Following on from the surprisingly popular piece I wrote about ’Tips for Building an International Career’, I thought it may be useful to outline the 6 personal insights I wish I knew when I was embarking on my life after study abroad and career 8 years ago. When I was 21 and in my final year of a BA in international development, I spent 6 months volunteering in Peru. The idea was to give us budding young change-makers practical developing world experience to complement our academic studies of the major issues that define the way in which our world is evolving. That experience fundamentally influenced my world view and has led to a deeply rewarding career, but the following are 6 things I would have told me at 22:
1. Find a base
After graduating I spent years plunging myself into every opportunity to change the world I could find, from working on the Obama campaign and rebuilding the lower ninth ward, to developing a new foundation in the Andes, all with a slight case of the superman complex. Oh the arrogance of youth! This meant I was geographically agnostic for far too long and neglected to find a place I could really call home, a community that remained constant or a support network that didn’t change year on year. This can be detrimental long-term (unless you have a lot of nomad in you) and trust me, it gets harder to establish later in life.
2. Tend to your flock
Related to finding and maintaining a base, its super important to be a dedicated friend and family member even if you are 8,000 miles away and up a mountain. Yes, its hard work and yes sometimes people don’t understand why you do what you do and where you do it. But you have to persevere by investing in your relationships even when people start freaking out when they realize you may not come home for 18 months. Take time to tend to your family and oldest friends. I’m only repairing these relationships now after years of neglect, and like building a base, it gets harder the older you get!
3. Share your personal journey in bite size dinner party chat chunks
In this ever changing world, international professions are by their very nature becoming much harder for other people to understand. The best advice I’ve ever had in dealing with this issue is to imagine your parents at a dinner party proudly describing what it is that you are doing in say, Bhutan, and to make sure that’s exactly how you explain it when you have that inevitable moment on the phone to your mother when she asks ‘so…what exactly is it that you are doing there…again?’
4. Focus on credibility and ‘identity capital’
Ok, so you want to travel the world, save something and/or become some sort of planetary hero. That’s great and all, but you still have to know what you’re doing if you really want to make a difference. Being altruistic and self-sacrificing is not enough and sometimes counterproductive. Get those hard skills under your belt, be as comfortable with what you don’t know as what you do know and be a proud life-long learner. Your 20’s, as the brilliant clinical psychologist Meg Jay (look her up) describes it, are all about building ‘identity capital’. This stage of life, above all others, is ripe for taking professional risks that allow you to build an interesting global career, but take these risks with learning and credibility in mind.
5. Your love life doesn’t have to come second (or third, or fourth are wherever it is on your list)
I have said goodbye to some wonderful people in my life, mainly because I never thought anyone would follow me anywhere. Now I know that, if you find your life partner, they will follow you and YOU will follow them. Plus no career is worth sacrificing your long term happiness for with someone you truly love. In fact, you’ll be become better at whatever you do if you become a dedicated life (after study abroad) partner ;).
6. We are all on our own journey
I’m 29 and I’ve just come home after years of working abroad to find many of my friends being very adult, while I’m a student all over again. People move on and your home town/country does change while you’re away. Plus, after spending so much time focussed on an international lifestyle and while comparing your journey to others, you may find yourself feeling behind on some of the other priorities in life (money, babies, etc etc). But don’t fret! Contrary to popular belief, the perfect life chronology does not exist. The happiest people I have met are often not living by these invisible benchmarks.
John started his career with multiple internships including at the UN, the House of Commons, UK, and 2008 Obama campaign. Those experiences led to a role as a Project Manager with Majora Carter’s green economy consulting firm that helps cities and communities launch their own green economy projects. After two years in the US, John moved to Peru to help launch a new foundation, focusing on the development of water filtration and cook-stove projects and went on to manage global operations for ProWorld Volunteers with ongoing programs in six countries, based out of San Francisco. John holds a BA in International Development from the University of East Anglia and is currently pursuing an MA in Social Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths College, University of London.