Should I Stay or Should I Go? 12 Things Expats Should Consider When They are Considering Leaving

turtle on the road

 

Expats are big decision makers.  It’s what we do.  It’s how we roll.

 

This whole cross cultural experience started with a decision that impacted every aspect of our lives.

 

“Hey honey, how would you feel about about moving.”

“Ooo — yes.  There’s a really cute place over by my mother’s.”

“Yeah . . . I was thinking Zimbabwe.”

 

And that was the match that lit the fire.  There are roughly 36,000 steps between that moment and your first day as a foreigner.  I’ve considered writing a book about it but who wants to read that?

“The 36,ooo Steps To Becoming a Highly Effective Expat”

Not me.

Even though BECOMING an expat is a big decision those who do it very quickly discover that BEING an expat is the great decision inflator.  Every decision takes up more space.  Even the ones that used to be simple . . . like eating food . . . and saying words.

It gets better with time and discovery but expats are no foreigners to making big decisions.

There is ONE big decision however that circles overhead for the duration of our time abroad.  It’s the looming question that we all wrestle with in varying degrees and often multiple times over the course of our expatriate lives . . .

When is it time to leave?

For many it’s easily dismissed with a simple “not yet.”  For others the decision is out of their control . . .

“Contract’s up, we’re sending you home.”

“Embassy was attacked — everybody out.”

BUT — in any given time zone at any given moment there are thousands of expats grappling with the not so simple question,

 

“Should I stay or should I go?”

 

I’ve talked with dozens of these people in the past few weeks and hundreds in the past few years.  Here are some of the highlights from those conversations and some things you might consider if you’re one of those expats right now:

 

1.  Deciding to leave is a not an event it is a process

One of the biggest “Aha moments” ever for me was discovering leaving is not about the date on my plane ticket.  I’m leaving long before then and continue to leave long after.  It’s a process that ramps up (usually for months) to the airplane and then spends months ramping down.

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You can read more about that here —  Leaving Well:  10 Tips for Repatriating With Dignity

The crazy bit is that the process itself actually encompasses a number of other processes.  Deciding to leave is one of those.  Announcing that fact is another.  Then you can get down to the ongoing process of leaving well.

Reframing your decision as a process cuts you loose from the pressure of needing to know right now.  There are a lot of pieces to consider.  Slow down. Think it through.

Processing also reminds you that something should be happening now.  Telling yourself that you will have a decision by the first of the year is not just postponing the event.  You should be in that process between now and then.

 

2.  Embrace the paradox

You’re no stranger to this one.  This whole thing has been a paradox from day one.

Crossing cultures is one of the most starkly contradictory experiences life has to offer.  It is wonderfully horrible and horribly wonderful and grasping that is key to thriving while abroad.  Those who can’t find anything good have a miserable and depressing experience.  Those who don’t acknowledge anything bad crash harder than the miserable and depressed ones.

It’s hard — but it’s good.

Leaving is not the exception here.  Neither is staying.

The grass may be greener on the other side of the fence but that pasture is not without it’s fair share of weeds or manure.

(Confucius totally should have said that)

Whether you land on staying or going, embrace the paradox in the process.  Explore the realities (good and bad)  of all angles.

 

Roller Coaster at Sunset3.  Wait until the ride has come to a complete stop

Life cross-cultural can be an emotional roller coaster.  If that rings a bell you’re not alone.  It is uber common for expats to feel like they want to stay forever on Monday morning and get on the next plane out by Monday afternoon.  This is especially common in the first two years but not at all restricted to then.  You may have been abroad for years and still go through roller coaster phases.

It’s ok.  You’re not abnormal.

BUT — The worst possible time to get off of a roller coaster is in the middle of the ride.

Fight the urge to make a decision while you can’t seem to make a decision.  Barring other external circumstances you’re probably better off staying in your seat and screaming for a bit.

Just so we’re clear.  If you can’t choose between staying or going . . . stay.  Ride it out.  Don’t go and then wonder if you should have stayed.

 

4.  Don’t confuse cancer for high crime

“I’m not sure this is a healthy environment for me.” 

I’ve heard this sentence (and probably said it) more than once.  Sometimes it’s legit.  Maybe there is something truly toxic, abusive or threatening that is pushing you to consider leaving.  Understandable.  You can move on to the next point.

However, 97% (I made up that statistic to emphasize my point) of the time this sentence describes tough relationships.  A demanding leader.  A gossipy team.  A lack of friends.

Here’s a metaphor.  You can learn to live in a high crime area (much of the world does) even if that’s not where you’re from.  You do have to make some major life adjustments that are based on applying wisdom to hard truths.  HOWEVER — No matter how much wisdom you apply, your chances of survival in a bad neighborhood go down dramatically . . . if you have cancer and don’t treat it.

The moral of this story? No matter where you live there is no guarantee of affirming leaders, non-gossipy teams and super friends (the community type not the Wonder Twin type).  Don’t run from an “unhealthy” place.  Get healthy.

Then you can go anywhere.

