01/02/2013 04:30 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Are You Ready for an International Job? Part I

Marina, a dynamic, superbly educated and extremely charming woman I once knew, had the great fortune and misfortune of having her dream coming true. An American attending an MBA program in Europe, her fondest wish was to live and work in the Middle East. Her enthusiasm was rich: She loved the cuisine, passionately studied the culture and politics of the region, enjoyed its splendid literature and art, took courses in Arabic and even dated Middle Eastern men. Finally, Marina's deepest wish came true: She was hired by a sophisticated marketing firm headquartered in Cairo, Egypt which also has offices in China and the U.S.

Within a week of moving to Cairo, however, Marina suffered a complete mental, emotional and physical breakdown. A couple of days later, her mother flew out to pick up her up and carry her back home to the U.S. Marina's international career was over. What had gone wrong?

Despite Marina's intellectual curiosity and university studies of a region she thought she'd love, in reality she possessed no practical experience or training on living and working in a different culture.

The exotic romance of living and working overseas has its attractions. For managers seeking to rise up the corporate ladder, a successful stint in a foreign land is essential. But wanting a thing is not quite the same as having and dealing with it. Moving to your dream culture or country is the easy thing; actually living and working there is a completely different picture.

In reality, living and working in a different culture is not for everybody. The overseas life offers great rewards, but it has its price. Being over there means you are not back here; in other words, gaining global experience means you are missing out on the happenings, information and politics going on back home in your own culture, be that corporate, national, regional or even inside your own family and circle of friends.

Transplanting yourself into another culture can produce intense emotions inside you. You have to work through your own cultural fog, created by your own culture and your own background. Thus, your perception of the host culture is influenced and often molded by the media, your teachers, rumors, "stories" told by third parties, your own dreams and desires, background and emotional readiness, and historical myths about the new culture you now find yourself in.

In order to avoid Marina's fate, ask yourself these key questions before you decide to embark upon an international career:

  • Do you like culturally ambiguous situations?
  • Can you live for extended periods away from your family, friends and culture?
  • Do you like/dislike being alone?
  • Do you make friends easily?
  • Are you patient when things don't work out as you expect?
  • Do you speak other languages? Are you interested in learning other languages?
  • Are you flexible and willing to change your plans at short notice?
  • Are you a multi-tasker?
  • Are you more relationship-oriented or task-oriented? In other words, do you know yourself, your culture and do you understand the culture into which you are heading?

Thus, before setting out upon your global career, deeply consider the things most dear to you -- family, friends, working at or near local headquarters and the warmth and ease of living in your own culture. To get the most out of your international career, you'll have to create a strategy for all of these things, and you'll have to get the people and things you most care about -- including yourself -- on board mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Only then will you be ready to experience the delightful challenges of an international career.