As the founder of Best Places in the World to Retire, I’ve heard many of our expat contributors say that one reason they moved abroad was to “reinvent” themselves. And based on what they’ve told me, I’d say it’s easier to reinvent yourself living abroad than while you’re living in the United States.
New scenery, new people are key to ‘reinvention.’
To reinvent yourself requires a belief in free will; that you are the inventor who created you. Very few expats I’ve met, and none who told me their reinvention stories, could be described as fatalists. Many, like Anne Dyer, defied stereotypes and faced what most people would consider to be long odds, though.
Reinventions out of facing long odds
Dyer came to Mexico from Oklahoma more than 30 years ago, relocating to what was then a male-dominated village, at a time when doing so was nowhere as common or easy as it is today. Not only that, she opened a business from scratch and succeeded — all as a middle-aged, single woman. (Dyer still operates several successful businesses today.)
In more extreme and unexpected cases, American women like Anne Gordon (now Anne Gordon de Barrigón) didn’t know they were searching for something or that they would be so open to reinvention. She arrived in Panama as an animal trainer in 2004, to work on a film that hired the Emberá tribe as actors. Gordon de Barrigón was so touched by the warmth of the Emberá people, she wound up staying in Panama and marrying an Emberá man. Now she shares her love of the Emberá on tours she runs in the rain forest.
The concept of reinventing oneself is fundamentally optimistic and outward-facing, traits shared by those two women along with the other reinventing expats described below. They believe that they are in charge of their own future and could alter what otherwise would be called their destiny.
Many of the expats had reached middle age or close to it and were re-thinking their lives, especially in light of a heightened awareness of their mortality. Going forward in the same way as before was not satisfactory to them. Instead, they were searching for a way to change their lives to create themselves anew along the lines of their own, newly more self-aware design.
Very few of the expats wanted to completely discard their past and change everything. For most, reinvention involved only a part of their lives, while they retained the rest “as is.”
Phil McGuigan used to be a partner in high-powered law firm in Chicago. Now, he puts some of these skills to use directing an umbrella organization of charities in Boquete, Panama that regularly brings in large containers of supplies for locals in need. McGuigan raises the money from his previous partners and well-heeled clients.
He has gone from top-floor boardrooms to rural outposts with no running water, and clearly loves it.
Four reasons reinventing abroad is easier
Here are four reasons expats said it was easier for them to reinvent themselves while living abroad:
The shock of being in unfamiliar circumstances. By definition, expats intentionally put themselves in unfamiliar circumstances, where they cannot act exactly as they did in their home country and get the same outcomes. I have been told that this can foster a re-evaluation and a new perspective, along with new opportunities for growth.
Chris Frochaux is a “serial re-inventor,” at first, out of necessity, because his father was a diplomat and the family moved from country to country. As an adult, Frochaux chose a life of constant reinvention. He has lived in France, Italy, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Switzerland, the U.S., Argentina, and now Panama. About his life in Panama, Frochaux says: “I love this country. And you will too, if you choose to embrace it on its own terms instead of expecting it to conform to your country’s standards.”
Frank Illing, left his native Germany almost 30 years ago, and became an expat pioneer in Cuenca, Ecuador. Not only has he integrated into the community — he’s married to a local lady — but by opening two popular restaurants, he’s helped develop an atmosphere that has made Cuenca one of the world’s top destination for expats. The shock (and joy) of being around new people Just as expats are in a new cultural and physical environment, they are also in a new social environment, within which they’re not bound by the grooved-in interpersonal kabuki dance they performed in the past.
Expats have told me how liberating it was to start fresh relationships. Describing their past, they told me about the growth-inhibiting triad of behaviors being heavily influenced by: what others expected of them, others expecting them not to change and then their tending to conform to others’ expectations of not changing.
But as expats meet new people, they are free to create relationships intentionally to help become their best, reinvented selves.
When Greg Gunter came to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, he created new social connections, including a serious ongoing relationship with a Mexican woman and her family. Two parties held back to back made a big impression on him. The first was with mainly Mexicans, and lasted about eight hours. The next night, Gunter went to a party of mainly expats, which lasted just a few hours. When he was asked by his Mexican friends why the expat party was so short, it hit him. “In Mexico, work is always secondary to spending time with friends and family, unlike in the U.S. If I had stayed in the U.S., I probably never would have experienced a different way to interact with people, and changed my perspective because of it,” Gunter said.
The lower cost of living, allowing for more free time and generates less stress. Expats have told me that because of lower costs, they could take the time to paint or form that rock and roll band they always wanted to; many have had the time to volunteer, which further changed their view of themselves and fostered positive change and growth.
Mike Cobb is involved in several offshore businesses and was recently instrumental in building a health clinic to bring primary health care to rural Nicaraguans. “I wouldn’t have the time to reflect or get involved as much if it weren’t for the ‘silly inexpensive’ cost of living here,” says Cobb. “Living here, we can easily afford housekeepers, gardeners and handymen. Not only do we have more time, but our stress is less, all our relationships better and we’re able to get involved in things that matter to us on a deeper level.”
‘Reinvention’ also means enjoying yourself more.
Seeing and being around people who see and do things differently than you do Many expats told me that being around locals in places like Mexico, Ecuador, Panama, Belize and Nicaragua who had materially much less than they did helped them reinvent themselves for many reasons.
One is that this gave the expats more of an understanding for others who were not as fortunate. Another: When they saw these people seemed to be much happier than those they knew back home, it challenged their previous assumptions that more material goods make people happier. This caused them to reevaluate what made them happy (almost always to become less materialistic) and to gain new focus and dedication to that.
Dave Drummond, now based in Belize, has been working in international real estate development and international financial services for 14 years. If he had those careers in the U.S., he says, they would keep him cloistered among higher-echelon business investors and allow precious little interaction with anyone else. Not so for him in Belize.
Drummond related a story of watching a group of local children in Belize playing. “There were no parents, no babysitters, no one supervising; just young kids enjoying life with nary a care in the world. They were laughing, giggling, and shouting as children should while playing with nothing other than a simple ball and a stick. They didn’t have a gaming device, they didn’t have a tablet or any electronics at all. They only had what they could find and yet, they had more than they needed. They had the safety of the village, the simplicity of their game, and the freedom to enjoy having fun,” he said.
His conclusion: “It is not what you have that makes your life enjoyable; it is being able to do what you enjoy in life that does; a simple life concept I’m fortunate to be reminded of in Belize almost every time I walk out my office door.”
The worst reason for moving abroad
A common answer our expats give on our site to the question “What is the worst reason for moving abroad?” is: “To run away from something.” Moving abroad alone won’t reinvent you. You are the one who has to reinvent you.
If you really wanted to, you could do it from your home country, in the same house you’ve lived in for decades. Moving abroad just makes it a whole lot easier.
Chuck Bolotin is a vice president at Best Places in the World to Retire, which has more than 9.500 answers to questions about living abroad, provided by expats already there. He recently published his own family’s story, One Year on the Road and Living in Mexico — Adventures, Challenges, Triumphs, Lessons Learned.