In 2016, I had the great honor of receiving the Tech Nation, Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa. Along with the notice was a warning that I had just 60 days to relocate to London or I would lose what I saw as the opportunity of a lifetime. Having spent eight months working on the application and 15 years dreaming about moving to London, I started my transition immediately. I contacted my boss and quit my job, put photos of nearly everything I owned onto the sales pages on Craigslist, packed what was left into three boxes and two suitcases, said goodbye to my friends and flew across the pond (where I knew exactly four acquaintances) to start over.
I would love to say that I moved to London and dazzled the city, that my previous success placed me on an unstoppable trajectory and that I settled into a social group easily, but it was quite the opposite. The truth is that I floundered. I struggled. I cried. I freaked out. I also grew, soared and felt more alive than I had in my life. I did all of this on repeat for about a year. Bottom Line: it was beneficial and difficult in the most unexpected ways. So, with this in mind, here are five life lessons I have learned from one of the most exceptional and most challenging experiences of my life.
1. No transition is seamless, even when it’s a dream-come-true.
There is no denying that when I walked through immigration at Heathrow without having to give an exit date, I felt like I had won the life lotto, but that doesn’t mean my move was without serious challenges. Leaving a great job, a gorgeous flat and a ride-or-die family of friends to fly over the rainbow and across the pond to a place where I had no job or contacts, a temporary place to live and no social network was scary in a way no type-A 30-something would find appealing.
Still, I had taken enough risks in life to know that with great opportunity comes great obstacles. The only way I was going to find my stride was to adjust my expectations, break each step into digestible chunks, and approach my new life as a chance to hit reset. Knowing the first six months was going to be the hardest (it always is), I did my best to remind myself of the times in my past when I was in similar situations and how lucky I was to have experience to rely on.
Though I knew there were going to be undeniable differences (and there were), comparing and contrasting the two cities to death wasn’t going to do me any favors. I decided to hit reset and do my best to experience my new life without coming to quick conclusions or making any negative future predictions. I wasn’t always successful. I cried on the floor while missing my friends, felt embarrassing stings when I made the inevitable cultural missteps and had more than one theatrical meltdown when I lost my bearings on a walk guided by a very confused Google Maps. Still, I was able to discover and develop new strengths in myself and wake up every day knowing that I would forever be someone who worked hard and took a risk and changed her life, and that was something to be grateful for.
2. You might have a bit of an identity crisis at some point — that’s when you’ll become more of yourself.
The Beatles sang that ‘people are the same wherever you go,’ and while it is true that there is good and bad in everyone, let me be clear; culture shock is real AF. This is true even if you adore a country and share the same language and national tune (listen to God Save The Queen if you need more clarification on the last statement). Again, I will never say that one city is better than the other, but there are major differences between where I am from and the place I now call home, and some of them have been more difficult to navigate than others.
Like New York, London is a multicultural city, but unlike New York, the big smoke (and England in general) can seem cliquey, and bias based on accents and “background” is an accepted way of life. In New York, you can meet acquaintances at a bistro on a random Sunday afternoon walk away from a boozy brunch with five new phone numbers which include three new business contacts, and a future best friend. In London, most people socialize exclusively with others who share a very similar backgrounds (there’s that word again), and many groups have known one another 20, 30 and even 40 years. Boyfriends and girlfriends who are brought into groups often already know or have dated someone else in it. On a good day, this can be funny and slightly intimidating, on a bad one, the dynamic can feel a bit like being invited to a drinks party at a private members club where you can visit as a guest, but never be admitted into.
Now, let me be clear; I have met some great people who have welcomed me with open arms, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when the differences really got to me. I have received plenty of awkward looks when my actions and reactions were “too American” and I will never forget the moment I decided to end a friendship with someone who made an unforgivable comment about my boyfriend based solely on the fact he was “posh”.
Then, of course, there was that night I left a very glamorous party in tears, feeling completely repulsed by some of the behavior and comments made by the guests. I tried to turn to my friends in the states but quickly realized I trying to share an experience with them that they could not possibly understand unless they had been through it- and they hadn’t. I felt like I was in this weird Gatsby-style purgatory with Nick Carraway who summed up my feelings perfectly,” “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
As time moved on, the currents settled and I realized that I didn’t need to fit in but assimilate authentically and on my own terms and timeline. I became an observer and paid attention to my environment, clocked cultural nuances and noted how I felt in different situations. I grew more relaxed with British humor (which helped me to understand what deserved a reaction beyond an eye roll). Those around me became more comfortable with my “American” enthusiasm and sharing of feelings and things calmed down a bit.
