For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived as an expat in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in (pause for effect) … south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my small hometown located in (pause for effect) … south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. How long? How about 13 time zones-long? CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. I want to “simplify, simplify”, as Hank Thoreau beautifully stated it. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead.
I am currently working on a new book, The Expat Life. It will deal with expat experiences, lifestyle, and mindset. Welcome to come along for the ride. If you find this invitation intriguing, become a subscriber to my free weekly newsletter at http:/theexpatlife.substack.com. Yes, it’s free and yes, it’s in the form of a weekly email sent directly to your Inbox. Substack also provides an opportunity to leave your comments if you wish. Welcome!
A Decade of New Opportunities
I remember a fellow expat from my early days, an American. He believed deeply that his way was the only way. Once, he got upset when people on a city bus were looking at him, even though he was a rare foreigner with a greatly different appearance. On the bus, he shouted at these total strangers to stop looking at him; somehow, this was disturbing his privacy. On another occasion, he criticized an outdoor wedding ceremony because they were making too much noise… by his standards. He never considered changing his mindset. After a year, he returned “home” where he felt more comfortable.
Mark Twain said the man who does not read is no better than the man who cannot read. Likewise, the man who fails to change his mindset when presented with the splendid opportunity inherent in becoming an expat is no better than the one who never dares to venture more than a few miles from his hometown comfort zone.
Every January, a new year begins. We throw away the old calendar and start a new one with 365 golden opportunities to reshape and redirect – indeed, to reinvent our lives. Now imagine the possibilities in an entire decade. What if you were beginning that decade of opportunities in a different country? Now, how would you see the world? Are you starting to think bigger? Can you say “expat”?
Becoming an expat involves a physical relocation to a new setting. Obviously. But, to fully optimize the expat opportunity, that process must also include a serious examination of your mindset. You must be willing to consider changing your mindset along with your address. If an expat lifestyle is a viable alternative to a more conventional lifestyle, we should also look at different worldviews as viable alternatives to how we have been thinking.
A long time ago, a little child was born. That little child was me. It was a different place and a different time. We who are living today were born at a turning point in human history. We are witnessing the end of the last geographical frontiers. Thanks to modern airplanes, there are very few spots on Earth that we cannot reach easily, safely, and inexpensively – all relative terms, of course. What used to be dauntingly difficult-to-reach areas are now tourist attractions. Those of us alive today are also present for the bumbling first stages of the Knowledge Worker era… which increasingly means AI-assisted work.
In the past few decades, many industries have found it expedient (i.e., more profitable) to seek out locations – often across international borders – filled with people who would work for lower wages than the companies were now paying local workers, thus reducing labor costs. Well, guess what? Knowledge workers can play the same game.
Today, “working remotely” means that you don’t have to live close to the company you work for – not in the same city or even the same time zone. Increasingly, in a creator economy, you might be working for several companies or even going 100% freelance. Why not live where you can enjoy a higher standard of living thanks to currency exchange rates? Or maybe you want to hear breakers outside your window instead of city traffic. Given internet access, this is now possible. Thanks to satellite phone antennas, my friend Torgeir Higraff was even able to stay in touch with the rest of the world while drifting on a balsa raft in the middle of the South Pacific.
Interesting historical fact: Throughout recorded history, man has been unwilling to accept more than one hour of travel time from home-to-work and work-to-home. That travel might be a peasant walking from his hut to a nearby field or a more modern worker commuting to an office by foot, bicycle, car, or public transportation. But, in every society and every era, one hour of travel time was all the human psyche was willing to accept. More than one hour of travel time usually results in moving closer to your work location or getting a new job closer to your home. If you can think of any exceptions to this observation, please tell me. Most exceptions are so rare that they prove the general rule. We recognize those exceptions because they are very different from standard behavior. In my case, travel time is the twelve steps from the breakfast table of my Eighteenth Floor Homestead to the standup computer desk in my den.
Compared to our contemporary life, the lifestyle from the year of my birth is almost completely extinct. Today, as a much older little child, I have more opportunities, comforts, and conveniences than ever before – and many, many more choices. I am continuously grateful that I can live as an expat… and live well. In many ways, this is the best time ever to be an expat.
But… that little child from long ago was also you. Today, you are living in a golden age. Problems and dangers exist but there are also magnificent opportunities. However, like owning a gold mine, you have to discover and develop those opportunities to fully utilize them. This begins with a new mindset. In the early stage of my expat journey, I wrote in my diary, “Thought for the day: The past determines the person we are today; but our thoughts and actions today determine who we will be tomorrow.”
In thinking about how I want to live my life – habits, rituals, major goals, relationships, activities – I begin by creating a new criterion: “Can I maintain this for ten years?” Yes, I know that it is ridiculous to think that nothing will change for ten years. In my home, I have to check with my wife and son every morning to see what impulsive changes they have made that will affect my plans for the upcoming day. They can change plans three times before breakfast. But the ten-year timeframe is still a good idea.
When you begin to ask what you want to sustain for ten years – wow, that really changes your thinking. Then, as David Allen of Getting Things Done fame says, you have to look at things from the 50,000-foot level, not at the daily routines from ground level. The purpose of this high-altitude examination is to examine your path, not your daily processes or recent achievements. You need to make sure all your hard work is carrying you in the right direction. Only when looked at from a detached view, as if from 50,000 feet overhead, can we clearly see the progress towards an objective – and ask if that is a worthwhile objective.
