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Life lessons from living abroad

Juli Fyfe, Organizational Effectiveness Manager

I recently returned from living and working in Switzerland. Before I left, I was working in Medical Affairs Canada as the Learning & Performance Lead. I have a specialized background in Learning as a Certified Learning and Development Professional (CTSD) and was asked to bring my skills to the Roche global team in Basel for a three-month extended business trip. While I was there, I took on several projects and provided some leadership for the team.

Now that I am back, my friends and colleagues are asking “how was it?” or “what was it really like?” and I usually respond with…it was the adventure of a life time. I have had a full month now back in Canada, and time to reflect and assess the impact that living in a foreign country has had.

Upon my arrival in Switzerland, I was placed into a small apartment in the Swiss German town of Basel. For the first two weeks, I felt that everything - and I mean everything - was different. Small things I took for granted in Canada were huge challenges to overcome. How do you operate a German washing machine? How do you shop for groceries? How do you manage recycling and garbage? (There is a whole story there.) How do you navigate your way to work? I experienced extreme cognitive overload the first two weeks. Being away from my family in addition to a six-hour time zone shift from friends, led to loneliness I had never experienced before! Neuroscience tells us that our brains are preprogrammed to notice change, and the parts of our brains that register change are the same parts that detect and alert us to physical pain! Ouch!

Lesson 1: Change is pain and it is ok to recognize what is happening in your brain

Lesson 2: Practice extreme self-care by getting more sleep, exercise and proper nutrition

After two weeks of being in Switzerland, I decided that I needed to have a more positive outlook. I decided to start jotting down positive messages about what I had learned every day, including what I was grateful for and what I hoped for the next day. This was a quick and easy exercise that lead to quietly acknowledging these little accomplishments - it tricked the brain into a state of celebration/gratitude vs. fear and it worked!!

Lesson 3: Gratitude and fear cannot live in the same place

I knew I would be in Switzerland for only three months and decided to make the absolute most of it. I travelled every weekend to various parts of the country. Travelling alone was also a change for me. I was used to travelling with friends, colleagues and my family, but rarely alone. I planned a trip by train each weekend. Every Monday, I would collect my photos from that excursion and fill a page or two of a photo book that I created. I ate alone in restaurants (determined not to eat in my room), took boat rides, climbed mountains, rode down a mountain on a scooter, and reconnected with long lost family and friends.

What about the work? As I met the global leaders who really knew nothing about me, I stepped into a new me. I could decide how I would show up, what my personal brand was and I took bold new approaches with confidence. I experimented with new ways of working vs. working with methods that I would have traditionally deployed. I forged new work friendships that I am still missing today.

Lesson 4: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone

I sought out and found adventure! I got back in touch with my 18-year-old self who used to be that brave person (I went on a Rotary Exchange to Mexico for a year in high school). Thirty++ years later, my life of parenting, caring for others in need, volunteering, and focusing on work distracted me from who I really was. GUESS WHAT? I AM BACK and I like the new me!! The new me is more confident, I know myself better and I have a new perspective at work!

Lesson 5: Living abroad builds self -assurance and confidence

I am grateful for having had the amazing opportunity to live abroad. Upon my return to Canada, the local commercial affiliate recognized my contributions, and I am now an Organizational Effectiveness Manager in HR, supporting all of Canada.

I must say, I have had a very dynamic career, and I believe that developing skills and competencies that are transferable is critical! Finding what you love and doing it well is also key.

It was a gift that will last the next 30 years. I recommend it should you too get the chance!

Tags: Career Blog, Canada