The one thing millennials have figured out is that spending money on experiences is way more valuable than buying a new sofa. In 50 years you won’t remember the sofa, but you will remember the travel adventures and they will have been part of your cumulative life experience.
Following up on the most recent article I published on how college rejected my application — and how that rejection ended up with me moving to Italy, I’d like to talk here about how nothing compares to international travel when it comes to a real world education. Here are five reasons why you should use your passport as much as you can.
I learned Italian from scratch at age 20 living in Rome. I studied Italian for one semester in the USA before going overseas to Rome, but when I landed there I quickly realized I was very far from speaking fluent Italian. All in it took me several years to get to become fluent.
School gives you the technical foundation like sentence structure but ordering a coffee at the bar fine tunes your ear to the right order of sounds that quickly you learn to replicate if you want a cappuccino to show up in front of you.
It’s like going to the gym, the first day is not so good, but over time you build up language muscles. The only way you are ever going to become fluent (or reasonably fluent) in a foreign language is to move to another country. You have to learn it in the day-to-day living. The earlier in life you do this the easier it will be.
You’ll learn more about a foreign language by being forced to catch the bus or order dinner than you will in 8th grade Spanish from that gringo teacher who was born in North Carolina and who can’t seem to shake the American accent. When you have to ask for the bathroom in French, or directions in Italian you’ll start to connect the patterns.
The best thing about learning a foreign language is its the key into understanding how people think. You’ll gain insight into how and why “they” do things the way they do. You start to understand the local jokes that only make sense in that language, or are even funnier in the local language than they could possibly be in English.
Maybe one of the best examples of this in Italian is the idiomatic English expression “To have your cake and eat it too”.
In Italian that expression is “Volere la bottiglia piena e la moglie ubriaca” — “You want the the bottle full and your wife drunk”.
Want to understand people in another country? Learn their idiomatic expressions. It tells you a lot about a way of seeing things.
One of the things you’ll learn by spending a lot of time overseas is that for the most part people are people. We all pretty much want the same things out of life — good health, a good career, a good income, a stable family, and time to enjoy life. It’s a dance and balance for almost everyone, everywhere.
You know the stereotypical jokes people make about almost any culture? “The Americans” or “The Italians” or “The Canadians”? They’re funny because for the most part they’re true. When you board a plane for a certain country, even before you land you should know more or less what you’re walking into based on the reputation of that country.
Overseas there is nothing stronger than the culture of a country and it permeates everything — the food, the thinking, the business style, and the general approach to life. Your experience with people in Sweden will be very different than your experience with people in Greece. Once you’re on the ground knowing a few things about the local country will go a long way.
Hands downs one of the best things about traveling overseas is the food. Every culture in the world has their specialty, or many specialties. One of the things I learned after dozens of trips overseas is that by and large the USA is concerned with efficient food distribution systems and perfect looking vegetables in the produce section, but the food is woefully short when it comes to flavor. A tomato in the USA barely has any taste. Eat a tomato in Italy or Spain and it’ll blow your mind.
Americans love great looking restaurants with huge portions of food you can hardly even finish. Some of the best restaurants in Europe are small mom and pop places with home cooked food and 20 tables in the street where none of the chairs match. Perfect.
If you want to learn to slow down and enjoy food you go to Europe. Europeans take their time eating and they make the time to do it.
In China I have rarely seen anyone in a restaurant order their own dish. It happens but more so than often people order family style. The waiter will bring 8–10 big dishes on the Lazy Susan and everyone digs in on whatever dish they want.
In the South of the USA we have Waffle House. In Japan they have this roadside chain that looks like it but it’s called “Curry House” with a menu listing the heat factor of the curry going from 1–10. A “2” is “very hot” and a “10” is described as “you will be going to the hospital”.
In Argentina you can get a top notch steak and a bottle of Malbec and more for less than $25 — easily. It will be one of the best meals you’ve ever had.
You’ll learn in Italy that you can get a great bottle of wine for less than 6 bucks and a gallon of fresh olive oil for half the price of what it costs in the USA. Very few people in the USA have ever tasted great olive oil. We as a population have no idea in the USA how good great olive oil is. When it comes to food I would argue there is no place on the planet better than Italy.
In fact, a few years ago I was driving along the highway in Italy and we pulled into a gas station that was actually a wine station that only looked like a gas station pumping “Red” and “White” out of gas pump where you bought wine by the liter, just like gasoline, only cheaper.
The food experiences you’ll have traveling overseas will stay with you forever.
We Americans are a pretty naive group of people when it comes to street smarts overseas. Less than half of Americans have a passport — and we’re at an all-time high. In 1997 only 15% of Americans had a passport. In 2007 it still was only 27 percent.
