5 Essential Lessons on Leadership and Change from 5 Years as an Expat

by Alli Polin on August 8, 2017

essential lessons from expat life

When my family and I moved to Australia five years ago, we told all of our friends and family at home it would be two years, three at most. Oh, how wrong we were. Turns out that even a predictable life can take an unexpected turn or two when you make it happen. 

My life in the USA was comfortable, wonderful, and foretold – or so it seemed. I didn’t need a fortune teller to know the basic path I’d follow. It was the one most of the middle-class kids I grew up with followed too. 

Grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. 

Went to a good college.

Got a great job. 



Moved to the other side of the planet. 

(Sing along with me: One of these things is not like the others…)

Before we got on the plane, it was a just concept. “Yeah! We’re going to live overseas!” Now, five years in, I know a lot more about the good and the ugly but nearly every day I still wake up, and it hits me, “I live in Australia.” More important, there’s another thought that quickly follows, “We’re choosing to live in Australia.”

This is one of my most favorite pictures I’ve ever taken. My family and I were in the airport in Sydney, waiting for our flight to our new home in the Outback. Days before we were in our home in Northern Virginia. It was our last moment before opening the final door to the unknown. In Sydney we were on vacation; when we got off our next plane, our lives would never be the same.

I’ve learned many things about myself and my personal leadership during our time here, but there are five lessons that stand out and apply to you no matter where you live – expat or not. 

5 Essential Change and Leadership Lessons from Expat Life

Change Takes Bravery and a Little Blindness

Was I scared by the idea of leaving my life? Of course! Thing is, I wasn’t abandoning, I was choosing to step forward over the edge and into the abyss of new possibilities and unknown adventures. 

Big changes definitely take bravery but also need some blindness too. If you could clearly see every bump and know exactly what you were in for, fear would win, and you’d say put. Quite simply, you’d fixate on the bad stuff. Leaps take faith as much as that single moment of bravery. 

Everyone’s Figuring it Out as They Go

When we moved here, I didn’t know how to drive on the left side of the road or how to hustle through one of the billions of roundabouts in my small town. I figured it out.

There will be many things that you’ll come up against that you’ll have no idea how to do. You could buckle under the stress or figure it out. Given the options, it’s not a hard choice. What makes it easier to choose is knowing that you’re not alone. Honestly, everyone, even the most seemingly confident person, is figuring it out as they go. 

Even Radical Change Eventually Becomes Comfortable

Everything was new when I moved to the Outback. I didn’t know anyone and was unsure if my internet would even be reliable enough to continue my business. Even within Australia, my town is far different than the Australia most people know. It was a radical shift, and now it’s home. 

It’s up to you to notice when your discomfort with what’s new fades; when you’re no longer feeling the stretch. Not every shift needs to be radical. You don’t need to job hop or move away, but you do need to take responsibility for your continued growth. 

It’s a Big World – Take Advantage of It

Before we moved to Australia, we typically took time off two, maybe three, times a year. We’d go to the grandparents during the holidays, a week in the summer with extended family and if we were lucky, a break somewhere else, like Disney. 

Extended time off was not an option. It never even came up in conversation. Since moving, we’ve been all over Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and Europe too. 

When you live like an expat, you think to yourself,”This adventure will end eventually; I better make a list of the places I want to see and the things I want to do and get it done.” It’s easy to get caught up with being busy and telling ourselves we’ll get to it “later.” Traveling is more than a photo op, it gives you a fresh perspective on your own life and leadership. It’s an opportunity to practice stepping bravely into the unknown and all of its challenges and wonder. 

You don’t have to wait for retirement. Make your list, set a goal and make it happen. You never know when tomorrow’s too late. 

Be Where You Are

The school system here is very different than the American system that my husband and I went through. More than a few times I’ve had a mini freak-out that I don’t know how to raise children with my American expectations in Australia. I’ve even had strangers make fun of me when I keep my hawk-eye on my kids. They say, “You must be American, right?”

I’m not going to completely change overnight (or apparently in five years), but every time I let go of the idea that “this is right and that is wrong,” I’m in process. 

There’s a lot written about TCKs (third culture kids) who are not really from their home country culture or fully their new but they are a blend –  a third culture. What I’ve learned along the way? You don’t have to give up who you are to be where you are. Moreover, it’s ok to be in the process of becoming, we all are. By being present, immersing ourselves in what’s here now, we create the space for change because we’re the ones who are changed. 

Who would have thought that being where you are is just what you need to grow the most?

Are you an expat? What did it teach you about life and leadership? Share your story… Let’s be honest, five years is a long time. Whether you’re an expat or not, look back over your last five and share your biggest ahas. Share them here, on the blog or on Social Media so we can learn from each other from the wisdom of our #LastFive


{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob McInnis August 8, 2017 at 7:58 am

Ali, Congrats on 5 years and on the courage to reflect, remember and reboot.
May the next 5 be filled with prosperity, possibilities, passion, and problems in perfect proportion.



Alli Polin August 8, 2017 at 8:09 am

Many thanks, Bob! I can’t believe it’s been five years and even more than that, the adventure continues…



Jon Mertz August 8, 2017 at 8:23 am


I have never been an expat, but I have experienced how a change in place can help reinvent and refresh a person. Place can be the launching point for something we never imagined.

