Three things you can do to break the expat career curse


Expat life can be amazing. Statistics from Finnacord (2018 show that the global expatriate population has reached 66.2m and is likely to rise to 87.5 million by 2021. This growth shows how attractive the globally mobile continues to be, offering opportunities for travel and experience other cultures together.

This is also why many partners are willing to give up a great job or careers to move. And even if you only plan to try it for a couple of years, one move can often lead to another. As an accompanying partner, it then becomes more difficult to get a job or have a career. It is important not to underestimate the impact that giving up a fulfilling career can have on your identity, wellbeing, and even your relationship with your partner and your family. This is the expat career curse!

The good news is that starting your own portable business can break the curse! In this week’s blog, I am sharing the three big steps you need to take to change your thinking about what is possible, what you can do right now, and why it is never too late to make a change.

This blog article is a summary of the related podcast episode.

Click here to listen to the tips mentioned in this article.

What is the expat career curse?

I have worked with so many expat partners over the years who have shared similar stories with me. I have also had my own experiences with the expat career curse!

For many expat partners, it is incredibly difficult to continue their original careers. There are often issues with immigration status and not being able to obtain work permits. Your professional qualifications might be comparable from one location to another. And unfortunately, many employers are reluctant to hire someone who might leave in a couple of years or whose career profile and resume are a little outside the norm. And even if you do return home, it can be hard to pick up your old career after many years away.

These challenges can have an impact on so many aspects of our lives. Many expat partners find themselves feeling lost, without a sense of purpose or identity. There is also a loss of financial independence too – all of which can lead to feeling resentment towards their partner. And while many partners take low paid, temporary employment or volunteer roles to fill their time and to try to find some purpose, they do not help address issues of identity, finding personal fulfillment, or generating revenue.

All of this can have a major personal impact. It can put a huge strain on relationships with your partner and on your general wellbeing. I want you to know that if you are feeling this way right now, it is OK. In fact, it is a pretty normal reaction to the expat career curse and you are not alone. My own experiences of this are what drove me to start Tandem Nomads!

The good news is that it is possible to break the expat career curse!

Here are the three big things you need to do to get started on your journey to developing your portable business!

1. There is a time to explore and there is a time to get started 

You might have tried a lot of things as part of your expat adventure – different jobs, training or volunteering – in an attempt to find a meaningful way to spend your time or earn some money. Trying new things is a big part of the expat experience, and a great opportunity to learn new talents and gain skills but there is time for the adventure to stop. While discovering new things is wonderful, it can become a vicious circle. If you do not have a direction, it can very quickly start to turn into a negative experience where you are stuck, starting, again and again, growing more and more dissatisfied, and starting to experience a real identity crisis. 

If this is you, it’s time to take a pause and think about your journey. 

You need to start thinking strategically, rather than trying lots of different things in the hope that they will somehow lead you to where you want to be in the future.

It is also time to think long term – what life do you want for yourself and your family in the future? Stop thinking from location to location and think about the overall direction of your personal journey. Where do you want to be, regardless of where you happen to live? It is time to make a plan for your future!

2. Don’t let your doubts and insecurities lead your decisions

Before you start to think about that plan, let’s take a minute to work on your confidence. The expat career curse can crush your confidence and sense of worth. It can be harder to make decisions or to speak up about what you want if you are living with doubts and insecurities all the time. Take a moment to remember that you have incredible achievements and reflect on what you have done, not just in your career but in your life as a whole. Be sure to reflect on everything you have done.

3. Make yourself a priority and get the help you need to make a long term plan

So often as expat partners we put our needs last. We look after our children, our partner, our home, and all the business of relocating and living internationally. While that work may not bring a financial contribution to your home, it can lead to you feeling that there is nothing just for you, despite all your efforts. And that feeling can have a major impact on your family life – you can start to feel resentment, frustration, and fatigue.

And often when your focus is on the next relocation, you lose sight of the big picture. I know that many expat partners get to the stage where their kids have left home and they suddenly wonder where their life went. To overcome that, you need to start thinking long term.

What is your vision for yourself and what you want your life to look like, regardless of where you live?

There are three things you need to do to help you realize this vision.

Involve your partner

It is so important that your partner understands what you need to feel fulfilled and purposeful. I know from experience that this can be a hard conversation to have so if necessary get some help to think about what you want to say, and how you are going to say it. It might be helpful to do some research on the non-violent communications technique so that you can have a calm, constructive conversation without resentment, guilt, or other strong emotions getting in the way. Also, be clear about what you want and be specific – our partners are not mindreaders to be detailed about what support you actually need to help you prioritize yourself more.

And remember, this is not just one conversation! This is the start of a whole dialogue with your partner about your needs and how they can support you. Alix Carnot of Expat Communication has a great tip for making this a regular part of your routine. She and her partner have a monthly date night where they go out for dinner and get away from all the household chores and stresses to check in with each other. They have a framework for their conversations. They structure it around three things – ‘thank you’, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I’d love your help with….’.

Check out this episode with Alix to learn more about her work with expat partners.

Having this initial conversation with your partner about how they can help you break the expat career curse is so absolutely critical so don’t put it off. If you need more inspiration and help, I highly recommend ‘Couples that Work’ by Jennifer Petriglieri which looks at how dual-career couples can find happiness at work and home. She surveyed more than one hundred dual career couples and has some great tips.

Learn more about putting your business on the same level as your partner’s career in this episode with Jennifer.

Build your own support system

This starts with your partner and it is a long term process. A big part of this is accepting that you need help. It is very common to feel guilt for getting help with childcare or looking after your home when you are not yet earning money from your future business. It is really important to realize that just because you are working from home, that your career doesn’t come second. You don’t have to be the one canceling plans or changing appointments because someone needs to let the plumber in – I have personal experience of this! Find the practical help you need to free up time, energy, and resource to focus on developing your long term plan and business ideas.

Invest in yourself

This can be a huge roadblock on your journey! Don’t tell yourself that you can’t invest in what you need because you’re not earning money. Sometimes you need to invest to be able to get the career you want. So find a coach, a training program, a counselor, or whatever professional help or support your need to move forward successfully. 

Is it too late?

It is never too late to build the career that you want! I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rashmi Zimburg who built her business as a nutritionist after her husband retired. This was a strategic decision that they took together, making her business their financial plan as his career came to an end.

You can learn about Rashmi’s journey in this episode.

One big misconception that I also want to address is that you need to reinvent yourself. You don’t – you are not giving up who you are to become someone or something else. I know exactly what it is like to suffer a major identity crisis because of giving up a career I had dreamed about for years. I learned that that career wasn’t who I was, it was just how I packaged my passion, skills, and talents. I also realized that you don’t have to start from scratch or abandon what you did before this moment. You might be changing career direction or focus but that’s not who you are – it’s just what you do. Instead of waiting for someone to recognize how amazing you are and offer you a job, you are creating that career for yourself! No matter what stage you are at in life, now is the time for you to transform what you have right now into a portable business and a career that is right for you. 

Let’s break that expat career curse for good!

Not sure if you are ready to start your own business? Take my 1-minute test to find out, even if you don’t yet have a business idea.