Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”—Bernard Shaw
For me being an expat is not only about working abroad. It is a much bigger and more important idea than that. It is about what I plan to do with my life and how I use my limited time on this planet. When I was turning from boy to man, I manifested a picture of my future self. I stepped in front of my inner drawing board and began portraying the person I wanted to become. What came out of this creative time was not a definite picture of an ideal. More precisely it resembled a rather chaotic mind map containing numerous items, many of those connected with lines or grouped in color-coding. Over the years, I made countless adaptions to this sketch. I continuously added items, adapted or deleted others. For example, ten years ago, my future self would weight 110 kilograms, have a 47cm biceps, and be strong as a grizzly bear. As I grew older and gained life experience, my focus switched to more substantial aspects of the person I wanted to become. As change is a universal part of the world we live in, I expect my job at the inner drawing board not to end before I have taken my last breath.
As I finished the first sketch of my future self, I quickly realized a very important aspect that should change my life forever. If my current self was the earth, then my goal was the sun… of another solar system… It seemed millions of light-years away – an eternal odyssey. As the universe expands with the speed of light, I would not be able to reach my ideal even if I would travel with the speed of light myself. It was a quite unpleasant realization in the beginning. But with time, I was able to reframe this my perspective. By chasing an ideal that itself is constantly further developing, I never run out of motivation to keep going. I began appreciating the process, embracing the struggles, and loving the grin. The goals we set for ourselves are the mirror of the problems we have in life. We are conditioned to the belief that the absence of problems equals happiness. That might be the case in the world of Walt Disney but could not be more wrong in the real world. It is against our very own human nature. The ability to abstract thinking sets us apart from all other living creatures on earth. It also keeps us searching, doubting, questioning, and pushing forward, even if we have everything we need. I am 100% sure that you have enough to eat and a roof over your head. You might not drive a Bentley and have a mansion in Los Angeles and Miami, but from an objective perspective, life is in your favor. The blue dots experiment has shown that humans, no matter their actual situation, create their own new problems. So are we then doomed to unhappiness? I do not think so. It simply challenges the highly marketable common idea of happiness. If we have that new apartment, job, partner, body, or boob job, we will finally find happiness. History and recent scientific findings suggest something different. Happiness as such is not a state that can be found or reached and will stay forever. Problems are a part of life, and overcoming them on a continuous basis is one major requirement for contentment. That is why successful entrepreneurs start a new business or focus on philanthropy after reaching financial freedom instead of laying on the beach all day drinking cocktails. The minute we switch the focus from the goal to the process itself, we appreciate the same as the actual goal. The journey is its own reward.
I believe deep inside we all feel the burning desire to contribute to a bigger cause and a better future. All traditional religions have one characteristic in common: They all promise an afterlife either on earth or in another sphere. Most religions teach us that in the afterlife, we will be rewarded for following the rules and punished for breaking them. This hope for a brighter future helps religious people to endure difficult times and keeps them in line at the same time. With less and fewer people following traditional religious beliefs, a vacuum of meaning and orientation in life appeared. The effects are most visible in Western countries where individualism is an incremental part of people’s self-understanding. If the existence of the universe is the product of a coincidental chain reaction than our existence as the human species does not serve a higher purpose. From a cosmic perspective, it does not matter if we lose our job, suffer from heartbreak, get cancer, or the 3rd World War destroys human existence. But instead of burying our heads in the sand of nihilism and collateral depression, we still keep going and endure the struggles. Why is that the case? I personally believe that while on the macro-level, our existence might not have a purpose we definitively can create meaning for our very own micro cosmoses. What we do with our lives instills meaning into the same. Working towards the perfection of a craft or skill, advancing in one’s career, helping others, stopping climate change, starting a family and raising kids are all causes that provide us with tremendous energy and a satisfying feeling of purpose and belonging. Certainly, for me, that is the case. During my career, I experienced periods where I did not see the contribution of my work towards the vision and success of the company. Although I had less stress at work and more leisure time at hand, it was an unsatisfactory feeling.
