Working Abroad Makes You More Versatile, Creative And Successful

by John Haltiwanger

When I was 23-years-old, I accepted a job as an English teacher in Georgia -- the post-Soviet republic and birthplace of Joseph Stalin.

While it was somewhat impulsive, it ended up being one of the best decisions I've ever made.

I'd graduated from college two years earlier and, like essentially every other early 20-something in the world, had no idea exactly what, where or who I wanted to be. But my gut told me moving abroad and working in a drastically different culture would change that, which is what ultimately led me to board a plane to Tbilisi, Georgia in January 2012.

To sum up my experience:

I lived and taught in a developing rural Georgian village for a little over half a year.

Froze myself to sleep in a house with a wonderful host family but no central heating (and I arrived in the middle of winter). Learned to speak a fair amount of the language. Drank copious amounts of Georgian wine (followed by much dancing and singing). Got chased by wild dogs. Dodged roaming farm animals on the street. Explored the Caucasus Mountains. Hitchhiked my way across the country. Rode a wobbly mini-bus to Armenia.

Walked across the Turkish border. Swam in the Black Sea. Got a tattoo from a Russian man who spoke no English (and I don't speak Russian). Made friends from all over the world and had the experience of a lifetime.

It was my time in Georgia that truly opened my eyes to the value of extended stays overseas, and particularly the benefits of working abroad. My experiences there inspired me to head to grad school in Scotland a few months after I left, where I also took a part-time job as both a waiter and bartender.

In both countries, which have drastically different standards of living, I found myself adjusting to new jobs while also adapting to unfamiliar cultures. This isn't an easy process, but I found that in opening myself up to these places, they opened themselves up to me.

This isn't to say I deserve some sort of applause, but that working abroad helps strengthen character and benefits anyone willing to accept the challenge.

Almost everyone wants to travel, study abroad or live overseas. I would highly recommend doing all of these things. On top of all this, I would strongly suggest, at some point in your life, you work abroad -- you won't regret it.

Working abroad forces you to adapt, making you more flexible in the long run.

The key to survival, in any walk of life, is adaptability. Working abroad helps you hone this quality, molding you into a multifaceted, versatile and resourceful individual.

One of the best aspects of this world is how diverse it is, but this is also what makes starting a new job in a different country so challenging.

As William Maddux, social psychologist and Associate Professor at INSEAD, contends in an article entitled "When in Rome... Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do":

Not everybody who goes abroad is motivated or able to adapt; encountering a different culture and an unfamiliar environment can be a stressful experience and people may feel overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable cultural differences, leading to culture shock, which only a subset of individuals are able to overcome successfully.

Indeed, working in a new country requires both the ability to recognize cultural idiosyncrasies and the willingness and capacity to adjust to them.

Ultimately, this makes a person more open-minded, empathetic and versatile, which are invaluable qualities in a globalized world.

Working abroad sharpens your mind and makes you more creative.

Exposure to multiple cultures does amazing things to our minds. Different cultures might approach the same problem in myriads ways. When you learn to see that one method is not necessarily more correct than another, it helps you think outside of the box.

Correspondingly, research has shown that people who've lived and worked abroad are more creative than others. Researchers in one study from Harvard Business Review explain:

People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity, our research suggests. What's more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products.

The researchers behind this study had 220 MBA students from Northwestern's Kellogg School attempt to solve the Duncker Candle Problem. In this experiment, participants are given a candle, matches and a box of tacks.

They're then asked to find a way to attach the candle to a cardboard wall in such a way it doesn't drip wax on the floor when lit. The key to solving this problem is realizing you can also use the box the tacks are held in as a tool.

Ultimately, the researchers found 60 percent of those who'd lived abroad solved the problem. Comparatively, only 42 percent of those who hadn't lived abroad were successful.

Furthermore, the same researchers found people who had genuinely adapted to the culture of the countries they lived in had a significant creative boost. In other words, if you do live and work abroad, it won't benefit you unless you're willing to fully open yourself up to your host country's way of life.

People who've worked abroad are more appealing to employers.

People with international experience have a competitive advantage in the working world. Employers are attracted to people who've worked abroad because they appreciate the intrinsic value of having that type of experience. They immediately recognize you have already overcome significant obstacles.

It takes a bold individual to leave home voluntarily and completely start over in an unfamiliar country, and most employers are cognizant of that. Not to mention, they're often looking for employees who are willing to travel, or perhaps even move, for the job -- international experience suggests you'd be more willing to do so.

As the Guardian highlights:

Overcoming the challenges of living and working abroad (such as dealing with bureaucracy, accepting different working practices, and surviving without your usual support network of family and friends) increases your resourcefulness and resilience. Experiencing a different culture or learning a foreign language also makes you more marketable to employers.

Having international experience also means you have a wide network, which is vital in terms of both obtaining employment and moving up the ladder. Success is largely dependent upon one's ability to cultivate relationships. If you've learned how to maneuver complicated multicultural waters, chances are you're pretty good with people.

People who've worked abroad are often more successful, and it's not just because they're more likely to get hired or promoted. Success is a very subjective term, as it's largely defined by how fulfilled one feels. It's not just about money or status, it's also dictated by how content we feel with our lives up to the present moment.

Working and living abroad will enrich your life in ways you couldn't imagine, and help provide the sense of fulfillment that defines success. You will have experiences you never dreamed possible, be exposed to things you didn't know existed and become encapsulated with the dynamic beauty of this planet and the people who inhabit it.

We live in an interconnected world, a fact easily forgotten if you choose to remain immobile. To borrow from Mark Twain:

Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one's lifetime.

Don't just be a tourist. Don't just be a traveler. Stop and stay somewhere for awhile. Fully immerse yourself in another country and culture, and learn what makes it tick. There's no better way of doing this than working abroad.

Passing through a foreign place is easy, remaining for an extended period and getting your hands dirty is a lot harder. But it will change and improve your life in immeasurable ways.

Citations: How Studying or Working Abroad Makes You Smarter (Time), Be a Better Manager Live Abroad (Harvard Business Review), The Smart Career Move You Havent Considered Working Abroad (Forbes), International experience on your CV (The Guardian), Global Mobility A Win Win For You And Your Employer (Forbes), When in Rome Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin)