Why working abroad is the best thing you could possibly do for your startup career.

by Jobbatical September 18, 2015
All images public domain unless otherwise noted.

By Isabel Hirama, Jobbatical’s travel-taught Marketing Chief

It is impossible to live and work abroad without coming home a slightly different person. I’ve spent most of my life living and working outside of my home country (the United States), so I’ve had a lot of time to observe this phenomenon. In Switzerland, in Taiwan, and most recently in Estonia at the headquarters of Jobbatical, where I spread the word about a new way for people to combine their travel dreams and career aspirations.

Working in a new country involves a whole lot of change. You’re immersed in a fascinating different culture, surrounded by delicious new flavors to sample, and beckoned by a thrillingly unexplored city waiting to be discovered. But it doesn’t stop there. These outer changes are matched by less obvious yet equally dramatic inner changes — changes that can set you up for the wild, exhilarating ride of a startup career.

Charming Tallinn, Estonia — where I took my first leap into the startup universe. [Mike Beales via Flickr]

What I’ve realized is this: working abroad cultivates a fundamental skill-set necessary for success in the startup world. I don’t mean that it teaches you to code, or to market, or to design. The skills I’m talking about are ones that every member of a startup team needs, no matter their job title.

Before I joined Jobbatical, I had never set foot in the startup world. But I entered it much more prepared that I expected. I found that my years of living and working abroad had put me through a sort of unintentional startup bootcamp. An incredibly effective one. The bootcamp didn’t come with a syllabus, so I decided to write one. What it comes down to are five powerful transformations that happen when you work in a new country. Take a look and see if your startup career could use a few of these.

Can’t cling to comfy blankets like this one in the startup world!

The first transformation:

Working abroad will teach you to live without an instruction manual or a security blanket.

Launching a startup involves building a new product, finding a new market, or creating a new business model — or all of these at once. A startup can’t hide behind comfortable routines or successes of the past because it doesn’t have any yet. You too, when you take on a job in a new country, will be starting afresh. The cultural scripts that have guided your daily life and interactions at work will no longer apply. Accolades you have earned in your home country will seem very far away. This may sound daunting, but ultimately it is exhilarating! It sets you up splendidly to question the obvious, and it frees you to dream up new ideas, plans and strategies. This is the kind of thinking that leads startups to break free from the status quo and astonish the world with the results.

Taiwan, a beautiful country that taught me a lot about speaking and listening.

The second transformation:

You will learn to read people and situations like never before, and you will become a master communicator.

When I worked at the American Institute in Taiwan one summer, all of my officemates were middle aged Taiwanese women. They were extremely kind and loved helping me with my Mandarin homework. Every day at noon, my coworkers would begin to anxiously peer over at me, tell me I was working too hard, and insist that I go enjoy my lunch. It took me almost a month to figure out why. Apparently every day at lunch time my coworkers would quickly eat at their desks, then put a “Meeting — Do Not Disturb” sign on the office door, turn off the lights, and lie on the carpet for a nap.

It was a genius idea, and one that they never would have explained to me outright — I had to figure it out for myself (with some outside help, I’ll admit). Working in another culture teaches you to be a careful listener and a close observer, to read between the lines and to question your assumptions. As you become more and more aware of the nuances of situations, your communication skills will be sharpened. You will be able to express your ideas more clearly, and each misunderstanding that you navigate will give you a better sense of how to make yourself understood.

Climb every mountain.

The third transformation:

Your problem-solving abilities will be constantly put to the test, and you will triumph!

Working abroad, you won’t necessarily be faced with bigger mountains to climb, metaphorically speaking. Rather, it is the sheer number of mountains you will scale that will hone your problem-solving ability into a force to be reckoned with. You will be faced with challenges from all sides. Everything from shopping for groceries to navigating to work to making small talk to planning your weekend will be a new quest.

At first you may be frustrated that seemingly simple tasks now require supreme amounts of energy and cognition. But gradually, you will begin to notice a difference. And when you return to your home country, this difference may be staggering. Like an Olympic runner who trains at high altitudes in thin air to gain a powerful advantage back at sea level, after working abroad you will become a power problem-solver who can breeze through the tricky challenges of startup life that would have tripped you up before.

The fourth transformation:

“Pivoting” will become second-nature and “Fail early; fail often” will become your life motto.

When you’re suddenly transplanted into a different culture, blunders are inevitable. But like the creators of Youtube (which was originally launched as a dating site!) realize that these mistakes are an important part of the process. Making a u-turn after biking in the rain for fifteen minutes in the wrong direction isn’t a failure, it’s a pivot! So is ducking out of line when you notice everyone else has weighed their vegetables before getting to the cash register. And ordering a different dish when you discover you’ve just bitten into the spiciest item on the menu? Absolutely a pivot.

You will come to relish these realizations of your errors, because they are signposts that point the way to success. In Peter Skillman’s famous “Marshmallow Challenge” (watch the TED talk here) teams of MBA students and teams of kindergarteners were given 18 minutes to create the tallest spaghetti-and-tape tower possible that would support a marshmallow. The teams of kindergarteners beat the MBA students every time!

[Marshmallow background: Mark S via Flickr]

Why did the kindergarteners triumph? The professionals would spend the majority of their time planning, so by the time they actually put together a tower, it would usually crash down, leaving them no time to rebuild. The kindergarteners, on the other hand, made an attempt in the first few seconds. When their tower tumbled, they would pick up the pieces and try again, this time with slightly different tactics. They repeated this over and over, their tower getting stronger and taller each time, far outpacing the older and supposedly wiser team.

Startups can’t afford to be like those MBA students. They’ve got to be like the kindergarteners, iterating again and again in order to quickly catch their mistakes and improve. The entrepreneurial motto, “Fail early; fail often” perfectly sums this up, and living abroad internalizes this concept, much to the advantage of you and your future employers.

The fifth transformation:

You will learn a great deal about humility…but you will also gain boundless confidence.

At home, you may feel like you have it all figured out. This feeling goes out the window when you’re abroad — in the best way possible. You will make mistakes. You will need to ask for directions and ask for help. And it will leave you with something that can only be learned through experience: humility. You will realize that your opinion or way of doing things shouldn’t necessarily be the loudest in the room, and you will develop a deep respect for the ideas of others

Does this mean lowering your self-confidence or suppressing your own ideas? Absolutely not! Your heightened awareness of your own fallibility will come hand in hand with an acceptance of it, and a willingness to fearlessly make mistakes. When “fail early; fail often” is your motto and problem-solving is your bread and butter, you won’t be afraid to voice an idea others might disagree with. And you will trust in your heightened communication skills to help you tactfully and effectively express it. You won’t hesitate to try something that might be completely crazy, or might be just crazy enough to work.

“Your heightened awareness of your own fallibility will come hand in hand with an acceptance of it, and a willingness to fearlessly make mistakes.”

This combination of confidence and humility is the sweet spot for effective collaboration, and it completes the perfect startup bootcamp that incited the first four elements I’ve described: the abilities to thrive in the unfamiliar, superbly observe and communicate, solve problems with alacrity, and embrace failure and pivots.

I am confident that this perfect storm is something that entrepreneurial minds will recognize when you walk into an interview, even if they can’t put it into words. It will mark you as a person who can be trusted with the tasks — great and small — that make or break a new business. And if you’re dreaming of a startup career, that’s exactly the person you want to be.

Jobbatical connects talented people with work adventures at startups in 30+ countries around the world. Take a look at our gigs by continent, or explore them all.

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