannot live in the centre – it’s too expensive, so be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time on the tube which sometimes gets extremely crowded. The city is also very fast-paced: I recall the times when even small children were overtaking me on the street; I was walking so slowly as used from my home country.
Not only does each country have its own cultural norms but workplace customs vary greatly. Based on my experience, the working environment in the UK is more relaxed than the one I came from, in and out of meetings. However, it can be tricky; you are surrounded by many cultures, so you need to find the right balance between being yourself while respecting others. The British culture is very open and appreciative, which makes cultural assimilation easier.
Should I stay or should I go?
You do not have to stay abroad as long as I have done to acquire the valuable experience. If you choose to return to your home country, you will undoubtedly be enriched. Your learning from working and living abroad will be so immense that you will be looked at differently. Your experience will be perceived as a positive, will distinguish you from others and you will be known as someone who can operate under diverse and challenging circumstances.
Although working and living abroad is an experience that has become increasingly more common, it still needs a degree of courage; however, my advice to you is – take the leap and try it yourself. You will not regret it. I’m grateful for the learning I’ve acquired and feel I’ve grown both personally and professionally as a result of my time living abroad.
By Tereza Urbánková