Although I’ve known to veer off topic every now and then, the core of my writing has been the nexus of travel and self-improvement. After living abroad for ten years, I’ve come to the conclusion there’s absolutely nothing that helps you to improve as a person as extensively living abroad.
First, there are obvious benefits. Traveling forces you to uproot from a familiar environment and build roots somewhere new. This means expanding your comfort zone. If you’ve lived all your life in New York City and decide to go live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or Luanda, Angola, you’ll have to adapt one way or another.
You’ll have to learn new customs, a new language, and fortify your street smarts. Not to mention you’ll have to give up comforts such as your Amazon.com prime delivery or huge shopping malls where you can buy pretty much everything you need. This is what the term “culture shock” is all about.
When I moved to Mexico City, Mexico, I had to learn a new language (I was already proficient in Spanish, but not yet fluent), figure out the best area to live (Condessa), and become comfortable with the local culture and customs. While it wasn’t super challenging, there were times when I wanted to return to the America because of the sheer difficulty of accomplishing something in Mexico that’s much easier in US.
There’s also the reaction you experience when you return from a developing country back to your rich Western country. It’s called the “reverse culture shock.” After living in Mexico for a year, returning to New York City was, well, interesting. Everything felt different as though I had landed on another planet, something I didn’t expect because I knew New York City like the back of my hand.
Everyone experiences this. People visit a new country and realize that it’s completely different than their homeland, and, if they live there long enough (weekend partying in Cancun doesn’t count), they will return to their homeland with a new understanding, appreciation or wrath.
What most people don’t realize, however, is that traveling is one of the most fundamental vehicles for self-improvement. There’s nothing more natural and empowering than leaving one culture with all its customs, which is really a potent cocktail of all its biases, prejudices, stereotypes, and inserting yourself in a brand new culture with an entirely new set of biases, prejudices and stereotypes.
How people interact
Dating and relationships is a key area where the changes in cultures become dead obvious. When I lived in New York City, I found dating and forming relationships to be a strained affair. But when I went to Brazil, things clicked much easier and smoother. I still needed to approach women I found attractive, but conversations flowed more naturally and effortless than when I was hanging out in Manhattan bars.
Same thing happened when I went to Colombia and Argentina, and continued to happen later when I moved to Europe. Although I was still the same person, my interactions with others was markedly different as compared to how they were in American cities.
That made me realize that perhaps there wasn’t anything wrong with me in the first place; that I just happened to be an environment where forming human connections is harder than it needed to be. Understanding that perhaps there wasn’t anything wrong with me would be the first of many important epiphanies.
As I continued to travel, however, I realized something else just as important: my values and my understanding about the world were tied to the underlying culture, and the moment I left one culture and arrived into a new one, those old values were no longer true.
For example, in New York City (and other American cities), I’ve always felt the pressure to prove myself to others. There was always pressure to out-do the next person; to show them that you’re somehow better and more capable. This act of constant proving itself was the underlying fabric of the entire culture and, as a result, affected the behavior of everyone I came into contact.
But when I moved to Russia and, later, Ukraine, I noticed that this was no longer the case. The majority of the people I met have been completely relaxed and humble, without even a hint of needing to prove anything. In fact, even those who’ve achieved a lot in their lives—and who should be acting like they needed something to prove—were conspicuously open and down to earth.
There’s another crucial difference between the two cultures that I wasn’t aware at first. Eastern Europeans are brutally honest when it comes to everything they do. So, if someone doesn’t like you, they’ll tell you. If you look weird because you have a piece of tomato hanging off your lip, they’ll tell you. If someone can’t see you next week, they’ll tell you. If they’re running late by 20 minutes, they’ll tell you they’re running late by exactly 20 minutes—not 5, 10, 15, 18 or 19.
Essentially, there’s zero effort to impress anyone and zero desire to be to liked. Gone are the fake smiles, the eagerness to please, and superficial empty dialogue that is so common in the West.
In fact, people are so brutally honest that it’s almost as though they’re looking to be rejected instead of reaching a consensus or seeking approval.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “James, this is all great and all, but how does any of this help me become a better and more capable person?”
I’m glad you asked. All of this is important because it puts the culture’s weaknesses on the surface for everyone to notice and scrutinize. And, when you realize that your underlying culture is faulty in the first place, you work hard to disassociate yourself from the culture instead of adapting its (faulty) values.
It’s like driving a car around with worn out shocks and springs. It feels uncomfortable not because your back is messed up but because you need to replace the car’s shocks and springs.
In this particular case, this helps you realize that American culture is extremely superficial because the people are 1) trying to be someone they are not and 2) trying to impress others so others like them.
