Finding your place — how international working sharpens your sense of self

They say travel broadens the mind, but can living and working abroad improve you personally and professionally?

In this edition of Reloverse, we examine how international assignments can enhance self-awareness and improve your sense of self—both hardwired to higher levels of well-being, performance and job satisfaction.

Who do you think you are?

Having a strong sense of self simply means understanding the things that define you and make up your own unique identity. Knowing your likes, dislikes, strengths and skills (including beliefs and biases) and being able to describe them easily is a talent in itself. It’s enables you to live, work and thrive, knowing who you are and what you want. Such clarity can also help you develop satisfying friendships, relationships and is good for your wider emotional health. So, if you have a clearly defined self-identity, or want one, why might moving out of your comfort zone, into new countries and cultures, be beneficial?

Your place and purpose

Moving from Europe to the Middle East, or from East Asia to the US will mean you’ll constantly encounter unfamiliar situations, personally and professionally. Navigating these new experiences means exposing yourself to novel things—and it’s these problem-solving challenges that boost cognitive health. Your brain evolves, forming new connections, growing in response to new sights, sounds and language. Those with a strong sense of self excel at adapting to new people and places. While people with lower levels of self-understanding are less comfortable with cultural change or clear about what they truly want in the wider scheme of things. It makes them more likely to feel indecisive or uncertain at home and work. This might not be a constant feeling of discontentment, just a niggling, background sense of being unhappy or unfulfilled. Several psychological elements feed into your self-awareness, including many you can manage. Self-reflection is one of them, which centres on your ability to understand who you are, and your place in the world. With 195 countries to choose from, it’s perfectly possible you’ve not yet found your place.

No escape

Many of us yearn to live somewhere different. To move away from the wilderness and into the city, or out of the city and nearer the ocean, and often, when we’re disillusioned with life, anywhere but here. Moving overseas can certainly be a positive change, but it’s no cure for discontent. Counsellors and addiction specialists use the phrase doing a geographical when clients and patients believe their environment is the root cause of all their issues—and the solution is simply to up sticks and move somewhere new to start afresh. But the same behaviours recur, wherever they are in the world as they don’t truly know their place. The same is true professionally. If you’re a poor manager in Boston, it’s likely you’ll be the same in Bangalore. But if you have even a basic handle on your sense of self, or are interested in building it, spending some of your career abroad can deliver a deep sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that will last a lifetime.

International inspiration

When we live and work close to our birthplace, we naturally surround ourselves with those who act in similar ways and believe similar things to us. Taking a two-year assignment from Qingdao to Quebec (or vice versa) can be a culture shock. The loss of everything familiar can be bewildering, making you question your sense of self. But despite being stripped of familiar friends, routines, scenery and surroundings, most people quickly begin to experience a profound sense of identity and a clearer understanding of who they really are. This is true for young future leaders, but also for families. The children of international workers growing up overseas often experience a more worldly view, freer from ignorance and unconscious bias.

Not a bucket list

Understanding your strengths, values and sense of self is not something you can gain from four long-haul holidays a year. Data shows it’s the depth, not breadth of your international experience that allows you to discover your true sense of self. In other words, how long you spend in a country is more important than how many countries you spend time in. Shopping, cooking, navigating the local metro system and immersing yourself in something that’s by definition foreign is positive for your career and personal development. Forty years ago, a lot of expat workers were specialists in engineering or oil and gas: today there’s an equal east-west flow as we enter a new era for renewable technology, artificial intelligence and life sciences. There are many pioneering people, but it’s no longer the leap of faith it once was.

Runar Nilsen, Santa Fe’s CEO said “Leaders with international experience are in higher demand than ever by global organisations. The ability to interact harmoniously with teams around the world is a prerequisite, which is tough if your life experience is limited to your home country. Working abroad boosts your career prospects, widens opportunity and offers unforgettable life experiences—and you may better understand who you are as a result”.

Full circle

Seven centuries ago, the average distance between people’s birthplace and their final resting place was about 130 miles. It’s still under 240 miles today. There’s something comforting about returning to our roots, but between birth and death, there’s a world of opportunity in which to discover your sense of self, your purpose and your place.

If you’re looking for a partner that understands how international relocation can improve you and your teams, personally and professionally, we would love to support you. Simply drop an email to and we’ll get back to you.

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