Some kids know they want to be lawyers or doctors or teachers when they grow up. By the time I was in high school and I had to start thinking about college and what major I would declare, I still had little idea what I wanted to do, but I was sure that I wanted a career that took me overseas. That and my love for learning foreign languages was why I even toyed with the idea of attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis for college. What better way to be destined around the world than as an officer in the navy. That idea was rather short-lived, although I did go on a campus tour.
However, my desire to get out into the world was as strong as ever, and at the time I didn't really care how I would accomplish the move. I studied International Relations at Johns Hopkins University and thought that I could make a career for myself in the diplomatic arena. But somewhere along my undergraduate studies it became clear that my ticket abroad wasn't going to be thanks to good ol' Uncle Sam.
Arriving in Spain with fairly solid language skills was probably the one major factor that made my experience so different.
As an important aside, I did arrive in Spain already speaking pretty decent Spanish. I, like many American children, began studying a foreign language in middle school, then continued through high school and college. I also worked part-time in college with an after-school program that provided tutoring and orientation to Latino teenagers, most of whom spoke little to no English. I do not come from a bilingual household, and so my language skills were learned at school and through work. Arriving in Spain with fairly solid language skillswas probably the one major factor that made my experience so different from those of many expats that I've met during my 8+ years in Spain now.
I was able to quickly make friends and network with locals, so opportunities for work came up as well. After a few years of moving around I got serious about my future career. I found myself more or less facing the same question I had at 15 years-old, but at 25... what do I want to be when I grow up? Most experts agree that when deciding what career to pursue you should catalog your strengths and weaknesses and think about what motivates you. I didn't do an exhaustive analysis at the time, but it became clear early on that I had one strength that far eclipsed any others – I was in a foreign country, a native English-speaker and had a sufficiently strong command of Spanish to be comfortable working in a 99% Spanish-speaking environment as the "go-to" English speaker. I was to become the "bridge" between local and international.
If want to embark on an international career, the skill that can most quickly set you apart is solid foreign language skills. As Americans I think we tend to overlook the importance of speaking a foreign language. We're used to traveling around the world with English, having everyone else try to accommodate us. However, all of your professional skills would be even more valuable if we were able to effectively communicate with local teams in their language as well as bringing native-English skills into the mix. In an increasingly global marketplace companies all around the world require talent that allows them to tap into other markets.
English is important for global business, so in those countries where much of the native population doesn't speak it well and in roles where fluency is important, this skill taken for granted in the U.S. becomes truly valuable and unique and can set you apart from the crowd.
But it all comes down to the following takeaway – while in my story my language skills are an obvious example, you can apply this logic to any skill regardless of where you live and what you do. Find a way to be one in a few instead of one in an endless number, even if it means leaving your comfort zone or investing some time in learning or perfecting your knowledge in a certain topic. So what skill do you already have that only needs a change of scenery?