Fish Out of Water Syndrome

4173402394_cb49c4c92bEarlier in my life, I lived in Mexico for a few years. Being a “fish out of water” in a new culture is an amazing experience. It is challenging, stressful, and hard work. But it’s rewarding too. Every day, every relationship, every interaction is an opportunity for learning and growth.

I remember at one point, after I had already been in Mexico for around three years, I was still learning new things every day. I was learning the language, learning the culture, and even learning more about my own culture from the contrast. Every day was a new adventure. At the time, I was feeling so enriched by living abroad that I thought I would never return to the U.S.

But like many people, the tragedies of September 11, 2001 set in motion a series of events that would send my life careening off in a different direction, eventually bringing me back to the U.S.

I was thinking of those “fish out of water” experiences in Mexico when I recently accepted a new career opportunity in Hong Kong. At this point in my life I am happily married, with two small children, and was living a great life in New York. As a family, we had to decide. Do we leave our comfort zone, our happy life, our friends and our routines, to cast off into the unknown? Was I willing to once again embrace the challenge of being a “stranger in a strange land?”

It was a tough decision, but ultimately, I could not pass up the opportunity for learning and growth. I become, once again, the proverbial goldfish diving out of his bowl.

Perhaps this is not so surprising considering a personal survey of character strengths shows “Love of Learning” to be my number one strength. I’ve never been afraid of taking on pain in exchange for growth. (See “Are you afraid of the pain?”)

But sometimes I do wonder about the purpose of all of this learning? What am I preparing myself for? It may be an inherited trait as both of my parents seem to demonstrate this yearning for personal development. A full generation older than me and they too continue yearning for greater knowledge. To what end?

I’ve come to accept that all of this learning and growth is in preparation of nothing. It is a part of being human. We strive for learning as a way of confronting the vast mysteries of life. Striving is programmed into our DNA, a part of our evolution since the first seaborne amoeba figured out how to wriggle its way upon the shore.

But I also like the buddhist notion that the purpose of self-development is to allow us to be more helpful to others.  The more we learn and grow, the better able we are to serve humanity in meaningful ways.

3259217139_eae935e404Growth is also about the arc of the story we tell about our lives. Do we live a stable, easy but pleasant life? Or do we live a life fraught with challenges and difficulties that ultimately leads us to a greater place? We are all on our own “hero’s journey.”

For me and my family, the decision has been made. We are leaving behind our comfortable life in suburbia for the hustle and bustle of the world’s busiest and most crowded metropolis. In the years to come I anticipate great challenges and even moments of exasperation as we attempt to acclimate to our new environment. But I also imagine that years from now, these challenges will have helped us all to evolve into completely different people. For my wife and me, and perhaps most importantly our kids, we will learn more about people, culture and business in a different part of the world. We will learn about food, language and arts. But we will also learn about ourselves. And we will look back on this (I hope) as one of the greatest adventures of our lives.

Photo Credit: Greg_S via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs via Compfight cc

by Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)

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8 Responses to Fish Out of Water Syndrome

  1. Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) July 15, 2014 at 8:54 am #

    Jeremy – we will miss you on this side of the planet, but really you’re not that far away. A couple of times now we have moved to a new location and even when you speak the language, the culture still takes getting used to. I thought I would be ok in Paris because I speak French – there were many important nuances. Same thing when we moved to Boston – things are different in the US than Canada, and perhaps even more so in Boston. 🙂

    Enjoy the adventure – your kids will be great, and you will have an amazing time. Looking forward to hearing all about it in future posts!

  2. Kathy Stolle July 15, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    Having been a “stranger in a strange land” – growing up as a kid in Japan, all over the US (talk about cultural differences!) and in France; raising a family in Germany and ultimately winding up in Canada – I can understand your hesitations and admire your resoluteness at the same time. The beauty of it is, as long as Mommy and Daddy are there as bulwarks against the unknown, kids can relish the differences and revel in the adventures as they occur. Sure, as parents, the challenges might seem a bit overwhelming at times, but as long as you both view each day as a fresh, new slate upon which you write your day’s story, the kids will take their cues from you.

    Here’s where living in the moment takes on new meaning as I’m sure you found living in Mexico – drawing comparisons to life as it was, contrasting the cultural differences in a less than positive way or not exercising your native curiosity – all contribute to dissatisfaction and ultimately missing the point. Which is? You are where you are, so you might as well enjoy it – or at the very least, change what you can in the context of where you are so that it is enjoyable.

    You question the meaning of it all at the end of the day? It IS to serve humanity and more precisely those closest to us. Thanks to their exposure to different cultures, we have a daughter living contentedly with her family in Mexico, a son and his family who had never lived in the States now located smack in the middle of the Silicon Valley and a daughter living “off-grid” with a husband, 30 goats, 6 dogs and 5 cats in the bush of northern BC. They were prepared early on to meet life’s challenges eagerly and without trepidation.

    That, my friend, is the gift you are giving not only your precious family, but yourself, as well. Eat it up, Jeremy, eat it up!! XO

  3. Curtis Voisin July 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    Congrats on your new role Jeremy. I had a similar experience on my internship in Austria. I enjoyed being a fish out of water in a pond where I looked like the native fish.

    Hong Kong is beautiful, my girlfriend’s father lives there. If you need to know of any good places to eat, I know a guy whose picture is on a restaurant or two.

  4. Dan Bowling July 17, 2014 at 12:12 am #

    My father was the typical corporate man of the 50s and 60s. I grew up as a child thinking the words “tranferred” were part of the common vocabulary of all kids – little did I know most of my friends stayed in one place forever. It was a gift, in most ways, and I would have it no differently. Have fun, be safe – but don’t evolve into “completely different people” – we like you guys as you are.

  5. Mia July 17, 2014 at 7:06 am #

    If anyone can do it, you can. I for one am looking forward to your next book:

    “The Life & Times of Jeremy McCarthy: Jumping Fish Bowls & Comfort Zones”


  6. Claire Shumsky July 17, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,
    my niece Karen lives in. Hong Kong and is transplanted there from Paris. She has lived ther almost 3 years. She just finished her Coach training and is working withX- pats.
    She would love to meet you and the family.
    Her email is
    I think you would all enjoy each other
    All the best. Love,Claire

  7. Shalin Jose July 30, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    Dear Jeremy,

    I am also undergoing the same feeling now, new job, new people, many challenges and obviously new learning. I had same thought as what for we are taking all these agony. Unfortunately as you mentioned its with us always, and need to overcome some or other way. I am a person who try my level best to enjoy each and every moment, but it is not so easy always, specially when things go out of our control.

    I was a bit upset today at work, but your article gives me light of motivation and courage to deal with reality.I usually read all your article and never leave a comment, but this time I felt I should.


  8. Denise July 31, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    Best of luck to you and your family, Jeremy! It’s an incredibly exciting time for you all and I’m sure you’ll learn tons!

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