Not so long ago, I was living in the UK. Prior to moving there, I had never lived outside of the country before. It was really an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I quit my very stable job of 13 years, sold my house and car, put my things in storage and boarded the overnight flight to Heathrow. You can imagine that many people thought I was crazy. I didn’t have a job lined up but I just knew it was the right thing for me at that time.

And it was.

While living abroad, I was fortunate enough to do something I had always wanted to do — obtain my Master’s degree. It had been quite a while since I was the traditional college co-ed walking around the campus at West Virginia University. (Go Mountaineers!)

This was going to be wayyy different. I knew that everyone else in the program was probably going to be in their early 20’s.

It wasn’t just the age difference, it was a cultural difference. I selected a private international school and the program I chose to study was very intensive. It was also a new program and just being rolled out. As a result, there were just a small group of students in this particular program. I was actually the only native English speaker.

Our Program Director was relentless and that is an understatement! He pushed and challenged our thoughts and processes every step of the way. Often times we worked till the wee hours of the morning on projects and our presentations to try to get it right.

You can imagine that language barriers and our individual cultural traditions were challenging to work through. My very westernized world was quickly being turned upside down. Our professor, and an author of numerous books on culture, was trying to help us understand that there was never just one way of doing things. But as we worked on projects, tasks, papers, etc., I fell back into what was comfortable to me and back to my natural western tendencies. Trust me when I tell you that this was much to the extreme dismay of my professor. I still hear his words echoing with his South African accent:

“Jan, stop thinking like a  American.”

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It was quite a source of frustration for a while. I mean, I was an American. But if you’ve ever heard and truly understood the expression “you have to lose yourself to find yourself”, then you understand what I had to do. And when I did, my world transformed.

My studies were centralized on Social and Economic Transformation – essentially how business fits into society (or not in many cases). So while I was researching and studying the transformation of business, I was transforming as well.

And here’s what I learned:

I learned to “let go” - My natural tendency is to control. I’m a firm believer in making things happen. I think that we own our career and own our dreams. We create the plan to make those dreams become reality.

But sometimes we hold on to those things so tightly that we create tunnel vision. If you have tunnel vision, you’re not opening your mind or letting in other possibilities. When you open up your view and get out of the tunnel, you see things differently. You have a 360 degree view that is not obstructed by the darkness.

The moment I learned to let go and stop controlling what didn’t matter, I no longer feared losing power. I actually increased my power because I restored my ability to see clearly and became very effective in handling any situation that would arise. Solutions flowed freely and new opportunities popped up that I would never have been aware of had I continued down the tunnel.

I learned to fill in my weaknesses by using the strengths of others – We quickly understood where we were strong and where we needed to improve in our group.

Our individual strengths and weakness became apparent. The challenge was learning how to combine those appropriately.

Several of my fellow students were Chinese and we likened our group to Yin-Yang. Yin-yang describes how opposite or contrary forces are actually harmonizing, connected, intertwined, and interdependent. Yin and yang can be thought of as complementary forces that interact to form a dynamic structure in which the whole is greater than the individual parts.

Everything, including our group, had both yin and yang aspects. We just had to figure out how we were intertwined so that we became strong as a group. And we did.

I learned to rezone my comfort zone - Our comfort zone is nothing more than a self-imposed boundary and we decide where we set the markers for that boundary. And if you stay inside of it too long, you’ll risk complacency. Your life stalls and becomes stagnant. I was there to learn and inspirational and revolutionary thoughts are seldom born from stagnation.

I understand that as we think about branching out, it can be a terrifying thought. It’s not easy to dip your toe in uncharted waters. But that’s where the well of abundance and transformation lies. It’s where we grow, learn, and mature in a way that broadens our horizons beyond anything we thought was ever possible.

Staying put and not moving stops you from making a powerful impact in meeting your objectives. That’s why we must persistently evaluate what keeps us in our comfort zone and what keeps us from executing on the actions that propel us forward.

I gained more awareness - The effects you get after crossing your comfort zone linger. My world awakened. My overall awareness grew and I experienced more self-improvement by the new skills and knowledge I had acquired. And once that happens, your world never reverts back. Those experiences become a part of you and they never leave.

I’ve been back in the U.S. for a couple of years now and I still have the tendency to fall back into what I know and what is comfortable. It’s always a work in progress but to my professors, my fellow students, and to the university, my life changed and has never been the same all because I “stopped thinking like an American.”

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