My personal life lessons from leaving a great job to live a year abroad.
About two years ago…I decided that I needed to quit a great job at a great company and take an “adult gap year”. Risky? You bet. What could have possibly compelled me to take such a gamble? It’s best summarized by this idea:
If you want something you’ve never had before, you must do something you’ve never done before.
I’ve seen this quote attributed to different people, so whoever put it out into the collective universe…thank you! You inspired me. I wanted something different and I believed the only way to get it was by breaking the old mental loops and scripts in my brain and re-booting. For me, re-booting involved pausing my career for a brief period, downloading some new skills, and then re-entering the work force.
I pitched the “brain re-booting” scheme to my wife. Guess what? She jumped on board the crazy train. We spent a year planning and then in September 2016, we said good bye to family, friends, and work colleagues and got on a jet to Spain.
Fast forward…Now that I’ve entered the home-stretch of my self-imposed sabbatical, I find myself reflecting about this re-booting experiment. Did it work? How will it inform my thinking? Three personal life lessons keep surfacing:
Personal Life Lesson 1: Living abroad made me feel vulnerable – I felt vulnerable, because I needed to rely on others – Relying on others gave me an appreciation for new perspectives and alternative processes.
After getting a temporary visa and arriving in Spain, I needed to: open a Spanish bank account, wire money internationally, find an apartment, sign a lease, obtain a residency card, and much more. How did I handle these tasks? I fell into my old mental traps and handled them like they were work projects. I invested energy into gathering data, identifying potential risks, solving problems, and thinking through contingencies. In summary, I transferred my “work mindset” to tasks that needed to be accomplished in my personal life—not the best start for my re-boot.
As those of you who have travelled internationally are aware, being in another country, without command of the native language thrusts upon you a feeling of vulnerability. This became particularly clear with my Spanish Residency Card. To obtain my card, I needed to interact with numerous governmental agencies, including: the Spanish Consulate in the U.S., the local town hall, the foreigner office, my local bank, and the police department. I need to stress that there is nothing wrong with Spain’s requirements for obtaining an identity card; I simply felt very exposed as I tried to navigate the process.
This helped me understand the value of feeling vulnerable…relying on others. Their insights gave me a deeper appreciation for new perspectives and alternative processes. That has made me challenge my assumptions and broaden my thinking. Throughout this year, I’ve been exposed to many different (and yes better) ways of doing things, like: mobile banking, collecting trash, saving energy, caring for the elderly, and securing one’s home.
Personal Life Lesson 2: I made mistakes as I tried to learn new skills – Making mistakes, especially in public, is embarrassing – I’ve learned to make peace with that.
In November, I began taking drawing and oil painting lessons from George Segura Nunez. George, an 84-year-old artist, is a fascinating man. He did a stint in the Spanish Navy. He lived in Paris and worked in advertising. He illustrated over 1000 pulp fiction novel covers— using himself as a model for most of them; back in the day he looked like a young Gregory Peck. He won commissions from the Spanish government, and his paintings are exhibited in art museums in Glasgow and Barcelona. George is also a very demanding art teacher. He has a specific technique for painting. There were many times when he would watch me paint and then, without warning, snatch the brush out of my hand and show me how to do it properly.
At the same time, I also began to take Spanish language classes. The instructors stressed the need to practice my new language skills in public. As a beginner, I was limited to present-tense verbs and possessed little vocabulary. So, if waiter asked me how I liked my meal, I responded with something that sounded like, “I eat fish. I drink white wine. I very much like fish and wine.” The waiter smiled and nodded, but I knew that I sounded like a child. I wanted to talk to him about the citrus notes in the wine and how it paired well with the perfectly cooked sea bass.
Learning art and Spanish revealed my irrational fear of potential embarrassment from making a mistake—not actual embarrassment mind you, merely potential. The problem is, when I practice new skills, I will make mistakes. Mistakes are a natural part of learning. It is essential for acquiring new skills. This year has helped me to make peace with that.
Personal Life Lesson 3: Walking 500 miles across Spain is a challenge – Challenges stretch me – Being stretched shows me that I can reach beyond my preconceived limits.
Before leaving the U.S., and after arriving in Spain, people told me about the Camino de Santiago. It didn’t take a lot of persuasion for my wife and I to decide to do it. After all, when would we have the time to walk 500 miles again? This walk, or pilgrimage, has been happening since the Middle Ages. Today, people walk the Camino for many reasons: spiritual, cultural, fitness, you name it. The route my wife and I took began in France, crossed over the Pyrenees, and spanned the entire north of Spain.
Most days, the hiking was wonderful and I felt like I could have walked farther. That said, 34 days of walking will take a toll on anyone. As each mile accumulated, I felt the wear on my body. All of that pain seemed to vanish however, as I entered the public square in Santiago de Compostella. I realized that I’d done something I never dreamed possible…walk across the country of Spain!
This experience made me think about the times in my career when I was given a stretch goal. Every time my director “raised the bar”, I dreaded it. But, walking more than 500 miles through Spain has help me think differently about being stretched. Instead of seeing it as a vehicle for failure, I see it as a chance to exceed my preconceived mental and physical limits. That doesn’t mean stretch goals are fun…but I know it’s good to be stretched.
Re-entering the Workforce… Soon, I’ll begin to reach out to my network and look for a job. My year abroad delivered personal life lessons I couldn’t have imagined. It makes me excited to re-engage my career and apply the things I’ve learned. Of course, there will be times when I will feel a little vulnerable, or embarrassed, or stretched. That’s why I’m thankful I took this opportunity to re-boot.