It’s 2010 and I’m living in Vienna, Austria. I’ve just found out I’m pregnant with my third child. I’m thrilled to become a mother again, and relieved at the same time. Maternity leave will be a welcome break from my job. I feel underchallenged and a little aimless. It doesn’t feel right that the highlights of my year are the long weekends and holidays.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I’ve stuck with this job because it’s my only option if I want to stay in my chosen field. I worked hard to become a defense analyst, completing a masters and then a Ph.D. When I worked in the U.S., I loved the intellectual challenge and exposure I got to senior decision-makers. It also felt cool to be one of the very few women in my line of work.
Then, I moved with my husband to Austria and everything changed. Living in a neutral country, my options are limited. If I give up this job, there’s not much else in this field. Effectively I’d be giving up my career and through that, part of my identity.
I’m also on the verge of turning 40 and have never really asked myself what I want to do with my life or what I’m passionate about. I’ve spent most of my adult years checking boxes: being the best in my class, getting accepted into good universities, holding prestigious jobs. I’ve been great at fulfilling expectations and accomplishing goals, but none of those were my own. Now, faced with what feels like a crossroad, I realize that I’m not experienced in making my own choices.
This changes when I meet with Michael, a former professor of mine who’s become a friend. I took his class on negotiations when I was doing my master’s degree and we stayed in touch after my graduation. Whenever I have needed to make big professional decisions, I’ve turned to him for advice. Michael lives on the East Coast of the US but is in Europe for work and has managed to swing by for a short visit. Since he’s never been to Vienna, I offer to show him around the city. We end up talking non-stop, taking our conversation from one Viennese café to the other.
Sitting in one of those cafés, over hot chocolate and Apfelstrudel, he asks me how I like living in Vienna. I tell him about my career frustrations, but also about how hard it’s been for me to feel at home in Austria. I can’t make sense of why this is happening to me, while other foreigners I know seem to be adjusting just fine. Together, we try to solve the mystery. Switching to his ‘professor mode’, he asks me questions: “How about we take two of your friends who live here and compare their experiences?” I get into my ‘analyst mode’ and we talk about differences between two of my girlfriends. We label one ‘integrated’, because she feels settled in Vienna, and the other ‘non-adaptive’, because she feels foreign, even after several years there. Their experiences couldn’t be more different. We build a list of characteristics that set them apart and could explain this contrast. We talk about cultural differences, family dynamics, identity, and how people define ‘home’. We’re having fun exploring and throwing around ideas.
I don’t have a notebook with me. It’s not like I planned to have this conversation, but I don’t want to miss or forget anything, so I scribble notes on a paper napkin. For the first time in years, I feel like my brain is on fire. I feel alive. Also, even though these are new concepts for me, I feel like I know what I’m talking about, which surprises me.
By the time we’re done with our drinks, we’ve come up with a framework for understanding the process of expat adjustment and how to make it easier.
Michael says, “This would make a great book, Katia.”
I’ve written books before – research-based, analytical books to be read by technocrats like me. Before today, I’d never thought about writing a book that real people will read. More important, I’d never realized that I have a powerful set of skills that could be applied in other ways and fields that I feel much more drawn to.
“Really. You’d be able to help so many people who struggle to adjust after moving to a new country. You could include lots of stories of other expats in addition to your own. This is so exciting!”
Michael has written several books already, including a business best seller, so I trust his opinion. We go through my circle of friends and come up with a list of case studies I could include in the book. We talk about target audiences. I think about who I’d want to help, how I could contribute to their lives. My brain is running at 100 miles an hour.
In the days that follow, I become more and more excited about this new project. Before that moment in the café, it had never occurred to me that I’d be good at anything else but my narrow version of a career path. Now, I’m seeing that my well-honed skills as a researcher, analyst and writer could be applied to other fields. Beyond that, ‘softer’ skills of mine that I wouldn’t have considered relevant in a professional setting – empathy, curiosity, compassion – seem to be real assets.
This feels right. I’m ready to move on and chart a new path.
I start working on my book right away, even before I go on maternity leave. I do my research in the evenings, when the kids are asleep. When my leave is over, I quit my job and write full-time. I publish my book several years later and it’s the most fulfilling moment of my professional life. Letting go of my old career, letting go of who I thought I should be and blossoming into something that feels much more authentic is among the most empowering, life-changing decisions I have ever made.