You might ask yourself what this all has to do with being an expat? A lot. It deeply reflects and influences our approach to life and our lives’ vision and mission. Taking the risk and moving abroad is a life-changing decision. It trades the known for the unknown, the common for the uncommon, and the certain for the uncertain. International (ad)ventures put us in a place where the magic of growth happens, and that is outside our well-protected nests, our cozily padded comfort zones.
“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” —Thomas Jefferson
I had a wonderful childhood in a strict yet caring and protective environment that laid the foundation of my character and personality. I am convinced that a trauma-free childhood is part of the reason why I can deal efficiently with the obstacles and disappointments life throws at me without losing my optimism and open-mindedness. In contrast to my childhood, I did face more difficulties during early adulthood. Turning into a man, I developed a body dysmorphic disorder, which itself triggered social anxiety. This condition dictated my life for around seven years. It negatively affected each and every part of my life, and I needed several attempts to overcome the challenge finally. The first attempts failed, and my anxiety seemed to grow so much in its power that I seemed to be invincible. It finally took the combination of several factors that laid the foundation for my personal siege against my own inner self. In 2014 my first relationship broke up. This catapulted me into a sensation of severe emotional pain. Not so much because the relationship ended as it was the right decision. It was painful because I realized how much of a mess my inner self was. The life I portrayed to the outside seemed intact – I was successful at college, fit, healthy, had friends, and social life. But I did not enjoy any of it.
Although it was my first heartbreak ever, I already understood that the end of a relationship demonstrates us our very own personal construction sides in a brutally honest way. I embraced the pain and welcomingly accepted all the negative and disturbing feelings that fogged my mind: No distraction and no escaping but raw confrontation. This approach helped me to have my own personal ‘Phoenix of the Ashes’ moments, which ultimately helped me to become a better version of myself. Back in 2014 at the climax of my discontent and with my back to the wall, I told myself: ‘Now is THE time. Now or never. You will do anything and everything that is necessary to gain control over your inner life. You will not give up on this without the fight of the century – ALL IN!’
Today I am convinced it lays in our human nature to need our crises to reach existential levels before we understand the importance to change not only our behavior but turn our whole lives upside down. When facing (mental) problems, we usually feel an increase in emotional pain over time. We try some remedies here and there and fight the symptoms. Distractions like a new partner, a new job, or a new environment steer our focus away from the problem. This often decreases the emotional pain for a while. But in most of the cases, this is only a temporary success. Chances are high we fall back in the old pattern entering the vicious circle again. Often we reach a trigger point at some point. This can take a few months, years, or even decades. At this point, a chain of events happens that increase our emotional pain within a short time to enormous levels. This creates an existential crisis. It is characterized by two major possible outcomes: The first leads to a turnaround of our lives. It is like taking a U-turn on a highway with countless high-speeding trucks coming your way. The aggressive honking freezes the blood in your veins. But you take your shot anyways and floor the gas pedal. In most of the cases, such a turnaround requires us to abandon our old self to create our new self. The alternative to a turnaround is self-destruction. This can take several forms. Some obvious in their radical characters such as suicide and others are more subtle yet devastating in their consequences, e.g., chronic depression, substance abuse, or simply living an existence in constant remorse
As Mark Manson in his bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving an F*ck puts it: As we endure physical pain during exercise to strengthen our muscles and bones, it requires us to bear up again emotional pain to grow our resilience. (For more information on the book visit my book recommendations list). I approached my life transformation from different angles: I started psychotherapy with a specialist. The confrontational aspects of the therapy were by far the most unpleasant, but at the same time, the most effective ones. Witnessing the power of this what I call the brute force method inspired me to adopt the following credo as one of my life principles: ‘If it scares you it is probably a good thing to do.’ If you add the brute force aspect to it simply means to do scary things over and over again. This has two effects: Firstly, we learn that whatever we are scared of will not harm or kill us. The frightening aspects get smaller and smaller. Secondly, we get better at whatever we do over and over again. This two aspects basically rewire our brain synapses through constant reframing and confrontation. That, in a nutshell, is how cognitive behavior therapy works. Just by confronting his worst fears and reframing his thoughts, Harry Potter was able to overcome his limitations.