Americans are not honest with their intentions because they prioritize being liked by others over being comfortable with themselves. This is the root of all insecurity.
So, when a person (or a culture) is insecure, then all interpersonal interactions will follow a different trajectory. Since people attract similar people, insecure people attract other insecure people. When I was insecure, I would attract similarly insecure people, but once I realized this and worked to fix these issues, the caliber of the people I started meeting shot up way up. As a result, all my relationships improved (both romantic and business) dramatically. After all, one of the cardinal rules of relationships is that high-esteem individuals and lower-esteem individuals never cross paths in life.
When I lived in Brazil, it was common for women to tell me that they liked me within 30 minutes of our first meeting. At first this was strange and unnatural (and even a little needy, which I found unattractive). But, as time went on, I realized this is completely normal and adjusted my behavior accordingly (although I would still never tell a girl that I liked her after merely 30 minutes). This is something I couldn’t even dream of doing in America because showing my emotions (i.e., being honest) is frowned upon and equated with being weak and needy.
The right and wrong way
For a long time I dismissed this behavior as culturally-based. In America (or some other Western country) they do it one way. In Brazil, they do it another way. And in Ukraine or Russia, they do it another way. Each country has its own particular cultural norms. If I lived in Brazil, I would adjust my behavior to the Brazilian culture; when I moved to America, I would adjust my behavior to American culture. I’d never pick a “default” behavior, I’d simply change colors like a chameleon.
But thinking this way misses the entire point. There is a right way and a wrong way to connect with other individuals—regardless where in the world you are. The wrong way is by trying to impress someone or vying for superiority. The right way is to be forthcoming and straightforward because you couldn’t care less if others liked you. Living in Ukraine and Brazil has been living proof that there are cultures out there where being straightforward is normal and respected—and trying to impress someone is frowned upon. This isn’t just in a context of personal/romantic relationships, this is how it is with pretty much everyone.
And once you realize that you’re rewarded for honesty and putting yourself on the line—where rejection is a completely normal and accepted outcome—you simply cannot fathom doing it any other way. You can’t imagine living some life where you’re constantly trying to adopt yourself to be liked by every single new person. This is not only inauthentic but also super exhausting.
The flipside of trying to understand foreign cultures is that it helped me understand American culture much, much better than before. Now, when I return back to The Land of The Free, I no longer experience some crazy reverse culture shock that I used to experience countless times before. I no longer scream and count down the days to my flight out of the country.
Even before I land in JFK, I already know what to expect. I know how people will act. Most importantly, I know why people act the way they do. I can compare and contrast multiple cultures in ways that someone who’s lived all their life in a single place cannot. All of this has been not only liberating, but very helpful in becoming a more capable and self-aware individual.
Understanding cultures on a deep and logical levels facilitates seeing the pros and cons of each culture in a much more direct manner because you’ve taken emotions out of the equation. That, in turn, allows you to decide whether a particular culture’s pros outweigh the cons, and take appropriate decisions.
The one self-improvement to rule them all
Living abroad extensively is also one of the reasons I’ve become skeptical of any dogmas or “philosophies” that attempt to explain to me how a world works, how I should behave, or how I should structure my relationships with women. Just because you’re operating in an insecure Western culture, doesn’t mean you must become insecure yourself. A much better way is to become authentic and use that as a filter to control which people enter your life and which people do not.
Self-improvement has the word “self” in it for a very good reason. That’s a subtle hint that you must prioritize your own self above the self of others’. That’s not permission to become selfish and egoistic, it just means that when you’re honest with yourself, you’re automatically honest with others.
Naturally, not everyone will respect you if you’re willing to prioritize being truthful over impressing/not offending someone. But, like anything, that’s just the cost of doing business. Honesty and straightforwardness attracts honesty straightforwardness; dishonesty and games attract dishonesty and games. And, anyway, those who will respect your brutal honesty will be the people you’d want in your life because they’ll behave similarly with you.
Living abroad can be one of the toughest but also one of the most rewarding things you can do. As humans, we cannot remember all our past experiences. So, we tend to compress them into stereotypes and biases. These biases and stereotypes form our identity and dictate our behavior to others. Living abroad pits those stereotypes head on against what’s accepted and normal in that particular culture and exposes their faults on the surface.
Those who find ways to adapt to a particular foreign culture instead of fighting it, will not only enjoy themselves more while living in a foreign country, but will also discover a brand new way to think, act and behave. And, if this new behavior leads to a better self-awareness and higher quality relationships, they just might permanently reprogram their old behavior with a newly improved version 2.0 of themselves.
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