What It’s Really Like to Quit Your Job and Move Abroad

See recent posts by Kelsey Blodget

Image Catalog, Flickr

Image Catalog, Flickr

It's a fantasy that many travelers have on vacation: the dream of never going back. Not many are eager to return to the stress of the office after an idyllic trip, but some adventurous souls actually follow through on the idea, and uproot their lives to make new ones in their favorite vacation spot. 

Earlier this year, Noelle Hancock wrote a piece for Cosmopolitan titled "Why I Gave Up a $95,000 Job to Move to an Island and Scoop Ice Cream;" the story went viral, garnering more than half a million shares. "I felt stressed, uninspired, and disconnected," Hancock wrote in the piece. "If you're constantly thinking you need a vacation, maybe what you really need is a new life." 

At Oyster.com, we're veteran travelers who review hotels for a living, so we understand that working hard in even the most beautiful destination isn't always as glamorous or fun as it sounds. (We know, cue the world's tiniest violin.) But we wondered -- can just anyone actually make such a drastic move, and come out the other side happier for it? In true Oyster fashion, we wanted to know what the experience is really like: the pros, and the cons. 

So we decided to ask some experts, and in this article, we'll share their insights on making a successful transition to a new place -- and the potential pitfalls. In subsequent pieces in this series, we'll profile the people who've actually done it. 

A New, Unfamiliar Environment is Good for Your Brain.


According to Dr. Paul Nussbaum, President of the Brain Health Center, such a move can have positive psychological effects. “Anytime there is a transition, there’s novelty and complexity — which is always good for the brain,” he says. It stimulates the brain’s cortex and leads to increased cellular connections, which can help prevent dementia. 

But It's Still a Good Idea to Learn about the Culture Before You Leave.

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

But before you sell your belongings and buy that one-way plane ticket, it’s important to do your research. Stewart Black, the Professor of Management Practice in Global Leadership for INSEAD who was written articles on the expatriate adjustment process, says that the more you know about your new home beforehand, the better you’ll adjust. 

“Regardless of the motivation for moving overseas, psychological adjustment is a function of the difference between experience and expectations,” Black says. “This is why the more you know about the land, language, culture, daily life, recreation, shopping, etcetera, the more likely you are to have a more effective adjustment.”

Having Proper Expectations Is Important.

Setting realistic expectations is key to a successful integration in your new home, and those who move as a rash decision rather than a carefully examined choice may end up unhappy. “The risk if you have quit your job and moved to your ideal country is that your expectations are higher than the experience,” Black says. So if you’re hoping the move will solve all of your life problems, you may be setting yourself up for failure. 

At Oyster, we know a thing or two about what it’s like to show up somewhere and find the reality is nothing like what you expected. We’re renowned for our keen ability to warn travelers about this possibility through our Photo Fakeout series. But when it’s not just a vacation but a new life you have planned, the stakes are as high as they get. 

For Most People, the Move Will Be Stressful.


Any time there is a change, there is going to be stress, according to Nussbaum. But not everyone perceives stress the same way; for those who interpret the stress as excitement, “that’s a brain that is looking at this stress as
positive,” he says. 

And if your reason for making the move is to escape stress, it’s probably going to beneficial to make a life change. “Leaving a stressful environment that creates chronic
stress is always a good thing,” he says. “Getting out of that environment is going to be psychologically really wonderful.”

It's Good to Be Both Optimistic and Curious.


According to Black, there are a two important personality traits that will aid would-be expats after their arrival: optimism and curiosity. While most people go through a similar cycle of adjustment, pessimists often don’t experience an initial honeymoon phase in their new destination. “Because all the differences in a country do not emerge on day one, most people have the luxury of noticing the ‘cool,’ positive, outwardly nice stuff initially,” he says, and explains that optimists tend to focus on those things while “the outwardly not nice things catch the eye of the pessimist.” 

Over time, as more gaps between a person’s expectations and experience start to arise, curiosity can help to mitigate negative reactions. “Those with high levels of curiosity say, ‘I wonder why this is the case? I’d like to understand this better.’ As they investigate, they learn more and the gap declines,” Black says, while those who aren’t able to do that are more likely to blame the country and people for their dissatisfaction.

A Move Is an Opportunity to Be More Active and Social.

There are a number of health risks associated with office life. “Sedentary behavior becomes very, very bad for our health,” Nussbaum says. “Socialization is another important thing for
brain health. When you are on a computer screen our friend, our spouse, is the
computer screen. We tend to not interact that much with other humans.”

So those making a move to pursue a job very different from their office work, such as selling ice cream or T-shirts, will likely get to experience more socialization, which Nussbaum says is definitely a good thing. If the new job allows for more physical activity as well, all the better. 

It's Also a Good Reason to Tap into Your Purpose.


It’s important to stop and think about what truly makes you happy. “I would say more than 50 percent of people out there
are doing something where they don’t have a sense of role or purpose,” Nussbaum says. And he says that most people have never even asked themselves what they really want to be doing. Studies support this: The New York Times reported last week that according to a recent a Gallup poll, 90 percent of workers are not engaged with, or are actively disengaged, with their jobs. 

“People that kind of venture out and do something
on their own and start their own business, that is a person who identified what
it is they are supposed to be doing while being alive on the planet,” he says. For those who have identified their purpose, “the stress kind of goes away. They are happier,
they are healthier.”

So if you’re moving to a new place to start a new venture, make sure you’ve thought critically about whether it is something that you will enjoy and that will fulfill you. Or you just might end up with the same kind of stress you had before. 

You'll Definitely Need to Be Adaptable.

Your dream of moving to a beautiful, exotic place isn’t going to go exactly how you expect — it’s almost guaranteed. Glen Simkins, owner of Maui ice cream stand Coconut Glen’s (who will be profiled in the second article in this series), says that the difference of whether you make it or not in your new life comes down to “whether you are willing to shift and mold.” Being adaptable might also help you live longer and better; according to Nussbaum, studies have shown that a person’s ability to adapt plays a more significant role in successful aging than cognition or even physical health. 

BuzzFeed published an article Monday profiling a couple whose travel adventures abroad didn’t go exactly as planned. The title — “This Couple Quit Their Jobs to Travel Are Now Scrub Toilets to Get By” — kind of says it all. Despite the unexpected drawbacks of their new lifestyle, however, traveler Chanel Cartell wrote in a blog post that their lifestyle is still “like heaven for us.” She elaborated: “There’s nothing quite like swopping million rand advertising budgets for toilet scrubbing to teach you about humility, life, and the importance of living each day as if it were your last.”

That’s about as adaptable as a person can get, in our book. And if you know you’re not very good at being adaptable, take comfort in the fact that it is something that can be practiced. 

If You're Not Ready to Make the Plunge, Start with Changes at Home.


Several expats I spoke to, who will be profiled later in this series, agreed that it’s not the actual move that will make you happier, it’s the lifestyle changes that sometimes accompany such a shift. And Nussbaum points out that some of these changes can be made without moving anywhere. “It’s important to think about the things that
are good for your brain and incorporate them into your workplace as best as you
can,” he says. He recommends trying to make some time where you can move about, and make an inventory of your talents; you may find that there’s a place for more of those talents at your workplace than you thought. Any time people use more of their talents and have a chance to express themselves, “they feel better about themselves,” he says.

More in this Series: 

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