Congrats on your journey! Your lessons learned and encouraged always inspire.



Alli Polin August 8, 2017 at 9:00 am

Thanks, Jon! I was planted for many years in DC and Philadelphia before that. You’re so right – a change in place is far more than just physical.



Chery Gegelman August 8, 2017 at 7:45 pm

I agree Jon! Each time we’ve moved in the U.S. was exciting, challenging and rewarding too!


Blair Glaser August 8, 2017 at 8:29 am

I love this post. I met you just as two became three and now five becomes .. . ? I loved hearing about your process, and it really helped me relax into some of the changes and learning we are going through right now. Even though they’re on a much smaller scale — there’s lots of anxiety. Thanks for this, AP!


Alli Polin August 8, 2017 at 9:01 am

YOU have been an amazing part of my journey, Blair. I’m forever grateful…



Gary Gruber August 8, 2017 at 8:39 am

So right on, again. Your three words to Bob in the comment above sum it all up so well for us,
…”the adventure continues.” When you have this internal mind set, that willingness, and faith in yourselves, to step out into the unknown, knowing you will indeed figure it out, therein lies the key to keep doing it. Although all our kids (7 between us) and grandkids (14) are out of our sight, at least most of the time, thank you very much, we still keep our eye on them. I did not know that was peculiarly American. Our two years in London as ex-pats was a most wonderful experience and it was the same there about adapting and adjusting to a different culture. My favorite sign in a local pub was. “Two countries separated by a common language.” And we traveled more from there in those two years than in 10 or 15 from here. That said, we will be in Mexico as part-time ex-pats this winter, just for 6 months.
My last 5 years have taught me as much as the first 75 years in some ways because I have more time to reflect on what I’ve learned, what I’ve gained, where I’ve been and perhaps most important of all, where I’m going. I plan to write a bit about that, called “The 8th Decade.” It might be an appendage to the brief memoir I wrote called, “Seven Decades: A Learning Memoir.”
Thanks for sharing your insights and experience. I know these 5 lessons will be enormously helpful to so many people and families too.
By the way, I worked with many of those TCK’s in London and although
“American” many had not lived in the U.S. more than a few years and because they did not feel “at home” in either the U.S. or the U.K., when they went to college they gravitated toward other international kids with similar backgrounds. of living in different countries.


Alli Polin August 8, 2017 at 9:10 am

I suspect that this is our first expat experience but it won’t be our last.

Thanks for the glimpse into your experience too. I think that the pub’s sign was spot on.

My son moved here right after kindergarten and our daughter after 2nd grade. At this rate, they’ll likely graduate from high school here. We’ve always said that we want them to go to college in the USA but what we really want is to find the place that’s right for them, no matter where that may be in the world.

I wish that we could have a drink someday and share stories. I know you have many to tell.



Gary Gruber August 12, 2017 at 12:19 pm

As you have stories to tell as well. Now, for that drink somewhere, some day, somehow. Best, all ways. G.


Terri Klass August 8, 2017 at 9:13 am

Wow! Is it five years? This post so reflects the global citizens you and your family have transformed into! I have always admired your perseverance and attitude about change and taking chances.
I love your idea: “Big changes definitely take bravery but also need some blindness too”! There is this leap of faith that we are jumping into deep unfamiliar waters but we can breathe and see the world through new eyes.

You have been a guide to so many including me to be stronger in tackling the unknown and being ok if we slip along the way.

Thanks Alli and can’t wait to share!


Alli Polin August 8, 2017 at 9:33 am

So grateful for your support and connection along the journey, Terri! There will always be slips and setbacks but here’s to continuing to move forward.



John Bennett August 8, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Great post as always. I happen to believe strongly that the ‘expat’ experience leading to the lessons learned certainly evolve from that source. BUT, honestly, they should be expected from where we are – ALWAYS. The hustle and bustle of everyday life too often become our excuse for seeking / wanting familiarity. We do ourselves and others we could impact a disservice if we don’t stay alert for opportunities.

Love your email lead-in to this post – specifically: “Uncover Your #LastFive. Go somewhere quiet. Have a coffee, light a candle or anything that puts you in the mood to not rush and sit for a spell.” The ‘five’ in your case refers to years and to days. The latter is comparable to the week that the late Stephen Covey suggested we need to stop, Consider, and reflect on how things are going – leading to what changes are appropriate. For quite a while, my time has been early Sunday mornings (with that cup of coffee of course).


Alli Polin August 9, 2017 at 3:28 am

As always I can count on you to bring out an interesting point in the conversation. I’m totally with you. We ALL need to take the time to reflect on our last five years… and last five days! When we never stop, we may change but it’s purely accidental. Our evolution depends on our intention.

Very grateful for your support and connection!



Chery Gegelman August 8, 2017 at 7:47 pm

Congratulations Alli!

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you!

I love this quote, “Big changes definitely take bravery but also need some blindness too.” Ahhh yes!!!


Alli Polin August 9, 2017 at 3:29 am

You know so well how much the expat journey changes you. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to repatriate and how much more there is to learn. Can’t wait to do some of that learning through you and your experience!



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