In just a few days, I’ll have been living and working in the Netherlands for 8 months, with the hope of continuing for at least another few years. This is a pretty big step for someone who never did a semester abroad, and only took a handful of trips overseas. Especially considering I moved to a country where English is not the native language, and I don’t speak a word of Dutch.
Despite what would seem like a massive list of reasons NOT to jump at the opportunity to pack up my life and move thousands of miles away from friends and family, I took the plunge and did it anyway. It was scary. It was stressful. It regularly made me ask myself “What the heck was I thinking?!”
But you know what? It was absolutely worth it and now it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone who has the opportunity, regardless of difficulties or fears. It’s an experience that can broaden your horizons in so many ways and can make you a better employee/boss through the rest of your career.
- Learn to Communicate Clearly
As an American, I didn’t realize how much I relied on idioms, cultural references and analogies to express myself and communicate my ideas. When suddenly faced with an office full of coworkers that didn’t speak English natively (though all spoke it well), I had to figure out how to change my communication style. Already my English has started to transform from “American” to a more International form of English, one that is stripped down to its most basic. The benefit of this is a kind of clarity to what is said. I’m a much better communicator now than I was a year ago.
- Deal With Cultural Differences
As every industry becomes more global with outsourcing, international business deals, partnerships etc. the ability to identify and deal appropriately with cultural differences is more important than ever. In my job at Spil Games, I worked in an office with 30+ different nationalities represented, with my team alone having folks from 8 different countries. Immediately I had to learn how to navigate meetings and conversations with people from all over the world, with each requiring a slightly different approach.
A great example is Dutch bluntness. The Dutch are, by American standards, blunt to the point of being extremely rude. They value direct honesty in almost all cases. If they think your haircut is ugly, they’ll just come out and say it. They aren’t trying to insult you, they’re merely stating what they see as fact, and would appreciate the same direct honesty in return. I had to quickly learn how to receive Dutch feedback without getting angry/insulted, and I also had to learn to give more direct feedback in return. A definite change from the American approach of trying to soften everything so as to not to appear mean or rude.
- Experience the World From a Different Viewpoint
I’m probably going to piss someone off by saying this, but I don’t necessarily think the American Way is always the Best Way in every aspect of life. This doesn’t mean I think the US does everything wrong, I just don’t blindly accept that it’s the end-all-be-all of How to Do Things Right.
Living overseas, if you approach it with an open mind, can give you a new view on the World, a different one from what you grew up with at home in a way you just can’t get moving around the US (though you could argue that living in California vs Texas is like living in two separate countries). Living in a place where things are done differently gives you a chance to view the world from a new perspective. It can challenge your prejudices and open you to totally new ideas and experiences.
Here are a few ideas I held personally before moving to the Netherlands that have been challenged and while these are small things in the grand scheme, they’re representative of the kind of new viewpoints you might encounter living abroad. Beyond the specific new ideas you discover, it opens up your mind more to the idea that maybe there are other ways to approach a particular problem or situation, and that willingness to explore is a huge advantage in any job.
I’d never want to give up owning a car As an experiment, we decided to not buy a car immediately upon moving, giving walking, biking and the national train system a try to see if that would meet our transit needs. Turns out it does! I haven’t driven a car since November 2nd, 2013 and it’s only been an annoyance (and not even a major one) once or twice.
Mandated, government regulated healthcare is a nightmare that doesn’t work This is a huge political topic back home that has people fuming with rage, and having worked for an insurance company once I had severe doubts that a health insurance system where you’re mandated by the govt to have coverage wouldn’t be a bureaucratic nightmare that would cost a fortune. Turns out, the Dutch have found a really nice middle-ground approach to the problem I think the US could learn a lot from.
Things Should be Open 24/7 Here in Hilversum, shops close up around 5pm on Saturday, and generally don’t re-open until 1pm on Monday. Grocery stores etc mostly close up by 9pm. Regular shops are shuttered by 6pm. This is such a shock to the system for someone who’s used to pretty much everything being open 24/7 (or close to it). The first few weeks were maddening! I couldn’t just get up and go out to grab something at any time I wanted! I had to wait!
But I found once I got out of the habit of having access to stores at any time of the day or night, I found myself buying less junk. Also, I noticed the fact that everything’s not constantly open, has a slowing effect on life that manifests itself countless ways that results in what I’d consider a far more relaxed lifestyle. A lifestyle I kind of like!
- Learn to Work With Non-US Companies & Workers
Everyone who’s ever worked with an overseas outsourced company, contractor or partner knows the struggles of trying to fit them into the way business is done in the US. In addition to learning how to better communicate, and appreciate cultural differences, there is a lot to be gained in understanding how different people from around the world work. Knowing more about these differences means you can better plan for them and how they may impact a project.
It’s often mocked in the US, how much vacation time European workers get, or how they stick so hard-and-fast to a 40 hour work week (or sometimes less). Some of it’s jealousy, some of it’s smug satisfaction (Hah! They don’t work nearly as hard as I do!), but it always results in resentment, frustration and extra work when it impacts a project.
If you know about these sorts of differences going into a relationship or project, you can save yourself a lot of pain by building it into your plans and contracts. Sadly, in my experience most US workers enter into relationships with companies and workers around the world expecting them to conform to the American way of working, and it almost always ends badly.
In many ways, living and working overseas teaches you a lot of the soft skills and tools an MBA program promises you. It equips you better to adapt to difficult situations, improve your communication, and learn to view problems from multiple perspectives. While I’ve been out here less than a year so far, I honestly feel that I’ve grown more professionally in these 8 months than I did in the preceding 5 years.
And whenever I do move back to the US, I’ll be a much stronger employee and a better manager for the experience.
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Michael Crassweller is a veteran of the video games industry with 8 years’ experience managing external relationships with global publishing and development partners, internal operational teams, and providing subject matter expertise & operational support across groups in both small and large corporations. Today he’s the Head of Platform Services at BoosterMedia in the Netherlands where he oversees Game QA, Localization, Content Licensing and more. Connect with him at nl.linkedin.com/in/michaelcrassweller/.
Note: The views, services and experiences expressed in this Featured Post are solely those of the contributor.