Tag Archives: international work

Sinking Ships

Art by Miguel Gonzalez of Hernan Cortes scuttling his fleet off the Veracruz coast. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City.  Source: Wikipedia
Art by Miguel Gonzalez of Hernan Cortés scuttling his fleet off the Veracruz coast. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City. Source: Wikipedia

This is a post I couldn’t have written in my early 20s.  I simply did not know what I know now.  Instead, I’m writing with a little more perspective, 10 years later.  It’s a post that may have gotten me fired back in my 9-5 days. Some will find it irresponsible. But I can honestly say I’ve found more happiness and better work from internalizing these ideas:

You see, after 10 years spent setting myself up for a good job, getting it, being well-paid to work that job and the next and the next for years, deciding it was time to really grow, quitting, traveling the world for a year, finding a lot more opportunity, talking to others that had seized that opportunity, reconfiguring a lot about myself and then reconstructing my own professional path, I’ve realized that…

Anyone can tell you to be cautious, play carefully and, above all, burn no bridges. It’s solid advice. But there’s a new reality that is even more fundamental.  It has nothing to do with burning bridges.  It’s the new reality of sinking ships.

For just as when in the 16th century, Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés* commanded his soldiers to sink the ships they had taken to arrive in Veracruz (to avoid retreat), we have arrived at the shores of a New Reality in the 21st century and the ships people boarded to professional and financial success in the past, are starting to sink under the weight of monumental corporate screw-ups, shifts in the global economy, damage inflicted by disruptive new technologies and the innovative thoughts of new generations in regards to work culture. There is no way back to the good old days. The only way is forward.

A good step forward would be to identify the sinking ships.  Here are seven biggies (click on the links for more info on each of these sinking ships, there’s a wealth of info that shifted my thinking over the years and that helped me make some big changes):

Sinking Ship #1 – The traditional career track  – If you are interviewing for a job today, there’s a pretty good chance that you are not interviewing for the same reason the boss did 20 years ago. The boss wanted the job for a safe, secure track to retirement. The world has changed.  For starters, “the track” is disappearing.  Security now comes from breadth of experience, not hunkering down with one company and hoping for the best.  Also, as much as bosses will demand loyalty, the recent recession has clearly shown us that they will lay you off before taking a cut to their own salary.  We all know this, let’s not pretend otherwise by limiting ourselves to one source of income.

Sinking Ship #2 – Job security – I’ve never been fired but I was laid off once.  Fortunately it wasn’t a big deal because it was a summer job and I was in college.  But the memory of it burns bright even now.  I walked in to my office building one Monday morning and before I could even get to the elevator, the CFO of the company stopped me in the hall and said, “Bjorn, we need to talk.”  He proceeded to tell me that because business was down, I had been laid off along with 30% of the sales force.  “I’m sorry we didn’t get the letter out to you in time.”  They let me work a half-day more because I insisted I had billable work and then BAM – I was out.  To the millions that were laid off over the last several years, this story of fickle job security is painfully familiar.  And the consequences of this sinking ship are devastating.

Sinking Ship #3 – Landlocked living – I have personally been inspired by the response of some very brave people to Sinking Ship #1 and #2.  Instead of worried pacing in front of the water cooler and angry conversations in the lunch room, they’ve hunted down opportunities that are less obvious and less convenient: overseas options.  Rather than telling you their stories, here are some links.  Let them tell you for themselves.  These are all people that crafted their own financial and professional futures out of international opportunities.  These include young people and older people, singles, marrieds, families with kids, etc.  Think hard before you decide whether or not this is for you.

Here’s a beautiful young family with three little kids that took the entrepreneurial route and moved to Costa Rica.

Here’s a smart couple (interviewed on CultureMutt in my last post) that saved $80,000 in three years as teachers in Korea.

Here’s an enterprising young Irish guy who decided that he was going to use his language skills start an online blog/business to travel the world and learn even more languages.

This Aussie couple used their videography, photography and writing skills to make them some of the most successful digital nomads I’ve seen AND rake in all this good press.

Check out the major trend of Americans professionals of all kinds (definitely not just teachers) flocking to the best hiring environment in the world right now: the Asia Pacific Region.

Sinking Ship #4 – Fresh Faced Entitlement – I had a great boss for my first job out of college.  She told me that most 20 somethings entering the workplace (including me), had no idea how they came across and should therefore shut up in meetings and only offer their thoughts when asked to.  It was brutal and, frankly, embarrassing because it was the opposite of what I had been doing.  But I learned a lot.  I realized that, along with a lot of my fellow recent grads, I thought that past accomplishments in college or internships, entitled me to a good job where I was automatically respected and heard.  Oh, how the young are deceived!

Of course, this kind of young entitlement thinking is nothing new.  What is new, is the harshness of the hiring environment. Due to the economic downturn, it has been extremely difficult to land a good job even with years of experience.  New grads with a mere diploma are even worse off – they are on a sinking ship – not exactly a place for entitlement…

Sinking Ship #5 – Old Exec Entitlement – But entitlement is not just the curse of the young.  It also applies to complacent managers and execs.  I remember chatting with an exec who was mentoring me at one job.  I know he meant to be encouraging and positive.  But his words achieved the exact opposite effect:  “You know, Bjorn, guys like you and I are lucky.  As long as we don’t rock the boat and we do a decent job, we are set in this company for life!”  The complacency and the deep seated entitlement of the beckoning Old Boys Club made me sick to my stomach.

But even this is changing.  Thinner margins, higher demands for efficiency and the harsh winds of change mean that, in many industries, you won’t be an exec for long if you don’t understand the new world of tighter legislation, online metrics, data driven advertising and the online product platforms that are rendering dinosaur execs that rely on hunch and “years of experience in this field”, retired or job hunting.

