Earlier 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.
Growth 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.
by Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)