Ever wondered why some expatriates manage to build a successful life overseas; one that is inspiring, abundant and positive?
If the past decade of living and working in Central America, I’ve met dozens of highly successful expatriates. Some have used the opportunity of living overseas to become experts in the local culture and language, others have embraced the digital nomad lifestyle and now run successful online businesses, a good number have launched innovative charitable initiatives to improve the life of the local community in important and meaningful ways and many have become significant local employers.
In my interactions with these successful expats, I’ve realized that while their successes can’t easily be boiled down into a set of activities or tactics, successful expatriates do have something in common: Their mindset and mental habits.
Lets go through some of them.
Habit 1: Successful expatriates don’t over romanticize
We’ve all come across articles that do a great job of selling the dream of a life overseas. We’ve read about countries filled with exotic cultures, fun loving people, intriguing traditions, endless sun-soaked beaches and amazing natural landscapes. But successful expatriates know this is too good to be true. They know that no country has a climate that is 100% perfect, no location is completely free of crime and no cuisine has the monopoly on good recipes.
They also know there will almost certainly be a few negative expatriates in the local community, that the excitement of arriving in a new place will invariable wear off, and that running a successful business takes hard work, wherever you decide to set up shop. In other words successful expatriates manage their expectations. They don’t over romanticize.
Habit 2: Successful expatriates make connections
Watch a successful expatriate walk around town and you won’t see them tightly gripping their shopping bag constantly worried about their safety and treating everyone who approaches them with suspicion. Instead you’ll notice that they put in an effort to interact and connect with others.
They’re operating with the understanding that without reaching out and making connections with the people around them, they’re unlikely to have rewarding interactions. They realize that the friendliness and openness of a country is strongly influenced by their own attitude.
Habit 3: Successful expatriates are open-minded
Open-mindedness is a phrase that’s often used in the context of travel and expatriate living. But what does it really mean? Well, it doesn’t mean giving up deep seated beliefs or becoming wishy-washy in your views. It simply means realizing that context is different for everyone. Successful expatriates know that without actually living through the experiences that another person has lived through, they are in no position to pass judgment on their beliefs and habits.
By immersing themselves in the local culture (see habit #5) and increasing the scope of their experiences they get progressively better at understanding the local context. But they still don’t waste effort trying to convince people to agree with their perspective. They just don’t feel the need to criticize or say why someone else is wrong (and why they are right.) Not only is this rarely effective it’s also not a fun way to pass the time.
Habit 4: Successful expatriates are always learning
If you are new to living overseas, you’re probably on a steep learning curve. Maybe you hope that once you’ve been living in your new home for a few months you’ll feel more in control and won’t have to keep adapting to your new environment.
Successful expatriates have a different mindset. They accept that there will always be something to learn. Many even relish this fact. They remain curious and engaged. Some become masters at learning even in contexts they disagree with or dislike. When confronted by something uncomfortable they look for what they can learn from the situation. They look for the net gain asking “what can I learn from this person I disagree with or from this situation that I am uncomfortable with? How can I improve myself?
Habit 5: Successful expats immerse themselves
Living in another country provides an opportunity to awaken the senses and stretch the mind in a way that you just can’t do in more familiar environments. Successful expatriates go with the flow, taking steps to immerse themselves in their host country’s rituals, traditions and products.
They may do this by becoming expert in cooking local dishes, by working hard at learning the local language, or perhaps by volunteering in community organizations or even just by participating in as many local activities as possible.
What do you think? What do you feel is the most valuable habit of an expatriate living overseas? Is it one of these five or is it something else completely? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments area.
Claudia Gonella has lived in Central America for over 10 years. She’s a co-founder of RevealRealEstate, an owners listing site that connects buyers interested in property in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama with sellers who have listed their property for sale.
Thank you for this thoughtful and perceptive article.
It’s great to hear how other expats are adapting and creating new lives in another country. Thanks for the article Claudia!
I think a good habit is not comparing everything with back home.
Marcy, you’re absolutely right! If you keep making comparisons you never give yourself a chance to appreciate what you have.
Agreed Susanna. And to add to that. We shouldn’t be surprised that living in an unfamiliar country can feel, well, a little unfamiliar. Wishing and hoping that it’s more like home will invariably disappoint and at the same time get in the way of embracing new experiences.
If I may add a few more habits:
– Happy expats develop an understanding that their home country is not perfect and they don’t dream about going back home. They come to realize that people have problems no matter where they live in the world. Including the country in which they live. And including home.
– Happy expats avoid the expat “ghetto” lifestyle. They make friends in the expat community, but understand that the “ghetto” lifestyle may be a trap that prevents them from experiencing the country in which they live.
– Happy expats take one day at a time.
Great habits Ana. Especially about avoiding the trap of a ghettoized expat lifestyle. It’s easy to gravitate to the comfortable and familiar and make friends only with people just like you. But you do miss out on so much.
Excellent article! Thanks for posting this Suzanna.Thanks to Claudia for writing a realistic piece. My advice is to live without expectations because we have learned that having unrealistic expectations in living abroad always leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction. Learn to go with the flow and cherish each moment.