Thursday, August 8, 2013

When work is viewed as play. The problem people who work abroad face when they return home.

For those looking for travel updates, you'll have to wait a week or so.  This one is longer than normal and examines the effects of working abroad on your future work potential when the traveler returns home.

There are many things I love about living abroad.  First and foremost, I love how it makes a challenge of everyday life.  Buying milk, yep.  Ordering in a restaurant, check.  Trying to get anywhere you can't walk to, definitely.  When the simplest tasks can stretch your imagination, improvisation, and miming skills, every day is interesting (can you mime your pizza order?  I now can).  Every time I'm back in the US, everything is so .... easy.  Frankly, it's boring.

I also miss the unexpected, like going to the sauna and ending up in a conversation with an older gentleman while naked in a hottub (this happened last week).  And of course, I hate to lose the easy travel.  Vacations to the Philippines aren't exactly simple when you live in Texas.  So obviously, there's a lot to like about working abroad.

However, many people see traveling and teaching abroad as a lazy slacker's way to avoid responsibility and a "real job".  They think people who do it lay around on a beach all day, living out a Peter Pan complex.  And for a few people I've met, that's accurate.  I'm not one of those people.

This leads to my one concern with working abroad.  Namely that doing this will hurt me when I decide to return to the US and look for a job.  It shouldn't.  My time abroad has helped me develop some very useful skills that will help me in every job I do.  One of the first that comes to mind is adaptability.  After 3 years abroad, I can deal with any problem, change, or situation without batting an eye.  Almost nothing phases me anymore.

Going hand in hand with adaptability is comfort with uncertainty.  People prefer certainty in most aspects of their lives, i.e. they prefer a steady income over a fluctuating one.  Uncertainty makes people worry.  When you work abroad though, uncertainty is a constant.  One you quickly become comfortable with.  Instead of worrying, you prepare for what might happen.

Another advantage is cultural awareness and sensitivity.  Working abroad teaches you how to work with a variety of people, even when communication isn't clear.  It helps you respect and learn from the views of others and often to adopt their way of doing things when they are superior to your own.  It makes you more open-minded to options and opinions other than your own.

Along with that open mind discussed above, comes a willingness to question things most people take for granted.   Some basic examples include why the US doesn't use the metric system or why ethics, manners and personal finance aren't taught in middle and high school as they are many places.  Or an even simpler one.  Why is it considered rude to verbally call a waiter over when we want something?  We expect them to read our minds and just know when we need food or drinks in a restaurant.  In Korea or Vietnam when you want something, you loudly call "over here" and a server comes right over.  It works so much better!  But most people wouldn't even think to question things like this because "that's just the way we do it".  In short, living abroad teaches you to think outside the proverbial box.

Even if potential employers accept these skills, they will often say, "You're several years removed from your degree.  You've been away from your field of study.  Your degree was worth more when you first graduated."  I couldn't disagree more.

What does an undergraduate degree prove?  It proves you're smart enough to graduate.  That you're dedicated enough to finish what you start.  What about a Master's degree?  It proves you can analyze a situation at least reasonably effectively.  That you can actually come up with solutions on your own, instead of just being told what to do and how to do it.  Unless you're in a highly specialized field like engineering or accounting, degrees don't impart knowledge specifically useful to a job so much as they impart a way of thinking and solving problems.  Almost all jobs will teach you what you need to know.  Give me an intelligent, hard-working person and I can teach them to do almost any job.  If the person is willing to be humble, learn, and work hard, the time since they graduated shouldn't be an issue for a company with even a half-decent training or mentoring program.

I write about all this, of course, because it personally affects me.  I love my life and I don't regret the choices that led me here for a moment.  The experiences I've had have shaped me into the man I am and provided a lifetime of wonderful memories.  However, I do worry that others may not understand and it might hurt me later.  So for now, I'll apply what I wrote about the above and prepare as much as possible for the uncertainty that will come when I decide to return to the US for good.  When I do, I'll pray that I find an employer that recognizes the value of my experience here.

However, that's enough somber reflection on this subject for now.  Now it's time to focus on the present and the amazing trip with Vicky that fills my very immediate future.  See you on the road!

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