By the age of twenty-three, I had lived in seven countries and started my own business.
I achieved all this by myself. None of this happened because of my parents or family; I wasn’t a trust fund kid or a diplomat’s daughter. I grew up in rural Northern California in a city of only 400 people. Never once did I live abroad with my parents; not even when I went to high school in Japan.
For me, learning a foreign language was about immersing myself in another culture. Learning it so deeply I could fully understand the emotions and thoughts of native speakers. I wanted to be able to truly experience and appreciate a culture’s arts–whether it was music, film, writing, or just yummy food.
The drive to learn another language and live in a foreign country isn’t just about cool international travel stories and selfies in exotic destinations, though. Being able to adapt oneself to another culture can teach you how to achieve excellence in sales, business development, and even marketing. Let me explain:
Curiosity is unstoppable
Learning is so much easier and faster when you’re curious and excited. Observant people who are thirsty for knowledge tend to make better salespeople because they ask great questions. Having curiosity about your customer or target audience makes you thoughtful. Curious people can craft a more interesting targeted message than someone who doesn’t really care.
Have deeper empathy and awareness of others’ feelings
Learning Japanese made me so much more polite. I never paid much attention to Western etiquette. But because I wanted to be fluent in Japanese, I had to learn all the “levels of politeness,” including the most honorific level, “keigo.” I also learned many other Japanese etiquette rules, including how to leave your chopsticks, and additional ways to be respectful in business situations.
But the funny thing about awareness is once you learn it, it’s hard to unlearn and forget about it. So as I learned more about cultural norms and the etiquette of foreign cultures, I began to pay more attention to these details when interacting with people in the United States. I probably would have never noticed them otherwise.
My international experience always gave me an edge when doing business with people from the countries I had lived in and frequently traveled to. But I also borrowed cultural traditions such as bringing little gifts when meeting new people or catching up with old customers.
Resourcefulness and resilience are superpowers
When you’re living or traveling abroad everything is an extra layer of struggle. Things like getting an Internet connection set up or seeing a doctor become triple hard when you’re doing it in a language and system new to you. But this builds resilience and sharpens your ability to solve seemingly impossible problems with resourcefulness. And these are two things you need to survive in business–especially if you’re doing sales, marketing, or partnerships.
Be an agile goat
I always say, “Be a goat; not a sheep.” Where sheep blindly follow the herd, goats are agile and resourceful. They can survive just about anywhere. Sailors used to bring them on ships and leave them on desolate islands with almost nothing to eat. The sailors would come back years later, and there would be a healthy goat population, and they’d have food on that island if they ran out of supplies.
Traveling, and especially living abroad, makes you an agile goat. From age sixteen to twenty-two, I lived and worked in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Turkey, and post-revolutionary Egypt. Because I moved frequently and lived like a “digital bedouin,” I learned to rapidly adapt to new environments and cultures like a diplomat. I changed my habits and dress to mirror the culture I lived in. I quickly discovered who the influencers and connectors were, and rapidly built rapport with them.
This same skill is invaluable for selling and marketing to new industries. It’s also really helpful if you’re thinking about changing careers or want to go to a company that’s in a new space, which many tech startups are.