At 27, I have almost a decade of meaningful international experience. I’ve worked professionally in more than a dozen countries, including Mongolia, South Africa, Turkey, Qatar, and Nigeria, and now I’m part of the international operations team of a major Silicon Valley startup in Mexico and Australia.
However, I used to have a much less exciting job. Having worked in the consulting division of a huge multinational company, I know what it feels like to be plugging away in a cubicle in New York or Chicago. But what I’ve found–completely by accident, in retrospect–is that there are a few clear strategies for launching the globe-trotting career of your dreams. Here are six of the ways I’ve managed to pull it off.
I come from a small city in upstate New York, so as soon as I started college in 2007 I went after every opportunity to go overseas. I won a scholarship to study at the National University of Singapore, and later I landed fellowships to do research in countries like Guatemala and Egypt, studied Mandarin in China for six months, and traveled independently to dozens of other countries in the process.
Not long after I graduated, I was able to leverage those undergrad experiences (plus two years in a management consulting firm; see point No. 3 below) to land a job with a global media company, where I traveled across five continents for two years. Thanks to those years of global experience, it’s actually hard for me to get anything but an international job now.
Go abroad early in your career. Take any opportunity you can–take a salary cut if you have to, volunteer, do anything that “globalizes” your resume.
If I wanted to move into commercial banking in the Middle East, I’ve got a contact for that. If I wanted to break into the modeling scene in Taiwan, I also have a contact for that. Hell, if I wanted a job producing Norwegian techno music in India, I literally have a contact for that, too. The beautiful thing is, I didn’t seek these people out and I never tried to “network” with them–I just met them while couch surfing across Asia or having drinks in Addis Ababa.
Once you get started doing work that involves some form of regular international travel, your network goes global. And as long as you continue on this type of career path, you’ll find that it inherently sustains connections like these. Because all of a sudden, you need to connect with other people who work overseas just like you do, since they’re the ones who can help you find other opportunities. It’s a virtuous circle.
In order to build a global career in your 20s, you don’t necessarily need to leave college with your bags already packed. In fact, I don’t think I would’ve been able to make the leap into a global sales role without a Fortune 500 company on my resume. The people I know who looked for entry-level jobs overseas right after graduation wound up compromising on their professional interests in order to land anything that paid. And most of them struggled to break back into the U.S. job market after their time overseas.
In my experience, it’s best to start your career at home, get a solid skill set under your belt, begin to complement it with international experience of any sort (and foreign language skills if you have them), and only then work your way into a job abroad. Believe me, it doesn’t take as long as it sounds.
I actually majored in Chinese during university, but it’s been Spanish that’s gotten me hired time after time.
Like many Americans, I started learning Spanish in middle school and took advanced courses through college, but it was working in Guatemala and traveling through South America that finally set me on the path to fluency. Now I speak Spanish while I work here in Mexico, and the full language immersion continues to develop one of my key professional assets.
I’m not necessarily single on purpose, but it definitely makes it easier to accept jobs that people with partners and families can’t. My first international employer sent me to Nigeria, but being young, adventurous, and uncommitted made it an exciting and career-advancing opportunity for me.
I’ve also been nomadic since 2013. I have the disposition to feel at home just about anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, which has already proved a compelling asset for many companies looking to staff their emerging markets. The only way to figure out if you have that attitude, too, is simply to take a job that demands a lot of international travel and see how it suits you.
For better or worse, all of my 2,000 Facebook friends and the tens of thousands of visitors to my site know exactly what I’m up to at all times. That’s actually how I landed my latest gig in Mexico: A friend from university whom I hadn’t spoken to in six years knew what I’ve been up to because of my blog, then connected me to a friend of hers who happened to be recruiting for someone with precisely my background.
Be vocal about who you are and what you want in your life and career–even while you’re still figuring that out. People want to help, so help them help you by communicating your talents, ideas, and goals.
After all, those will keep evolving with you. I learned all of this by clumsily chasing my curiosities around the world for the past decade, but the lessons are universally applicable. As I’ve found through trial and error, the formula boils down to a few key principles, rather than some master plan:
- Build a strong skill set at home.
- Pick up any international experience you can early on.
- Learn to speak an in-demand language.
- Be open to going anywhere.
- Nurture a global network.
But most of all, never give up. I’ve applied to dozens of jobs all over the world, walked away from opportunities, and truly followed my heart. Be curious, persistent, and smart about your international career hunt, and you’ll land the job of your dreams–however far from home it may be.
Elaina Giolando is an international project manager and digital nomad who’s lived and worked in more than 50 countries. She writes about global careers, unconventional lifestyle design, and meaningful travel on Life Before 30.