Are you trying to find your place, your “fit”? There is a lot of talk these days about “fit.” Employers desire to hire people who “fit” into the culture of their organization. Prospective college students want to find a place to study where they “fit.” One of the challenges, yet conversely blessings, about being a global nomad, also referred to as Adult Third Culture Kid* (ATCK), is “not fitting in.” As a human resource professional and college educator, who discovered my roots as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) quite a ways into my adulthood, I cringe whenever I hear the term “fit.” I have contemplated the term “fit” and wondered why I am so uncomfortable with it and now that I understand my discomfort, I am beginning to think about the word differently. Let me explain…
When we hear talk about not fitting in, it is often with a negative connotation, no matter the context, whether one is a global nomad, cross culture kid, or someone with any other difference that sets him or her apart from the supposed mainstream. When one does not fit in then the feeling of being the other, being on the outside and even rejection creeps in. After global nomads return to their passport or home culture many feel out of place; they no longer see things the same way, they see the world through a different lens than before they moved away to the foreign country because of experiencing and observing different ways of living life. As I have come to understand the origin of my feelings of not fitting in and discovered my “tribe,” my “people,” who are TCKs, with whom I share a common understanding because we have had a common life experience, I realize I do fit. Now that I know there is a “place” where I belong, I am relieved to recognize that it is better for me than the place I thought I should fit. At the very least, it is just different from the assumption of where I thought I should fit, once my family returned to the U.S. This is all to say as global nomads and cross culture kids, we need to be comfortable with our different places that are more authentic than the assumed or expected place where we think or society thinks we “should” fit.
What I discovered is, I did not fit because I have been trying to put myself in a box that isn’t my box, it is a box I do not and cannot fit into. Why is it we think it is weird we don’t fit? We know and accept it is unrealistic to try to force something into a box that is too small and perhaps destroy that thing in the process. Therefore, I accept that my fit is some place different from your fit and it is okay, right, and good. My shoe fits me but it probably would not fit you; just ask yourself how terribly uncomfortable is it to wear the wrong sized shoes? It is painful. Think of Cinderella and her stepsisters, in particular the sisters who appeared silly as they tried to fit into a shoe meant for someone else. Why should I expect to fit into a life that was never mine to begin with? It is no wonder that I have felt so out of place and awkward. Now that I understand this, what do I do?
Well, I read and research. My interest and experience in human resource development and things international pointed me towards researching global leadership, which then led to my discovery of TCKs. It was from these interests as well as my strong desire to help others work productively across cultures that the topic of my doctoral research emerged, Adult Third Culture Kids: Potential global leaders with global mindset. I explored the propensity of adults who grew up overseas for leading and thinking from a global perspective. I studied if and how the upbringing of ATCKs may contribute to the development of a unique set of skills and abilities needed in a global environment.
So what are these skills and abilities? To name just a few, they include the ability to adapt, be flexible, be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, relate to others different from oneself, act as bridge builders, and interestingly, be chameleons (our efforts to fit in, can be used to our advantage in the appropriate circumstances). Remarkably, research shows these traits and qualities are the same needed in successful global leaders and global teams. The key for global nomads is to learn to leverage ones’ skill set by recognizing and valuing, continuing to develop, and talking about these abilities and characteristics, such as global mindset, in ways that demonstrate competencies that are in demand in the global marketplace. As the world becomes increasingly global, so will the need for the unique capabilities and qualities of global nomads increase, giving them a competitive edge in global organizations and positioning them to achieve great things.
Be encouraged, as a global nomad, you are not alone; this path is one we all struggle with and walk. Some of the paths pursued by the ATCKs I interviewed in my research include, coaching executives to understand behaviors of foreign business partners, helping other TCKs adapt to their new life in college, and working with college administrators to understand the needs of global nomads. Several started their own businesses with a global twist, another worked in Foreign Service as an attorney, and others work in social services helping people with differences find their place in the world. Innovators and problem solvers, with the ability to bridge differences and bring people together are a few of the commonalities shared by the global nomads who participated in my research; coincidently, these commonalities are traits necessary for global leadership.
Whomever you are, whatever your background, know that you are unique, and that your unique experience gives you something important to offer to the world. Live who you are so that you can fulfill your life’s purpose and use your difference to make a difference.
I am Patricia Stokke, EdD, MA, PHR, and global nomad. I use my difference to make a difference through my research and as a speaker, educator, and consultant. I work with individuals and organizations to develop global mindset and global leadership capabilities. To learn more about how I do this, about my research and my background you may visit my website.
*ATCKs are individuals, who spent formative years growing up outside their parents’ culture or passport country. Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are children who move into another culture with their parents because of a parent’s career. Cross Culture Kids (CCKs) are persons who lived in or interacted with multiple cultures for a significant time while growing up (Pollock and VanReken, 2009).