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How to master life as an expat using the power of innovating

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

This article was first published on LinkedIn

Shirzad Chamine, founder and CEO of Positive Intelligence, considers that “The power to innovate is needed when the old way of approaching a situation, or the more obvious ways of dealing with it, does not suffice. A new outside-the-box approach is required.” In order to recast a seemingly very bad idea, Chamine advocates the yes-and construct to broaden possibilities and to enhance the power of innovating. The construct assumes that for any bad idea, there must be at least 10% of it that is good, which is the launchpad to innovate: “Yes, what I love about that idea is … and …”

Flourishing in times of disruptive change

When I first relocated to Jakarta from Washington, D.C. as an expat professional more than two decades ago, I initially experienced a honeymoon high from immersing in a new language, experiencing a new country and culture, making new friends. This soon down-shifted into the doldrums of culture shock. The transition from culture shock into an intensive period of multidimensional roles adjustments, from domesticity to board rooms that comprised c-suite executives, account managers, ministers, and directors-general was a steep climb for me, a climb experienced by just about any expat executives taking up posts in new countries. Hal Gregersen, senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, characterizes this experience in his v-shaped transition curve. As predicted in Gregersen’s transition curve, I eventually managed to scale the adjustment wall reaching the coveted plateau of mastery. I started to speak a bit of the language and was able to adjust to my work and nonwork stakeholders dynamics with some ease.

Whitney Johnson, CEO of Disruption Advisors, lasers onto Gregersen’s upward swing from the launch point at the bottom (culture shock) to the sweet spot of exhilarating learning and rapid growth (adjustment), gaining in on towards the plateau of mastery. In the wake of intense learning enters this sense of inertia and dread that Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, refers to as languishing, that state between burnout and depression. The state that a lot of us have experienced during the pandemic over these past 2 years. Grant suggests that the antidote to languishing is flow, the state when we are fully immersed and focused. Johnson switches it up and advocates that when we no longer are excited at the plateau of mastery, this is the time to switch gear to start something new—the learn-leap-repeat cycle to innovate and flourish in times of disruptive change. So if you become not able to flourish at your plateau and start to languish, approaching the precipice, how ready are you to embrace an outside-the-box approach and leap into innovating in order to flourish in times of disruptive change?

Third Culture Kids’ Superpower

With more expat professionals living and working internationally, and bringing along their children, the number of third culture kids (TCKs) grows accordingly. In their book, Pollock, Van Reken, and Pollock (PvRP) reported that there were more than 8,257 international schools teaching 4.53 million K-12 students in English worldwide in 2016. The estimate is that this number will be more than doubled to 10 million students by 2026, not including the non-English speaking TCKs.

The term TCK was first coined by sociologists John and Ruth Useem in 1950s to describe children of American citizens working and living abroad. PvRP extended Useem’s work and definition and refer the third culture as “a way of life that is neither like the lives of those living back in the home culture nor like the lives of those in the local community, but is a lifestyle with many common experiences shared by others living in a similar way.” It is this ambiguous Neither/Nor World that TCKs thrive. Recognizing an increasingly cross-cultural and highly mobile world that TCKs-like travel back and forth, Ruth Van Reken (of PvRP) expanded the TCK concept and coined the term cross-cultural kids (CCKs) in 2002.

I can identify myself growing up in four CCK circles—traditional TCK, domestic TCK, children of immigrants, and educational CCK. Being in the Neither/Nor World—neither fully in the world of my parents’ cultures nor fully in the world of the cultures that I’ve come of age, studied, worked, and lived since I was 16—I continue to find it difficult to respond to “Where are you from?” or “Where is home?”. I hold multiple passports and switch around at least three languages at a time. TCKs/CCKs find pains in identity and belonging.

The lifelong moving between worlds somehow equips TCKs/CCKs, especially those who continue to live and work as expats, with one superpower, the power to innovate. TCKs/CCKs are more ready to celebrate the yes-ands as they tend to lean in to the 10% to seek belonging and re-define identity. They are more adapted to outside-the-box approach as they scale towards the plateau of mastery, shortening the transition period, to flourish in times of disruptive change.

Innovate is the antidote to disruptive change

I’m curious and would love to hear from you on what it’s like to be an expat nowadays:

  • How do you use the power to innovate for flourishing instead of languishing at the plateau of mastery?

  • What is your antidote to disruptive change?

  • Which CCK circles do you identify yourself with and what are your superpowers?

Subscribe to Just Be with Lina to receive my next monthly newsletter, to explore how being, rather than doing, can better support us through uncertainty, living on the periphery as expats and TCKs/CCKs.



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