When it comes to knowing and understanding other countries and how other people operate, it’s really hard to put that together if you don’t ever leave the country. Americans don’t generally live in conditions that force them to be wiley (or “furbo” as they say in Italian). A lot of places in the world have a survivalist or a negotiating mentality by default. It’s embedded.
A few years ago I was walking around with my wife in a street market in Rio de Janeiro. We stopped by a fruit vendor who had pineapples for sale. I picked up the pineapple and asked the street vendor “how much?”. He told me the local currency equivalent of $4.00. My wife (who is from Medellin, Colombia) started to speak to the street vendor in half Spanish/Portuguese and said “no way is this pineapple $4, I’m from Colombia who are you trying to kid?”. The street vendor said “I thought you were both American, OK, 50 cents”.
That is the reality of the world. It’s small stuff but if you’re not aware the world will happily relieve you of a couple of bucks when possible. You remember these things for the next time and the next place. People hustle.
The way business is conducted around the world is becoming somewhat standardized thanks to the Internet and the proliferation of some core business practices that have come to transcend borders. Nonetheless there is a different rhythm of doing business in different countries. Most of the countries you’ll end up in had civilizations in them hundreds or even thousands of year before the USA was even founded. There are bridges in Rome that were built in 62 BC and are still in use. So keep this in mind when doing business overseas. There are long-standing customs in place and you are not going to change them.
What counts in the business world is experience and (believe it or not), mistakes. Mistakes are the best education you’ll ever get. Good judgement leads to good results. Bad judgement leads to better judgement the next time. It’s just a different form of tuition. International business is a great way to pick up a skill set you could never get from a book.
Want to do business in Latin America? Plan for twice the amount of time you think you’ll need to close the deal. Want to do business in China? Prepare to make several trips to China perhaps over years to build up good “guanxi”. (Some people think Guanzi is a thing of the past but this concept doesn’t go away so easily in Chinese culture. Relationships are a big deal.)
Want to do business in Japan? You need to to quickly figure out the power structure of who’s involved. Who sits where at the table has meaning. These are subtle things you have to pay attention to when doing business overseas. It’s silent.
Doing business in Switzerland? You better understand that the Swiss make decisions by way of compromise and consensus. They’re Swiss, let’s keep the peace.
When Americans goes overseas to do business they often make the mistake of trying to get to the “business” part too soon. If you go into France or Italy and the first thing you do is whip out your powerpoint presentation, you’re dead in the water. You have to make an attempt to understand the stadium you’re playing in. Connections and local awareness matter too.
And no matter what country you’re going to do business in, relationships are everything in international business — and this takes time, sometimes years. The distances are so great in global business that the trust factor is that much more important. It’s hard to fix problems from 5,000 or 9,000 miles away. You need trusted allies in far away places.
Actually knowing the people involved at a somewhat personal level makes these business challenges much easier. The best way to build these relationships is to invest in the trips to visit the people you’re doing business with and get out of the office with them to drink and eat. You won’t learn that in college but this is more than half the battle in international business. Nothing beats dinner together if you want to do business. Feeling goes a long way.
If you would like an international life and career and you are in college, look into how you can study abroad for your senior year. Leave home. Leave your zip code. Make a short list of 4 or 5 countries you think would make sense for your particular circumstances and leverage the network at your university to go overseas. It will never be easier than during college.
If you are fresh out of college and in your twenties, make a plan to go overseas and work on the road. It has never been easier to work remotely. Start an online business. All you need in 2019 is a laptop and a wifi connection and you are 80% there. Travel as often as you can throughout your twenties and see the world. You will make connections in this time that will last a lifetime. You will learn things in this time that will serve you well your whole life. You will do things that the people you left behind in your zip code will never understand.
If you are in your twenties don’t think that you are running out of time or that you have to hurry up and make a career. In 20–30 years nobody will really care what college you attended nor will they care if you took a couple of years to build this experience. On the contrary.
If you’re in your 30’s or 40’s and you’d like to get into international business, make the time to prioritize international travel. People all over the world live in their own bubbles on all levels. Get out of the suburbs.
There are other ways to expand your world in this way as well such as “Remote Year” which specializes in work and travel abroad programs for those who are working already.
All of this actually comes full circle back home as well. You will never understand your own country as much as when you’re not in it. I never understood what made America great until I wasn’t in America for a year straight. I really started to understand what makes the USA so amazing when I was looking at it from overseas after 9 or 10 months.
Likewise I began to understand also what makes so many other countries so good at certain things where America could really learn a thing or two — like how to make good food on a daily basis. We eat terribly in America. Learn from countries that do this right and incorporate it into your own home life. It’s easy.
In the end it’s really about stories and creating interesting life. International travel can be an expense or it can be an investment. A hundred years ago you were born, raised, and died on a very small patch of land on the world. Today people can easily visit 30 or 40 or even 100 countries in a lifetime.
Make an investment in your life and career and use your passport more often.
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