This approach allowed all involved the freedom to explore new sides of ourselves and resulted in me valuing my identity as something related to my character instead of my name, age, location and nationality. This change has made me happier and more comfortable and confident than I have ever been. It’s also served as a great compass in terms of knowing what I truly value and who I really am in any country.
3. Not everyone wants to be your friend, no matter how friendly you are.
Now we get to the part of the story where I am sitting alone in my rented room on the floor with no one to call, and I realize that I have gone from having a vibrant and active social life to one that was dependent on other people remembering they met me and having enough pity on me to invite me out. Not my favorite moment.
In New York, it was not uncommon for me to be meeting up with friends or colleagues 5-6 nights a week, but in London, I felt a bit like a social Charlie Brown. Yes, I would meet people and we would get on fine, but that didn’t mean I had anyone to meet 1-1 for a glass of wine and a heart-to-heart on a Thursday night. Here’s a hard reality of life as a grown-up: I don’t care how nice you are, how many friends you currently have, or how much a group loves the boyfriend who introduced you, making new friends as an adult in a new country with a whole different cultural structure is hard. That said, it makes sense that it should be this way.
Think about it: Friendship requires interest between two parties (who happen to be taking applications for new friends), things in common and one single free space in two calendars often enough to allow time to build trust. Both parties then have to be super careful not to do/say anything that could be misconstrued because they have no shared history, which means neither have the added security of context and benefit of the doubt. Add in the fact that Brits are polite and lovely even when they can’t stand you (something completely foreign to a New Yorker) and holy social exhaustion, Batman.
This experience only made me appreciate the bonds I had in my life more- both the ones I had when I moved and the ones I have made after. It also thickened my skin. After decades of never really having to socialize alone, I had to relearn how to walk into a room with no history and no one to share a few inside jokes with at the bar. There was also no one to ease the sting when I had to deal with the rude, flakey and phony folks or just feeling sad that someone has politely declined my friendship. If you’re in this situation, let me share a quote by Dita Von Teese that really helped me deal with things during this time, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”
4. Just because it is not happening now doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but you’ve got to do the work.
We live in a world that is not only obsessed with instant gratification, it relies on it. In everything from careers and relationships to food and facials, we want what we want when we want it and we want it delivered in under 30 minutes. I am from a city where that is possible 24 hours a day which positioned me for a painful reality check. I was a nobody in London. Nobody knew me, and for a while, it seemed like nobody cared to. I contacted editors and recruiters and didn’t get a response. I invited new acquaintances to lunch and received tentative confirmations which I quickly learned meant “no”. I took all of this personally on some days and defiantly turned up Sia’s Unstoppable on others.
In the end, here is what I learned:
There are often wonderful opportunities on the other side of tomorrow, and the way to stay motivated enough to find them is to remember that motion-creates-motion, and at least in the beginning, you are the one who needs to take the initiative and make a move. Never forget that the people you are trying to get to know are living their lives and settled in their situations and the opportunities you want are being eyed by others as well. Stand up and make yourself worth the time and attention of the people and things you want to attract. If you can’t get an editor meet you for coffee, offer to bring it to their office. If you would like to get to know a few new people, host a small drinks party in your home, and if you’re looking for ways to break into a new sector, look for meetup groups around the city and go. Finally, pay attention to small wins to use as clues that your actions are bringing you closer to your goal. Just because you don’t get that coveted response today doesn’t mean that it won’t show up in your inbox tomorrow.
5. In the end, you’ve got to go for it, whatever it is.
Overall, this move has brought me unimaginable joy and fulfillment, not because it has been perfect, but because it has been a glorious, challenging, rewarding, exciting and overwhelming adventure. It has taught me so much about myself, the world, and most importantly, that something doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.
If you leave this article with one takeaway, I hope it is this: You have one life, and it is a gift that belongs to you. You can unwrap and wear it any way you want to.
You don’t have to have anyone’s permission. You don’t have to be wealthy or connected. You don’t have to be under a certain age.
You’ve just got to believe in yourself enough to get up and take action to work towards your goal. Do the research. Ask the questions. Strategize a plan and make your move. Stop waiting for the right time and stand up and make the time right now.