Friday, January 31, 2014

Personal Development: How I Made My First Million

At this early stage of my life I am still experiencing many “firsts” in my professional life as well as my personal life, but less and less frequently these moments come to me. I search for these “firsts” wherever I can because they accelerate my personal growth and make me more prepared for what is to come. Not all of these experiences will receive their own blog post, but making my first million is one that does.

I have been working with a local consulting firm in South-East Asia since 2011 and mainly my work has been conducted in large cities such as Jakarta and Singapore, but I have been very lucky to visit several villages and rural communities in my time here. I have also travelled across the region in my spare time with my beautiful wife. I have gotten to know parts of Indonesian culture and learned a lot about living abroad as a Norwegian and a foreigner in this country, but I am in no way a “veteran” in the expat-life yet.

I have received several emails, private messages and Skype calls on the topics of immigration, job-hunting and living as a foreigner in Indonesia. Generally, my advice is to look for a job in a large company in your home country and aim to get posted abroad. My recommended approach however takes time and may mean that you have to spend many years “paying your dues” before you get the opportunity to be stationed abroad. In this blog post I have noted some of my opinions, pointers and experiences for expats and especially for those without a company placement, the “Local-Hire Expats”.

I think of myself as if I was a foreigner in my home country
I come from Norway and have always found our public services to be great, welcoming, accessible and easy to use. While this may be true for Norwegians and any visitors who have already learned how to speak Norwegian, this is definitely not the case for all foreigners. I had the privilege of volunteering with the Norwegian Red Cross in a program called “the Refugee-help” (name sounds better in Norwegian). I spent some time every week with an African man, a father of one who had recently arrived in the country with his wife. He had a master’s degree from his home country and was a chess-player far beyond my skills (which really doesn’t say much, but that is the only indication I have of his skill level). 

For my friend and his family, English was their third language as his local language and French were the two he was the most familiar with. As most (all?) immigrants in Norway, he was enrolled in a mandatory Norwegian class sponsored by the government and had little opportunity to improve his English as he mainly socialised with his countrymen and spoke his native tongue. This left him in a limbo with limited English skills and very limited Norwegian skills which led to many challenges related to both paperwork and basic communication with the Norwegian government, not to mention the Norwegian neighbours and work-colleagues. I am now personally very aware of the humbling feeling that lack of communication skills can lead to, but my interactions with my African friend taught me that communication is only partly about which language we speak and mainly about openness and willingness to work towards mutual understanding.

I am replacing a local talent, why?
As a foreigner, I am bringing knowledge and experience from Norway and other countries where I have worked and studied. This combination of experiences is a unique commodity. This knowledge should be (and must be according to Indonesian law) shared and used to empower local colleagues. Taking a moment to think about my unique experiences and my unique skillset has helped me identify the best role for me and the best place to begin a job-hunt. Is my greatest asset in life “Being an experienced English speaker” or “Having education from a fancy school”? I thought beyond my CV and certifications, to discover what it is I bring to the table that nobody else in my host country or maybe the whole world can.

Do I add more value than a “real” local hire?
There are many tax and immigration papers that need to be prepared in order to secure work permits and legal requirements here in Indonesia. As a general rule, the employer pays for these processes and covers all of these expenses. This of course comes in addition to the considerably higher salary level expected and received by most “western” foreigners here. I kept this humbling fact in mind as I compare what I was offered to what I would be offered in Norway. Until my talent becomes fully developed, I am prepared to accept local terms. If you are a spread sheet addict like me, do not forget to factor in lower living-costs and tax levels in your host country when comparing offers.

I am a visitor in Indonesia, a guest of its people. 
I hate traffic-jams, they make me tired and drain my energy. In my hometown, Trondheim, the total number of vehicles is the same as in a small Jakarta neighbourhood. This made my meeting with Jakarta traffic quite shocking and I found myself comparing Jakarta to Trondheim. Reality however is that there is no comparison that can be made because the differences are not black and white. One way of doing things is not always right and the other is wrong. In Jakarta, the options that worked best in Trondheim may not be available nor apply. As a guest in someone’s house, would you complain about how they have chosen to decorate their house or why they made that choice? I took a few deep breaths and applied my sense of logic to the situation: When possible I bring my fully charged smartphone and laptop along for a long taxi-ride in heavy traffic.

I landed a job with a local firm through applying these and similar lessons. Coming here and getting a job has been highly rewarding and like all things that are worth pursuing: it has taken a lot of effort as well.

Oh, if you clicked this blog post to read about my million: Indonesian salaries are paid in IDR. This is indeed the story of how I made my first million Indonesian Rupiah…

If you would like to comment here or on my Facebook-page, I would like to know: “What are your questions or tips related to working and living abroad?”