Thought Catalog
June 2, 2015

12 Life Lessons From 12 Years Of Living Abroad

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Flickr / Juan Cabanillas
Flickr / Juan Cabanillas

Twelve years ago, I moved abroad. Left everything I knew. Said goodbye to people I cherished. Packed up the contents of a beloved house, took off with my wife and two dogs, and shipped out to the other side of the Atlantic.

We had no idea what awaited us at the other end.

Looking back, I can vividly recollect key points on our journey. The times when being away felt like a burden too heavy to bear. The intense homesickness and abject loneliness in those early days. The miscommunications and cultural differences at work and play. The lack of belonging and the fear of making further changes that might risk all we’d been working towards.

Then there were the highlights. The milestones passed as our immigrant status matured. The sense of achievement at accomplishing what would, at home, be considered ordinary – finance approvals, house purchases, business creation, family growth, community acceptance, beating personal health and fitness goals.

The common thread throughout the last 12 years has been to settle for more, worry less and make time for the things that matter. These have been important life lessons learned along the way.

Yet the older I get and the more I learn about myself, the more I realise that I actually know very little. At the ripe old age of 40, life continues to teach me lessons every single day. The trick is to spot them, understand them and learn from them. Here are a few other life lessons that come to mind.

1. You make your own luck.

Luck doesn’t come to those who wait for it. I wondered why I wasn’t lucky in life and I soon realised I had to get off my backside and create it. By bringing about change in my life, I brought about something else: good fortune.

I’ve been fortunate to try my hand at different careers. I created a successful writing company. I’ve travelled to, and lived in, extraordinary places. I’ve shared all this with an extraordinary woman. And the positive experiences keep coming and long may this continue.

I’ve seen and done things that wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed at home. The lesson I learned is that you have to go out there and create change to make your own luck, be it an overseas adventure or just greater travel.

2. Realise what is important to you.

I soon discovered it wasn’t the clothes on my back or the bling on my wrist. Not the bank balance nor the area postcode. These things weren’t – and still aren’t – important to me. Pursuing happiness by acquiring material things didn’t ever feel like it would get me anywhere.

Instead, the things that mattered most were there in front of me. Family. Personal wellbeing. Opportunities to travel. Life experiences abroad. What I choose to do with my time on this planet. The ability to create space to have a fuller life by wasting less time on the unimportant things.

Once you figure these things out, life can begin.

3. Don’t fight the craving.

Some call it wanderlust; others call it a restlessness or a desire to find yourself. For me, it was the latter. I wasn’t being honest with myself by living the life I led. On every travel trip, I’d ask myself what it would be like to live here. In every job, I knew the fit was wrong. It took me a while to figure it out but I always knew that major change was coming my way.

I suppose that if you really want to accomplish certain things and you find it suffocating to live the way you do, then it might be time to find out what you’re really made of and who you really are.

If curiosity burns brightly within you and you have a craving for adventure – or at the very least, for change – then don’t fight it.

4. Change may not be easy.

Real change means opening yourself up to it and stepping outside your comfort zone. And there is nothing comfortable about doing that.

I’ve lost track of the times I questioned myself, doubted a decision, and spent days and weeks mulling over whether my dreams should remain just that. I never truly knew whether moving abroad would be a good thing or not but I decided I’d rather try it out than have regrets.

There will always be uncertainty with a major move. But one day you’ll look out the window and say to yourself: “Wasn’t that worth getting out of bed for?”

5. The fear of failure will pass.

Maybe you want the exciting lifestyle that comes from a move abroad. A vastly different view out the window, and more time to spend with family and on new hobbies that you never imagined before. But a life like this can be scary and you may fear making a mistake that you can’t undo.

I tried to see every mistake as progress because making mistakes can teach us key lessons in life. And every time I made a mistake, I was actually getting closer to my goal.

Being too scared to make a mistake is actually the biggest mistake you can make. Life is full of unknowns with no guarantees, whether at home or abroad, and you will likely be out there on your own, away from your support network, your family and friends.

You’ll suffer from homesickness and culture shock – are you sure this is for you? Then you think of the life change. The epic scale of experiences and drastically different lifestyle and you remember why you wanted this.

It is worth it.

6. Take small steps.

You might want to start with small steps. Make small changes. Think about the changes you can put in place right now to make it all just a little bit easier. A tweak here, an adjustment there. Small changes can still have a big impact on the quality of our lives.