As an expat or prospective expat, I challenge you to find a little quiet time for a similar reflecting/resolving/planning session for your upcoming ten years. Ask yourself where you want to be ten years from today. What lifestyle would you need to develop and sustain for the next ten years to achieve that vision? Of course, there will be inevitable changes in your life. Health issues, relationships beginning and ending, career changes and retraining, financial fluctuations, and shifting political and social landscapes are just a few of the areas where changes are inevitable.
We can be certain there will be changes but we cannot predict the specific details of those changes. Indeed, as our rapidly developing technologies proceed and accelerate, attempting to project anything for ten years in the future becomes an exercise in futility. As an expat entering a foreign country, this is further complicated by the sheer number of unknowns you will encounter.
Let me offer Exhibit A: When the first smartphone was introduced, the accompanying marketing campaign was a simplistic “Now, you can store all your music on your phone!” Unseen but lurking on the near horizon were internet access with downloadable apps, cameras, email and various new forms of messaging, online banking, online shopping and ordering and express delivery, streaming entertainment, social media platforms with niche communities, influencers and their followers, instant dissemination of information and misinformation without it being filtered by any agency or network, and, in general, an expectation that people, information, and services should be available to us 24/7 – and most of it should be free.
Don’t forget the introduction of greater transparency in modern society brought about by the smartphone. Whenever you are about to do something criminal or scandalous or merely something you hope your friends and family don’t learn about, you should remember that everyone around you has a camera in their pocket and internet access. Your indiscretion this afternoon may go viral by tomorrow morning. Given that forewarning, can you see why people are beginning to temper their impulses?
That is quite a mindset shift created by one relatively inexpensive little device that has become close to universal in the developed world. Only one generation ago, even the richest and most powerful people didn’t have access to this plethora of electronic goodies; they hadn’t been invented yet. But none of this was foreseen before it actually occurred. Still think you can predict the future?
What we can do from 50,000 feet is picture the kind of individual we wish to become – regardless of outer circumstances, then begin taking steps in that direction. I cannot control the big and little details of my life over the next decade. However, I can visualize the major areas of my desired future life and identify the salient points. For example, if I say I want to develop my cooking skills, I won’t worry about which food items to buy, identifying supply sources, or selecting appliances. Instead, I will ask myself how I can arrange my daily routines to make more time available to be in the kitchen.
If you are wondering how to perform a mindset shift, let me offer Exhibit B: The changes in our worldview due to the ongoing AI (Artificial Intelligence) revolution will serve as a model. Unquestionably, AI will have a vast impact on our lives in the coming years – probably very soon. AI will bring major changes in our opportunities, our lifestyle, and our expectations. Let’s explore how AI innovations will be parallel to an expat mindset review.
AI… If you thought the smartphone brought huge changes in our expectations and lifestyle, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Many people are uncomfortable with what they have heard about AI; they fear that it will make unwelcome intrusions in their life. Indeed, the possibility of abuse and actual danger – Skynet, for Terminator movie fans – is a valid concern. However, I expect more generally benign results as AI continues its inevitable expansion into every facet of our daily life. I suggest that you visualize AI taking over the dull, dangerous, or dirty jobs that we hate but which are often unavoidable. Not all jobs can be replaced but anything that involves repetitive motions and procedures is certainly a suitable candidate for AI.
Before you panic and decide that you will become permanently unemployable because you are going to be replaced by a robot, consider this fact from history: One hundred years ago, automobiles were becoming popular and were rapidly replacing the horse as the primary means of transportation. Some people with a conservative mindset were appalled and fearful. Workers from entire industries felt threatened. These included the people who worked in stables for sheltering horses; the feed and grain stores; teamsters who drove wagons to deliver food and supplies; veterinarians whose work was the care and treatment of horses; saddle and harness makers; even the people whose job was to clean up the horse droppings in the street. They were all going to lose their jobs! This meant the end of their way of life, the end of civilization as they knew it. Or so they thought.
However, think also of the entire new industries which were spawned to accommodate the much more efficient automobile as it became an intrinsic part of modern life. It became necessary to hire thousands of people to work in factories to manufacture those cars. Thousands more jobs were created to make and deliver the steel, glass, plastic, tires, electronic components, and paint used in making those cars. This also opened up the need for better streets, bridges, and highways which had to be built.
But, at the time, the public was unaware of the possibilities; they saw only the end of something familiar and comfortable. Henry Ford, a pioneer in the mass production process, said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have answered faster horses.” The automotive revolution created entire industries of people building those cars, then selling and maintaining and driving them. How many jobs did constructing streets and highways generate? In general, the automobile replaced the horse because it was vastly more efficient. But, in the process, it brought huge economic benefits to the labor force. In the coming years, AI will replace very inefficient human labor in many areas – and, similarly, AI will create many new opportunities.
For expats or potential expats, as you conduct your 50,000-foot review of your personal objectives and the means for achieving them, I urge you to be brutally honest with yourself. Make decisions that will guide you on your path of the next ten years. The opportunities are boundless – perhaps bigger and better than at any time in human history. But will you take advantage of them? How many excuses are you using to avoid making progress in the most important areas of your life? Why? Begin with an objective review of your current life and your progress for the past ten years. How do you feel about the choices that you made? Now, ask yourself what you wish to be like ten years in the future. You are facing a decade of new opportunities. Step into the wonderful world of the expat…