5 Ways Working Abroad Helped Me Grow

working abroad

Can you pinpoint the pivotal time in your life when you became an adult? For me, it was when I finally left my home to go traveling.

I took a working holiday in New Zealand for six months and while I was there I met my English boyfriend and lived in England with him for 14 months. During these 20 months of travel I grew more than I ever could have if I had stayed in Canada.

When I left Canada at the age of 22 I was confused and conflicted. I wondered what my future would bring and I had only a slight inkling that there was so much more to see and do in the great big world out there. When I returned to Canada at age 24 after having worked and lived abroad in New Zealand and England for two years I was a strong and confident adult with a plan for my future. Here are five of the ways that working abroad helped me to grow up:

1. I learned to trust my future self

Before I went to work abroad, I used to get panicked when I thought about my future. I was worried that I would make a wrong choice and I would never be able to accomplish all of the things that I dreamed of doing.

Luckily, I found myself working as a tour guide at a creepy old haunted prison by the sea in New Zealand and met a confident, irreverent, hilarious and completely fearless English guy who taught me one of the most important lessons of my life; how to trust my future self.

He showed me that I didn’t have to have it all figured out. I needed to focus on the here and now. Lee gave me a huge gift, the confidence to trust myself to make the right choice when the time comes for that decision to be made. Now I still don’t know what I will do with my life, but I don’t worry about it anymore because I trust myself to make it awesome.

2. I learned when to quit

When I was in Christchurch New Zealand on a working holiday New Zealand visa I struggled to find a job for a while and finally got a position fundraising for Green Peace.

I wanted to do my part to help the environment but what I didn’t realize was that “chugging” (or “charity mugging” as they call it in the UK) was completely wrong for me. I hated approaching people who were simply trying to walk down the street and guilt-tripping them about melting ice caps and polar bears. Yes, the issues were important, but I felt uncomfortable using the pushy salesperson techniques that we had been taught to sway people into donating. I cracked under the pressure of making a quota every week.

One Tuesday afternoon only a few weeks into the job, I realized that I simply could not approach one more stranger. I quit. You might say that was a stupid decision because I really needed the money. However, I think it’s important to learn when to quit something if it is completely making you feel miserable every second of the day.

3. I gained a work ethic

Of course, since I had quit my job at Greenpeace and decided to go to England with Lee on a UK work permit I had absolutely no money and I was due to learn another important lesson.

When I arrived in Accrington, a small working class town in Northern England, I needed a job desperately and I took anything I could find. I ended up working at a nursery and I was immediately thrown into 45 hours per week of changing dirty nappies, calming down crying babies, entertaining restless three year olds and wiping up never ending spills. I enjoyed it because I love kids, but it was hard work.

Up until then, I had been a high achieving Canadian honour student who had studied Fine Arts at University. I had never had a full time job that had been more than a summer gig and those don’t really count because I always knew I would be taking it easy back at school in a few months. I worked in that job for 10 months and finally learned what a full work week is like.

4. I used that work ethic to create my dream job

The experience of working at the nursery in Accrington taught me two things. First of all, it was like endurance training which made me better at working hard for long hours. Second of all, it made me realize that if I had the potential to work this hard I wanted to be working for myself doing something I love, not for minimum wage for someone else.

Writing is my passion so I began building up a name for myself as a freelance writer on evenings and weekends. My writing portfolio slowly grew and I took on more assignments. After a while I reduced my hours to part time at the nursery because my writing had grown so much.

Eventually after about a year I was able to quit my “day job” and earn more money from writing full time. These days I make my own hours, work from anywhere in the world and have total control over the writing projects that I do. However, there was no way that I could have logged the hours to build the freelance career that I have now with a lazy university student sense of entitlement, I needed to have the work ethic that I learned in Accrington.

5. I made a life of my own design, not anyone else’s

Perhaps part of the reason why I had been so confused and conflicted before I went traveling was because I was so worried about making my life fit in with everyone else’s expectations. I was putting too much weight on what others would think.

Working abroad in another country gives you a chance to wipe the slate clean of all other previous constructs you have made of yourself. If you have been following a life path that is even a little bit designed to please others, it will never make you truly happy.

During those two years abroad I thought about what I really wanted to do with my life right now in my 20s. The answer was easy, I wanted to write and I wanted to travel. So what did I do? I worked as hard as I could to set up a career as a freelance writer so that I could making a living remotely and then took off to travel the world. Right now I am sitting in a hotel room in the Cameron Highlands region of Malaysia, looking out the window at the lush green jungle hills.

I have learned that trying to make your life fit into someone else’s expectations simply doesn’t work. What you will realize is that it is an impossible goal, because someone will always chime in with their two cents about what you “should” be doing. You can’t please anyone, so stop trying. Simply decide what it is you love to do and then direct all of your energy into making it your reality, even if it is unconventional.

Working abroad changed my life in so many ways and I have never been happier and more confident than I am now. I am so grateful for the things that my travels have taught me and as I continue to travel I look forward to learning more.

Have you worked abroad? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Photo by Paulo Brandão

14 thoughts on “5 Ways Working Abroad Helped Me Grow”

  1. Kelly, what a great example of independence! You could have chosen so many other routes for your life. And so many do. What you didn’t really say was how scared you must have been at times. I don’t mean about your future, I mean about being in “strange countries” without your friends and family. Very brave. Just getting through those emotions is a great way to grow up.