 

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5.  Don’t overestimate your contribution

Sometimes people stay because things would fall apart if they left.

They don’t though . . . fall apart that is . . . when they leave.

Generally speaking (and of course there are always exceptions) cross-cultural endeavors are built to absorb the shock of transience.  People come and people go.  It doesn’t mean you won’t be missed.  That’s a different issue.

Steve Jobs died.

I just typed that on my Mac which is plugged into my iPhone.

See what I’m saying?  This thing will go on without you and yet, you are still important.

 

6.  Don’t go (or stay) . . . on a guilt trip

“You’re leaving because you met someone on eHarmony?  Wow.  Shallow.”

“Aunt Bessie was asking about you.  She’s probably not gonna’ be around long.”

“I came here to help people.  I can’t imagine going home when so many people are hurting.  Maybe you can  . . . but I can’t.”

“People are hurting here at home too.  They sure could use somebody like you.”

Pause.  You know that  these people . . . these well meaning people love you, right?  They do — and they speak (almost usually) out of that love.  It’s important that you start there.

Guilt, however, is a terrible decision driver.  You can listen respectfully.  You can also add every valid observation from noble-intentioned friends and family to the 4 billion other factors that you need to consider as you process your choice.

If you decide based on guilt though, you’ll never get away from it.

 

7.  Be painfully honest

People who yearn for something become expert justifiers to get it.  When those people interact with others (especially friends and family) on the subject of their yearning, the pressure builds.  There is a compulsion to block, even the most legitimate, questions and objections.

SO — we find trump cards and shut the conversation down cold.

“It’s what’s best for my family.”

“My doctor says it would be better.”

“My kids really needs this.”

“I just know this is God’s will right now.”

ALL of these are great, valid, viable reasons to stay or go — that’s not the point.  The point is that it takes some painfully honest introspection to discern whether these are REALLY your reasons — OR —  you have discovered and defaulted to the one answer that no can argue with?

Don’t guard yourself from the tough questions and objections.  Instead let those be the refining part of your decision process.

 

8.  Consider option A.5?

If A is stay and B is go . . . is there anything else?  Something in between maybe?

Sometimes we box ourselves into a two option scenario.  While you are processing, why not wander around and explore outside of the box.

  • Could you stay and take on a different role?
  • Can you move laterally within the same organization?
  • Is there another expat opportunity available?  A different country? New opportunity?
  • Do you just need a break to recharge?  What are your options for that?
  • Could you do an extended visit home?  A sabbatical?  A year off?

Possible?  Not possible?

That’s the point of exploring.  You may be surprised to discover an option that you hadn’t dreamed of.  You may find that there actually are only options A and B.

Either way — it’s worth some thought.

 

9.  Lay a solid brick?

Expats are almost never pillars of their community.  They don’t stay long enough for that and even if they stayed for 50 years their communities would  change dozens of times around them.

Transient people are more like brick layers.  Your life will look like a big brick wall.  Chase this metaphor with me for a minute.

When you’re building a brick wall EVERY single brick is important.  One sandy, mushy brick and I can poke a hole in your wall.  Two or three and the whole structure is compromised.

Here are some things that cause mushy bricks:

  • The wrong materials in your brick.
  • Your brick didn’t set long enough to get hard.
  • You moved on to the next brick before you finished laying the one you were on.

Ask yourself (and be painfully honest again) — is the brick you are laying right now solid?

Have you engaged?  Gone deep?  Added value to the place where you are?

Have you stayed long enough?

Have you already checked out?

 

10.  Build your processing list

Deciding to stay or go is a process.  We covered that right?

So what are you processing?  I mean besides those two choices.  What are the factors?  The variables?  The consequences?  The benefits?  The challenges?

If you try to process without slowing down you’re bound to miss something.

Try this.

Set your timer for 2 minutes.  Grab a pen and paper.  Mark it “STAY” then divide it into “PROS” and “CONS”

For 2 minutes (and 2 minutes only) write as many Pros to Staying as you can possibly come up with.  Don’t think.  Just write.

GO!

Now do two minutes for “Cons”.

Now do the same for “Going Pros” and “Going Cons”

You’ll be surprised what comes out and you’re likely to discover that you can produce a lot more in 8 intensely focused minutes than you can in 8 hours bouncing back and forth.

StayGo1

 

STOP — Remember that this exercise is NOT about making your decision.  It’s about building your list of things to process.  Don’t just look at which list is longer.  Some of these things are weighted more heavily than others.  Try rating them 1-5 to get some perspective on which sides are heavier.

Again.  Don’t think.  Just rate.

StayGo3You’re still not there.  Spend some time with your lists.  Make connections.  Draw lines and circles and stars and smiley faces.  Make notes about the pieces that seem to be really significant — good or bad.  What are the themes?

Learn something about yourself.

When you’re finished you should have a much clearer picture of what you need to spend time processing.

 

 

11.  Seek wisdom

This one is simple.

This is a big decision.  Don’t just read a blog.  Find people you trust and invite them into your process.