Sinking Ship #6 – Gatekeepers – If you want to succeed as a writer, a programmer, an artist or pretty much any entrepreneurially-focused venture that required gate keepers (editors/purchasers/CEOs/producers) to pick you out of the clamoring crowd in the past, you are in luck.  Self-publishing, while not new, is far more prevalent and possible today.  It is changing industries and making it possible to circumvent big, boring companies.  Online platforms mean you can sell your own software, your own music, your own product while entirely dodging the bureaucratic hoops or the horrible odds of being signed by a gatekeeper.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that your job as an aspiring creator is any easier but it does make it more democratic as success is more dependent on your ability to hustle than on favor from on high.  Let those gatekeepers sink, we won’t miss them!

Sinking Ship #7 – Fearful Obedience – “What do you expect from a supervisor?”  It’s a classic interview question.  And, given our new environment of sinking ships and its accompanying threats and opportunities, you can give a political answer while knowing in your heart that the real answer is “I expect a fair shake and some coaching. But not a lot more.  I am genuinely grateful for anything you can teach me but I don’t see you as a path to riches or promotion.  Your career ladder probably won’t be standing when I’m your age.  This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s just… reality.  So while I want to grow professionally, I’ll take ownership of my future whether its here or somewhere else.  I don’t necessarily need to climb a breaking ladder…. especially not on a sinking ship.”

As I said at the start, these thoughts are going to be labeled irresponsible by some.  I know that.  It’s OK.  If I were boss, on the verge of retiring and just wanted to be put out to pasture with minimal fuss, I wouldn’t like all this disruptive chatter either.  But most of us aren’t that lucky.  We’ve got to face facts.  Real irresponsibility in this new reality is to ignore the sinking ships.

*Cortes was a horrible imperialistic mass murderer.  I am not holding him up as a hero.



Five Essential Friends (Working Abroad Part II)

Source: Uploaded by user via Tonya on Pinterest

I was joking around with an old family friend whom I’d known for years.  My family had first met him and his family in Hong Kong in the 80s when we lived there.  He was now living in a less-than-spectacular armpit of Southern California’s Inland Empire just east of Los Angeles.  It’s a crappy place to live, boasting most of what is wrong with LA (traffic, pollution, crime) and few of the ritzy perks of Hollywood.  He responded to my jab about where he was currently living and said, “Bjorn, you know as well as I that the people make the place.”  He was referring to the humble outposts that our respective families had lived in while in Asia and reminding me that there was little in the way of glamor back then.  Instead, we were surrounded by some of the most interesting people we would ever meet.

It was a little humbling.  But he was right.  Friends really are what make the difference in life.  No where is this more true than when you are working abroad.  Friends at your side abroad are essential to having a good experience.  Not only is it important to have friends, it is important to have the right kinds of friends when you are working oversees.  Here is a list of people you need in your circle:

The Local

The minute you land in a foreign country you want to make finding the local your top priority.  This is the friend that makes all the difference.  This friend is the local resident who gets it and is happy to help you.  Fortunately, it is not hard to find local friends.  If you are the “new person”, chances are that you will be approached by a lot of really amazing local people that you can make friends with.  They want to know you because you are new and exotic and you want to know them because they are often a lot of fun and can help you navigate everything from local entertainment to negotiating apartment rentals and handling complaints.  DO NOT make the mistake of ignoring locals in favor of “easier” relationships with other expats just because there is less of a cultural barrier.  If you do this you may as well have stayed at home.  You will isolate yourself and look pathetic.

The Social Butterfly

This is the guy who knows everyone.  The gal who is on first name basis with the who’s who in town – the extravert that is the last one to leave every party and effortlessly flits from gathering to gathering.  Ignore this person at your peril.  Don’t assume that they are superficial just because they are masters of small talk.  They have honed their game over the years and they can help you forge some of the most important strategic relationships that you will need during your stay in the country.  Don’t be afraid to approach this person.  He or she is the kind that generally loves meeting anyone. 

The Diplomat

From time to time something delicate will come up while you abroad, especially since you are working in a cross-cultural setting.  Instead of getting all worked up and blowing off steam by giving people a piece of your mind, talk to the diplomat.  This person is a chess player – several moves ahead of everyone else.   He or she knows just the right words to say.  Diplomats are masters of Public Relations.  They are self-aware and sensitive to how communication is crafted.  Have a fire to put out?  Call your diplomat friend as if she were 911.

The Genius

You need the resident genius when you are abroad.  This friend is highly skilled, extremely knowledgeable and can help you with the detail work.  Are you in over your head?  Unsure how to write a grant proposal for a project you are working on?  Drowning in contractual legalese?  Having crazy-making technical problems?  The genius can help and if you have cultivated a friendship with him or her, chances are you will be helped before everyone else.

The Backer

Finally, everyone needs the backer.  This is the friend who would take a bullet for you.  He is loyal to a fault.  She is a cheerleader.  This person can talk you back up when you fall flat on your face and the world looks like a horrible place.  You need this kind of person at home.  You need the backer even more when you are abroad.  So much of your success in international work lies in cultivating the correct frame of mind – it is about staying motivated.  Your backer friend is there to encourage and give you a boost.  The backer is indispensable.

One last word.  As much as it is vital to have all of the five above friends, it is even more important to give before you receive.  Warmth, generosity, humor and some compassion go a long way when you are working abroad.  If you show that you are willing to be a great friend to those around you, chances are they will reciprocate.  Whatever your talents are, put them to use for your friends.  Be that buddy everyone wants to turn to in a time of need.  If you can do this you will have very little to worry about as you pursue savvy, global do-gooding.



Bjorn Karlman