I couldn’t jump into a life abroad. I didn’t move abroad overnight. Each thing took time and patience, research and persistence.

Whatever your desire, ensure you have that end goal always in mind. Create a plan and think about the small steps you can take towards that goal. Remember to keep those steps measurable, simple, and succinct.

You’ll get there.

7. Don’t lose sight of the end goal.

Things will need to be sorted out, stuff to be dealt with, lists written, events set in motion. Changing your life to create something amazing isn’t for the faint hearted.

At times, I was overwhelmed with the volume of change. At other times, everything seemed to move at a snail’s pace. Patience was never my strong point but immigrating to Canada was a lesson in perseverance. I’d spend hours researching my new home city on the Internet or attending travel expos or conferences. Anything to visualise the life I was creating when the truth was that it all seemed years away.

No matter how slow your progress, remember that you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying. So remain optimistic and focus on the end goal.

8. Complaining won’t get you anywhere.

Complaining doesn’t solve any problems, it just hurts you more. I’ve met many complainers in my time and none of them seem anywhere close to achieving contentment or happiness.

If you don’t like something, change it. If you’re not happy where you live, then move. And don’t tell me you can’t because there is no such excuse.

I surround myself with positive people because negativity brings me down. When you focus on the negative, that’s all you’re going to see. Even if positivity comes into your life, you’ll look for the negative side of things. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

I have a friend who wants to return to England. She dislikes life here and she forever talks about the life she could go back to. I want her to leave. I wish she would leave. She achieves nothing by carrying on and it doesn’t get her or her family anywhere.

9. Fitness is key.

This one is often neglected but a person’s health and fitness is paramount to a successful life. Your health is your life and you need to keep up with it. I’ve seen too many people forget about their health and lose sight of what it is to be fit and healthy. They fall into a rut and it’s ever harder to break out of it.

After five years at university drinking beer, eating fatty foods and generally remaining horizontal, I decided I needed to turn things around. When I moved abroad, the first thing I did was join a gym, exercise regularly and it soon became my routine.

There have been times when I’ve fallen off the wagon (read: having children) and times when the last thing on my mind is a lengthy run (read: after a late night). But when I fail to keep fit, my mind slows down, my brain retreats and my mood turns for the worse.

If running or cycling isn’t your thing, focus on your mental health. Do new things, learn new things, and explore interesting ideas in all aspects of your life. Keep challenging yourself and never stop exploring this world with your body and your mind.

10. Having balance in your life and doing what you love is important too.

Too much of one thing isn’t a good thing. Focus too hard on your fitness and your family life might suffer. Spend too much time at work and you’ll never see the inside of a gym or the outside of your office.

I struggled with balance in the past. I was an “all or nothing” kind of person. When we made the decision to move abroad, I spent months with my head buried inside travel books.

Over time, I learned that being busy and being productive are two different things. Busy can be unhealthy and all consuming, where as productive can be just about right.

If you’re the personality type that works hard and loves every minute of it, don’t stop. You enjoy what you do and that shouldn’t change, but remember to balance it with the other elements of your life.

11. There will always be people who disagree.

There will always be people who do not like the decisions you make or the choices you create, particularly when you pack up and move overseas. I used to let these people affect me. In fact, it got so bad that I couldn’t make a decision from over-thinking and doubting myself.

In time, I found the sort of peace that comes from years of trying, and failing, to please others. I gave up. I focused on my personal goals and the happiness of my immediate family. The rest could get on-board if they wanted to.

People like this might insist that whatever you’re trying to do is impossible, no matter how much progress you make. Don’t try to reason with them. Instead, focus on your goals because these people will suck the time and energy from you.

And likewise, try not to tell someone their dreams are impossible because when they prove you wrong, you’ll never live it down.

12. You can do or be anything you want so don’t delay.

It took me years to finally sum up the courage to do what I wanted. I always had an excuse – I didn’t have enough money to move, I didn’t want to start over someplace new, I couldn’t turn my back on family and get on a plane for a life far away. Once I realised that these things would turn out okay, I was able to my fears head on and make a rational decision to change.

If you’re at a similar point of change or you’ve considered and procrastinated and deliberated over getting to the point of change, do me a favour…

Rather than sit back and keep waiting for the opportune time to do something or for someone’s permission to do it, please don’t. You are going to let people down and you will no doubt create hurt but those that value you will understand.

It’s never going to be the right moment so don’t delay because there will never be a time like this again.

What lessons have you learned from a life lived abroad? TC mark

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