 

12.  Is it time?

I have had hundreds of one on one conversations with people who are either leaving or leaning that direction.

I try my hardest to shake them up.  Throw them a loop.  Make them consider something that they haven’t yet.  I don’t try to change their minds I just push them to think it through . . . all the way.

In all of those conversations there have been a handful who are absolutely unshakeable and they have all responded with a nearly identical answer.

“It’s time.”

That’s it.  They don’t justify their answer.  They don’t defend their thinking.  There is no shakiness in their voice.

They just know.  They have found the wisdom that they went looking for and the peace that may not even make sense to them.  They’ve been through the process and they speak with absolute confidence.

“It’s time.”

If you can’t say that honestly . . .  not as a trump card but with absolute conviction — then it probably means one of two things:

  1. It’s not time
  2. You’ve got some processing to do

Grab a pen.

 

These are just a few things I learned from a bunch of great expats.  There is so much more to learn.

What have you learned?

Share your wisdom in the comments below.

Pass this on to your processing friends.

19 Comments

  1. Great blog Jerry. I think Cindy and I need to visit you soon 🙂

    Reply
    • Jeff! Absolutely you do. We would love to see you guys.

      Reply
  2. I am a regular reader. This one is especially good; glad to say we’ve applied almost all this advice quite well in past situations. I love the “Seek Wisdom” inclusion.

    Reply
    • Carson. Thanks so much for reading.

      Reply
  3. Great essay. Thanks for breaking things down in such a helpful way.

    Reply
  4. Wow, thank you for writing this. I am struggling with this right now, and your article has been the most helpful thing I’ve read on the topic over the past few months. I really appreciate the practical steps to take (and examples) to help me really weigh my options before making a decision.

    Reply
    • Thanks April. Trust me. You are not alone. Lots of people working through this decision right now. All the best in your process.

      Reply
  5. Very well put. Thank you. I would just like to add for those who are married with children…The decision to leave or stay affects everyone in the family. Include everyone in the discussion [age appropriateness needs to be considered of course]. Agreement between husband and wife is critical. The way forward is much easier when you’re travelling in the same direction as a family instead of pulling in several opposite ones. Even the most reluctant members are better served when they feel they’ve been heard.

    Reply
    • Agreed Tosca. Great insight.

      Reply
  6. I’m so glad that I make you present on things that you don’t want to so that you can process for months on end and come up with great blog posts like this. Well done. Now… on to next year’s topic… ;D

    Reply
  7. I looove the A.5 option. Will remember that next time someone asks me for advice. As for myself… it is definitely not time yet. Thanks for an eye-opeing article.

    Reply
  8. “It’s time!” Thanks!

    Reply
  9. Ever wondered why white people going abroad are expats… and any other coloured people are called immigrants?

    Reply
    • I always think of expats as either retirees or semi-permanent people with a residency visas. Immigrants are seeking citizenship.

      Reply
  10. I’ve been an expat for almost 13 years and have just started life in my 6th country. My thing is that I’m always hasty to move on to the next expat location. After the 6 month honeymoon period, real life kicks in and I’m faced with building my life from scratch AGAIN. That’s the moment when I really want to leave, move somewhere else so the honeymoon phase can start all over again. It takes stamina to build something, leave it all behind, and start building again. Great article.

    Reply
  11. One factor that I think you missed is: have overstayed my welcome? If we stay longer than we should, we go out on a negative rather than a positive. We risk the situation deteriorating until they tell us to go. Just like visiting a relative or good friend.

    Should I stay or should I go aslo pertains to living in our home country.

    You wrote an excellent article with many good points. Bravo!

    Reply
  12. Great post.
    Another big factor that sometimes causes people to stay to the point of burnout is the feeling they are disappointing God or going against the plan He has for them. (This is related to your points 5 & 6.)

    Reply
  13. Great article. We have been living abroad 13 years and our 2 children were born abroad. We are struggling with this decision right now…we just made your pros and cons paper

    Reply
  14. I was an expat in the 90s for five years, young and single at the time. It was so long ago that the internet was in its infancy at the time, so information and blogs like this were difficult if not impossible to find. So I went through the stages – euphoria, homesickness, settling in, enjoying it, burning out on it, pulling up stakes and moving on – with few guideposts. In a way I’m glad I had to wing it, gained a lot of life wisdom on the way. I remember exiting the expat life with my main thought being, I’ve just turned 30, the money was actually good, but I simply don’t want to spend more years of the prime of my life living in places where I will always be an outsider. I never quite made it fully back home, doubt I ever will, but where I live now is a lot like home to the point I think of it as home – good amount of cultural acceptance, positive daily rhythm of life, etc. Now that I am approaching winding down my career, I am prolly going to be one of those who ends up living a life of leisure in a foreign country that offers a combo of simplicity, attractions, an ability to find my zone culturally (including me changing), decent weather and low costs. My expat experience in the 90s taught me that foreign lands are not to be feared. Jumping into a new frontier seems a more interesting way to pass my future, versus the alternatives.

    Reply

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