I did something I had never done before and went on a two-month backpacking trip through Central America. I hated every single minute of the first week as independent traveling was completely new to me and way outside my comfort zone of well-structured days in Good Old Germany. And then something nearly magical happened. The automatic defense mechanism of my comfort zone lost more and more influence, and I completely fell in love with Latin America, its people, culture, and language. It became the starting point for my burning desire to taste the richness of our planet and discover where life would lead me. Soon after I moved to the United States to finish my Master Studies. It was also my opportunity to get to know the country where I was born. Leaving for Germany when I was only two years old, I never had the chance to build a relationship with my country of birth.
“What makes expat life so addictive is that every boring or mundane activity you experience at home is, when you move to a foreign country, suddenly transformed into an exciting adventure. When abroad, boredom, routine, and ‘normal” cease to exist. And all that’s left is the thrill and challenge of uncertainty.”—Reannon Muth
The time in the States was a turning point in my life. I suddenly was thrown into this big cultural melting pot. Never before did I make friends from all parts of the world: Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, China, and India. It felt like a wine tasting: I was taken on a cultural discovery tour, and I felt high from all the experiences and impressions. I approached life with the curiosity of a child. I touched, got burned, learned, and kept going. I tried this, tested that, failed, tried again, and finally succeeded. Not every time but ever more often. A couple of month into my abroad adventure, I looked back and could not tell the last time I felt anxiety. ‘Damn,’ I said myself, ‘this is great. I want more of it.’ From that moment on, the international dream has been deeply anchored in my pursuit of life.
Following my graduation, I returned to Europe to start my career with a Swiss-based, globally acting corporation. Originally I planned to join Corporate America but switched to the Swiss option for three main reasons:
It was likely that I could move abroad with the company.
Swiss people have good work ethics and a clear communication style.
Switzerland is among the countries with the highest salaries. At the same time, it has a lower tax burden and social security contributions than most other European countries. As a young single, I could also limit my living expenses in this ridiculously expensive country. I figured it would be a great place to start my professional life and kick start the journey to financial freedom – a big life goal of mine.
On the one hand, the time in Switzerland was great to grow professionally in the company’s headquarters and learn about the Corporate World. On the other hand, my whole life was structured around work. Due to constant traveling, I lived between two countries and never developed a feeling of home or belonging to Switzerland. My private life was rather boring, and my personal growth slowed down massively. If my personal development rate in the United States looked like the summit of the Mount Everest, it deteriorated to something as flat as the hills in the Netherlands - it was virtually non-existent. Seeing this time as an investment into the foundation of an international career helped me to keep focus. A year later, I received my dividends in the form of a ticket to work abroad. It did not take me long to accept the offer. I packed my belongings in two suitcases and moved to a part of the world I knew little about till that point: the Far East. Till this point, I have been living and working in Vietnam, the country of dragons, for two years. Vietnam has been like the craziest rollercoaster in the theme park: the one that goes up for an eternity just to catapult us down into a series of adrenaline-pumping loops. That one we were afraid of as a child. And still, you want to ride it.
“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”—Bill Bryson
My odyssey in Vietnam has been like a non-stop adventure in a world that appears tediously predefined. Moving abroad both strengthened and satisfied the explorer, the curious student of life and the adventurer within myself. Repeatedly exposing myself to discomfort, doing things I feel anxious about and not distracting myself from emotional pain but accepting the same helped become a better version of myself. I grew as a person, professional, friend, and partner.
I often ask myself the following question: Is my joy in living abroad a consequence of a new approach to life or did my international life trigger the same? It is a typical chicken-and-egg situation. I believe it is a bit of both. It is like two partners cheering each other up and inspiring one another to keep pushing forward. A team synergy that simply enfolds without being able to say which side gave the first push. Moving abroad was like a catalyst for my self-development—a kick-starter for change. However, without a sustainable and reliable energy source, it would simply remain a short-lasting roar. We learned to acknowledge that it takes more than just moving abroad to make a difference: it takes an iron will, continuous practice, and a constant willingness to face my fears. The moment I began putting this knowledge into practice, I started to see slow but steady improvements in my life.
If you are interested in further reading on this topic, I recommend the following books. They helped me getting a clearer view on the aspects covered in this blog post and raising (self-)awareness. They will also be of great help to you.