Navigating success: Should I move abroad or pursue a career first?

  • young professional
Published on 2024-01-19 at 10:00 by Asaël Häzaq
This is a profound question indeed. One could rightly argue that merely traveling doesn't equate to "building a career." Undoubtedly, there are many interesting positions available locally. However, one might also contend that one or two trips overseas for "career-building" are worth it. The debate (regarding pollution and expatriate careers) resurfaces regularly, questioning the very concept of the value of work, the role of work in life, and the image of the expatriate.

The image of the cool expat

Indeed, the expatriate is cool. We might not know the personality of every expatriate, but it is believed that expatriates are cool. The idea continues to linger in the collective unconscious. Expatriates are cool because they come from elsewhere. Immigrants also come from elsewhere but lack the expatriate's fortune. Expatriates are cool because they inevitably have exciting jobs. All jobs offering substantial remuneration are assumed to be fascinating. This is an intentional exaggeration to underscore the role of money in the attractiveness of expatriates. They are still too often imagined enjoying a three or four-digit salary, occupying high positions, living between two planes and three hotel rooms. This outdated image of serial expats continues to shape a particular perception of expatriates.

A life story

The term "career" can represent two elements. Firstly, there is the professional career, which follows us throughout life. This is the case for someone who, for example, has embraced a chemist's career. They studied to become a chemist and work in their favorite professional field. There is also the career in terms of professional experiences, encompassing all experiences listed in the CV. One may have navigated between various professional sectors, taken breaks, etc. So, should one move overseas to ensure a successful career or wait to "build a career" before moving?

These questions rest on controversial assumptions. As mentioned above, the misconception of cool expats creates interference between imagination and reality. Many people move overseas to find a better life, regardless of their income. Furthermore, the definition of a career has evolved over the past decades. Today, a career has many "definitions." "Building a career" or having a "successful career" is not necessarily about making a lot of money and holding a position of responsibility. Expatriates may feel they have "built a career" when they accumulate several professional experiences. Others may feel more fulfilled by having flexible working hours to enjoy their life and family, stroll, engage in sports, or explore their new country.

We are, therefore, far from the rigid definition of a career and immigration. One may applaud a career deemed unsuccessful by another. One may emphasize the human aspect and all the connections established during expatriation, while another will focus on the number of successful assignments.

The concept of a successful career and a fulfilled life

As mentioned, stereotypes persist. These stereotypes imply that a professional career would prosper more with one or more experiences abroad. This overlooks the tragic sidelining of expatriates who return home. Many companies still struggle to deal with employees who leave, return, or go elsewhere. Although very rich, their path is not always recognized at its actual value. Attempts are made to pigeonhole them into categories even though they do not fit any criteria and do not want to.

What if it's a matter of balance? Not overvaluing an expatriate career, not undervaluing someone who doesn't travel, but rather placing each situation in its proper context. While expatriation can indeed propel a professional career (depending on what each considers a "career"), it is neither the condition nor the consequence of a successful career. If expatriation appeals to you, there is no need to wait until you have climbed a thousand rungs before daring to travel. Instead, consider your language proficiency, the sectors that are hiring in the foreign country, the conditions for obtaining a visa, the need for additional training, and so on.

The trauma of lockdowns forced us to ponder the true essentials. What is success? What is life? What really matters? Young generations no longer want to work themselves to death like their elders. Their ultimate goal is no longer to hold a position of responsibility. While salary remains important, it is no longer the driving force for accepting impossible working conditions. The young prefer to earn less money and have more time for others and themselves. For them, that is true life fulfillment. The career will be successful if personal life is as well.

Should you move abroad to build a career?

However, we must acknowledge some objective data. Some educated women, for example, claim to have had more opportunities by moving overseas. They have become executives, CEOs, started their own businesses, etc. Doors closed in their home country were open in another. They also speak of the greater freedom they have experienced in their host country.

Another objective data point is salaries. The same position will be remunerated in different ways in different countries. Recognition of the profession is also a factor. When one's country does not adequately support a professional sector, sometimes the grass seems greener in a neighboring country.

Should we conclude that moving abroad is essential for a successful career? Of course not. It would be risky to generalize based on isolated cases. Ultimately, these questions emphasize that nothing is mandatory. They also question the profound meaning of expatriation. Why do people go to work abroad?

Should you move abroad to be happy?

You may have already heard this injunction: "You must travel. Those who do not travel are narrow-minded, passive, and lack ambition. Traveling is life." The advocates of these clichés are certain that travel conditions and structures the human being. The formula could be transposed to work; it would be essential to see what is done elsewhere to do one's job better.

However, the same travel enthusiasts forget to mention that they may spend more time collecting selfies in front of all the tourist spots worldwide than taking an interest in the cultures of the countries they visit. The same phenomenon sometimes occurs with expatriation, especially in certain sectors like Tech. It is deemed essential to travel to work better. Elements that go beyond its scope are projected onto expatriation. Without questioning the general benefits of travel, it is not guaranteed that a journey will inevitably lead to an executive position. In fact, that might not be what you are seeking.

One can also travel to the end of the street or through encounters with others. Hobbies, cuisine, sports, and cinema are all doors to other worlds where you can also find happiness. A happiness that comes even when everything would label our expatriation as "failed," for example, if the job contract abroad failed, was cut short, or was not renewed. The stay abroad was a long series of more or less problematic adventures. Do these complications call into question the success of a career abroad? No. This distinction is just as important for a well-rounded view of professional experience, whether abroad or not. It is up to every individual to evaluate the success of their career. While certainly very important, the value of work must be put back in its rightful place. Life encompasses work, not the other way around. In short, we don't live (only) to work; work does not condition life.