When Stephen R. Covey, whose monster bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was first published in 1989, died last summer, there was such an outpouring of grief that I wondered what all the fuss was about. That’s right — I managed to somehow miss out on one of the most influential books of the past quarter century.
(But then again, I remember saying in 1984: “Madonna? Are you kidding me? A year from now we won’t even remember her name.” I kid you not. I’ve never exactly had my finger on the pulse of popular culture.)
I started reading Covey’s book a few weeks ago, and now I get it. There’s so much goodness in it, and of course the first thing I thought was how his seven habits could be applied to expat life.
1. Be proactive
Your effectiveness is determined by the decisions you make, which in turn are (or should be) driven by your deeply-held values. The only one responsible for your choices — and the consequences that arise from them — is you. Seize the initiative by searching for solutions to problems, rather than waiting passively for someone to solve them for you. Don’t waste your time or energy trying to change what you can’t control.
Before we set out on our expat adventure, we need to understand that our view of the world is just that: our view. It’s been shaped by a lifetime of cultural conditioning, and while it serves us well at home, it’s far from universal. Wearing these cultural goggles is something we do unquestioningly, but I humbly suggest it’s high time we acknowledge that our vision is selective.
“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are — or, as we are conditioned to see it,” Covey writes. “We must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as the world we see, and that the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.”
It’s also important for us to examine our own values before relocating. If we don’t know who we are or what we stand for, we’ll be anchorless in a culture that might not value the same things. This could send us down the rabbit hole of cognitive dissonance, identity confusion, and depression.
Being proactive is a big part of succeeding as an expat, especially if you live in an area without a significant expatriate community. You really have to go out there and make things happen for you. Lonely? Join a club, volunteer, introduce yourself to a neighbour. Bored? Study the language, go on a walking tour, start up a business. Sitting at home waiting for someone to rescue you doesn’t work. I know — I’ve tried it.
At the same time, learn to pick your battles. There’s absolutely no point in wasting your energy trying to change something you don’t have the power to change. As Covey writes, “If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control — myself.”
2. Begin with the end in mind
Look within to discover what values you hold dear, and frame your life goals around those values. Decide how you can be the best at each of the roles you have in life. Craft a mission statement to focus on your goals.
It’s all good advice, to which I’d like to add: start thinking about repatriation early — ideally, before you agree to the overseas move. You don’t have to plan it in minute detail, but be aware of the challenges you’ll face as a returnee, and start taking steps to ensure your homecoming won’t be a disaster. Make a commitment to revisit the idea every six months or so, and you won’t be caught unawares when R-Day is almost upon you.
3. Put first things first
Prioritize your activities according to how well they align with the values and objectives you identified in habit #2, not their urgency.
This is a time for experimentation, personal growth, and escaping the curse of the comfort zone. I encourage you to try new things, but never lose sight of those values you identified back in habit #2. Covey urges, “Begin each day with the blueprint of [your] deepest values firmly in mind, then when challenge comes, make decisions based on those values.” Being a little uncomfortable is good sign; doing something that fills you with self-loathing isn’t.
4. Think win-win
Life is not a zero-sum game. Respect the people in your life by making the effort to resolve situations to everyone’s mutual satisfaction.
This is where flexibility, agreeableness, and remembering that you’re the guest in this country come into play. Understand that “the way we do it back home” holds no currency where you are now. Acknowledge that people deserve your respect even though they don’t think or behave the way you do. Loosen the reins of control a little — you might learn something.
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Empathy is everything. Listen — really listen — to what others are saying, not from your own perspective, but from theirs. When you open yourself to people in this way, they’re more likely to respond in kind.
Mr. Covey was a very wise man. Respect.
We can accomplish more together than we can alone, but it takes trust and mutual understanding. Covey calls this the habit of creative co-operation.
Think of all the ways the habit of synergy can be put into action: with your family, your expat friends, your domestic help, service providers, co-workers, teachers — the list goes on. I would also add professional help, in the form of a coach or counsellor, if you find yourself struggling and can’t recover on your own.
7. Sharpen the saw
In order to be our best, productive selves, we can’t neglect basic maintenance in four areas: mental, physical, social (or emotional), and spiritual.
No argument here. Exercise, adequate sleep, a healthy diet, moderate alcohol consumption, social support, and faith all combat the symptoms of culture shock and give us the energy and strength to tackle whatever life throws at us. Good health is the foundation on which all else is built. Everything is better when you feel good!