Operating in a State of Flux


Once again, Maria over at I Was an Expat Wife has hit the proverbial nail on the head.

She wrote a great piece recently Can Previous Expat Experience Help With Adjustment? that I hope you’ll take the chance to read.

In it, she examines whether having prior expat experience can affect one’s ability to adjust in later overseas assignments. Are there shortcuts to adjustment that we can learn, as in the ‘same framework, different details’ approach? Or is culture-specific knowledge not necessarily transferable?

Based on her research, Maria comes down on the side of the latter (places can be so culturally different that they throw even the most hardened expat for a loop), but draws the conclusion that previous expat adjustment experience does offer broad knowledge in terms of understanding the importance of cultural awareness and of how you operate (e.g., self-confidence and a sense of how you act/react).

It was while reading the concluding paragraph that I had a light bulb moment. A seriously bright light bulb moment (for me).

You know the kind, where suddenly your brain makes the connection from two (or more) seemingly random or unrelated pieces of information. Only the connection seems so obvious, so intuitive, you wonder why you never made the connection before.

Definitely a ‘doh’ moment.

And yes, I slapped my forehead when I made the connection. But gently, since I didn’t want to interrupt my obviously slow-firing synapses any more than necessary.

So what was this flash of personal insight?

It had to do with my prior work experience, or rather, a specific period in my previous employment history.

Maria wrote: ‘The great benefit of prior experience is that it fosters more realistic expectations…You have more confidence in your ability to adjust to a new environment. You’re more forgiving of your lapses, because you’re aware that the journey to integration is often a bumpy one.’

That’s when my brain synapses had finally warmed up enough to fire, and I made the connection: my (relatively) frequent change in work assignments several years ago has served me in good stead when facing a state of flux or significant change in other areas of my life.

Including expat life.

Let me explain. In a prior life I used to work in the policy arena in the US Department of Defense. During my career there, I worked on a wide variety of policy issues. A really wide variety. Now if you took a look at my resume or curriculm vitae, you’d see that during my career I averaged only 18 months in most positions. Sometimes less.

To someone on the outside, all of that ‘job-hopping’ might raise a red flag. You might think that I was easily bored or lacking in focus or skills, or perhaps unable to fulfill my responsibilities. That I couldn’t hold a job. Or that I was a problem employee.

Fortunately, the truth was actually the opposite. I was regularly tapped for new positions. Sometimes it was the result of a reorganization or change in political administration. Other times it was because someone else retired or left. Still other times it was because we were creating an entirely new office, building from scratch or pulling disparate policy pieces together into a new entity.

I rarely had a chance to mull over the various job assignments, because while they were ‘asking’ me to agree to take each new job (and they were downright flattering as they did so), we all knew that I didn’t really have much of a choice.

They were mentoring my career while I was gaining experience and building up organizational goodwill (I’d say ‘brownie points’); it almost always worked out, and besides, it probably wouldn’t be all that long before I was called in and informed that there was a new challenge on the horizon that they wanted me to be part of.

After awhile, it became a bit like ‘here we go again’. Starting over, starting anew. Only for good reasons, not negative ones. Get thrown in a new pool? Better start swimming.

Now I’m not saying that I was smarter or more knowledgeable or more experienced than others, because I wasn’t. Clearly I was not so indispensible that they felt they couldn’t move me. Let me also say that I worked with and had the support of great people, so I never felt I was ‘out there’ by myself. I enjoy working with people, so continually building new teams wasn’t torture to me.

Rather, I think it was a case of getting thrown into a job and when faced with a sink-or-swim situation, I tended to swim. Maybe not Olympic-caliber crisp strokes, but enough to keep my head above water.

Not everyone enjoys change, but I learned to deal with it. I could operate in that vague, new-to-the-job-but-better-get-up-to-speed-quickly fog without panicking or feeling overwhelmed.

How could I not learn to accept change since it happened often enough?  I guess you could say that I learned to embrace change. It even became my personal credo.

New positions, new adventures. Sound familiar?

Now, I don’t pretend that just because you make the adjustment in one culture that you’ll automatically whiz through elsewhere. I have absolutely no doubt that there are places in this world where I might move that are so culturally different to what I know and have been exposed to that it would feel downright alien.

And that’s okay. It’s in embracing the change, and knowing we’ll survive it that we can take heart. It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it’s painful. It may not be neat and tidy. Often we’ll be operating in a state of flux.

As Maria said, ‘…prior experience fosters more realistic expectations…more confidence in your ability to adjust…forgiving of your lapses…aware that the journey to integration is often a bumpy one.’

So when faced with change, monumental change, cut yourself a break. Know that it may be bumpy, but the journey does lead to integration. Go easy on yourself (and others), and ride out the transition.


Image credit: Salvatore Vuono portfolio 659, freedigitalphotos.net


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