Adding a few stamps to your passport? Check! Speaking a few words in a new language? Check! Spending the days off with some new friends in exotic locations? Check!
Living and working abroad comes with a lot of great perks. It’s no surprise that those infected by the travel bug often venture back abroad to satisfy their longing for new adventures and experiences. But at times we don’t realize that living abroad offers more benefits than just travel opportunities. If you look past the immediate experience into the long-term implications of having experienced life and work in another culture, you will soon be able to see the huge advantages for future life and career options.
The experiences and adjustments abroad in an unknown culture give you a front seat in the quest for well-rounded, global citizens and (future) leaders.
So, what are the top five long-term benefits of living abroad?
1) Familiarity with the unfamiliar
To say that you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone a few times while living abroad is probably an understatement. It starts with distinguishing shampoo from conditioner from cleaning product in the supermarket, to understanding medical diagnosis, to dealing with an unfamiliar leadership style. Every time you experienced these at first uncomfortable or even absurd moments, you stepped into your stretch zone (see picture). This is where the magic happens, and learning occurs!
Clearly, being able to take charge and move forward even though you are not familiar and comfortable with all the surroundings, people or facts, is a huge advantage in times when things are changing rather quickly (just think, technological advancements) and many outcomes cannot be foreseen.
Your ability to adapt goes hand in hand with the unfamiliar. First, you need to notice that things around you are different in another country. Then, you’ll need to find a way to adapt to this lifestyle to make ends meet. For example, you notice that the way to cross a heavily trafficked street is dramatically different to what you do at home. At first, you try your way while observing the others’ behavior with discomfort. After a while, you dare to try the local style until at one point a visitor points out that what you are doing is so bizarre. You’ve adapted to local norms and behaviors. You might actually embrace the change over time. Your adaptability increased out of the necessity to not only survive abroad but thrive in a new culture. Why not use that to your advantage back home to seek alternatives to the ways things are normally done?
3) Intercultural Competence
Being exposed and interacting with people from other cultures every day while being in an unfamiliar environment and having to adapt constantly can feel a bit much in the beginning. We’ve all had those moments where patience was not a word in our vocabulary.
But looking back, there was that day, month, or year when you noticed that things were not as complicated, and you finally knew how to handle certain situations according to the local standards. That, my friend, is what it means to become interculturally competent. You interacted, worked, and communicated effectively and appropriately in the foreign place you’ve established yourself in. Of course, this is a never ending story, as cultures always change. But experience abroad gives you a sharp advantage in a competence that is highly sought after in globalized times.
4) Expanded Network
This is a no-brainer, but easily forgotten once back to motherland. It is quite hard NOT to expand your global network while living and playing abroad (unless you’ve become the ultimate couch potato). The important thing is to hone this network once you’re back home. Coaches, managers, or team mates move around and get new jobs, and they will be presenting you with indirect opportunities if you keep your eyes and mind open. Do yourself a favor and keep in touch with the people you’ve met and valued abroad.
5) Personal Growth
The number one long-term benefit is definitely the fact that you learn so much more about yourself. Being thrown in situations where you understand one word in each five sentences, or simply trying to make your shower water run at a normal temperature (too hot, too cold, anyone?) gives you a very clear picture of who you really are. Living abroad is ultimately like a big growth spurt during teenage years. At first, it’s awkward, new, and unfamiliar, but once you get the hang of handling the new situation, you’ll see that it is an improved version of yourself. The independence and confidence in your abilities are matched with the humbleness and appreciation of what you have and are able to accomplish. What better benefit is there to take home with you?
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Pictures sources: ideo.org, Susan Salzbrenner