    Traveling is a tremendous way to grow but so is supporting yourself in foreign countries. And now you’ve found a niche for yourself, a way to earn-at-your-own-speed and live where you want, when you want.

    You’re on a magnificent journey. Cherish every moment.

  2. Kelly – excellent post [but as a fellow Canadian, I would expect nothing less]

    My experience is similar, but did not involve moving to a different country – altho some believe that I did. In my mid 30’s I relocated from southern Alberta to the Arctic. Even though the language (usually), currency and government were the same, it was like being in a foreign country due to the remoteness, isolation and cultural differences.

    What an experience. You said you became an adult due to your foreign exploits, well for me, the Arctic is where I became a man.

    Like you I was worried about the future. In the Arctic I found myself, and discovered who I am. I became comfortable and happy (confident) with me and my life.

    I have since relocated back to southern Alberta, but with a different mindset. Am now gearing up for my next great adventure on my life’s path – another far flung locale (within Canada mind you) that will take me outside of my comfort zone.

    But I have few fears as I know that I will be with me, and will be living the life I have chosen to live.

    Also like you I have a desire to write, but have not determined whether it is a passion or not. There are so many aspects of my life that I enjoy that it is difficult to focus on one. I am an engineer with an interest in vintage sports cars. Have taken on the editorial / reporting duties for a small circulation newsletter in a volunteer role. Perhaps it will grow in to something more – if I want it.

    Thanks again and enjoy your journey. The destinations are not important, they are but the way points along our route.

    John B

  3. Very inspiring post, Kelly. Learning to trust ourselves is probably the most crucial step we must take, and leaping into a full experience of life is the surest way to do it. I learned #2 in a similar way, when I was working for a Public Interest research Group in New Mexico. Worthy causes, but an approach that was not me at all. I dream to live independently from writing also, and so I take heart from your story.

  4. Kelly, thank you for sharing your story. Allowing yourself to experience and grow (away from the parental unit) has made you what you are today.

    I enjoyed reading how you began to trust and have confidence in yourself.

    I can’t imagine that you would have become the strong adult you are now if you stayed at home and waited for the perfect job to land in your lap.

    What a wonderful inspiration you are!

  5. We do not usually grow until we are faced to leave our comfort zone. In this case, you went beyond your zone!

    I agree that it teaches us so much more when we are forced to survive on our own with very little assets. I think we learn a lot more ourselves and the value that comes out of it.

    I worry a lot about the future. Sometimes I am scared of what it may result in. But until I try, there’s no backing out of it then or now.

  6. Hi Kelly, your article reminded me of my daughter. When she went off to University in a town about 1200 km from home, she stayed in a flat where she had to cook, clean and do her own washing. She told me when I saw her a few months later “Mom, I felt myself grow up in two weeks”. That’s what growing up is about – taking care of yourself by yourself.

    Great article, thanks


  7. Fine points all. One additional. Living abroad is FUN! You can live, learn, grow, and discover yourself, yes. Very important. But it is also a blast. As an American in South America for five years now I work as hard as I did in the States and that suits me fine. Learning the language, making friends, and finding your way are challenging at the beginning, but it is so much FUN! If you can make the break and stick with it for the first year or two, you won’t regret it.

  8. After about three years working abroad in Singapore, I came back to my home country China. When I was in Singapore, I worked as a research assistant in a university. In order to widen my eyes and make more friends, I applied and eventually became a volunteer tour guide for a museum. This experience allowed me to learn and understand many local or south asia culture. Besides, many fresh things and advanced ideas there impressed me.

    However, I am still confused what I will do in my future. How can I be a better person?

  9. Living in other countries certainly does help develop ourselves in many ways. Me, my husbadn and young son left the UK 6 years ago to live in Ireland. We are currently preparing to leave Ireland to move to Vancouver, Canada to live – all part of our “design life” plans.

    We have found that moving country and being committed to designing the life we really want and living on our own terms, has a fast track affect on developing self reliance, creative problem solving, tenacity, resilience, thinking for yourself and a whole load of other life skills as well.

    But most important of all for us – the experiences we have had, the lessons we have learnt and the skills we have developed have led us to a life of fulfillment and freedom – and that is priceless.

  10. Oh my gosh, I love this!! I feel the same that you felt, a lazy university graduate with a sense of entitlement and I cannot shake it. I am still trying to figure out how to “find” myself and develop this confidence and I am almost 30. :( Afraid I will be 50, 60, 70 and still be at square one.

    Sounds like you have some amazing things happening. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I really needed to hear a story like this at this point in my life. Very inspirational.

  11. Good stuff. Being far away is helpful in creating the notion that you have to create what you want. Sometimes it is very easy. Lots of times it is fairly hard and people give up and do what is easy. Learning that you have much more control (even if that doesn’t mean it is easy) is great.

  12. I wish I was as brave as you are, Kelly. Travelling is always my passion. I have been dreaming of it since I was a kid. But seeing what I have been doing right now, I realize that I have been living to please others. I let others to take charge of my life, to decide what I have to do with my life. I don’t complain because I am getting used to it.

    Reading your story wakes my dream that has been buried for a long time. Thank you so much for sharing.

  13. I really enjoyed reading this because i feel like iam in the same boat. Iam going to Canada on my own in January for a year and to say iam anxious is a understatment.
    Theres a big world out there and i want to see as much as i can before i ‘settle down’ i dont want to be one of those people who say ” what if”
    Thanks again it was very helpfull
    Kyle (uk)

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