13 Ways Working Abroad Teaches You How to Adult

by Steph Dyson

Working abroad is one not-so-small step for your resume and one giant leap for your credentials as a fully-functioning adult. You might be tempted to work abroad by Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia; but wherever you land, cutting those apron strings and embarking upon your own little international adventure is a prime opportunity for learning how to adult.

Man looking out over a foggy city
You’ll learn how to be alone sometimes, and how to really enjoy it.

Although we’re expected to pass seamlessly from high school to college, and on to life as a capable grown-up, for those of us requiring a helping hand, working abroad is an excellent opportunity to polish up our life skills and see the world along the way. Here are some of the most important ways life abroad teaches you how to be a grown up:

1. You’re in charge, of everything.

From booking flights on the correct day to the correct city, to finding a decent apartment, picking up furniture, and locating the closest – and cheapest – supermarket, establishing a new life abroad is your initial test to see if you know how to act like an adult. You don’t crack it the first time, but who cares if you stocked the fridge with ice cream, beer, and heinously overpriced snacks from home on that initial supermarket run. You’ll soon be the King or Queen of the supermarket and a master of effective shopping practices (file this directly under – “how to be a grown up”).

2. You become capable in the kitchen.

For those whose first experience of working abroad is their first time living away from home, cooking up a storm in your new place feels more like cooking up a nightmare. Sorry, Gordon Ramsay. 

Not only do you need to avoid poisoning yourself and your new besties, you’ve got to work out what the hell you do with those weird local ingredients (cherimoya anyone?). Those who prove, once and for all, that they know how to be an adult leave the snug cocoon of their rental apartment to dine out in an actual restaurant like an actual grown up. Eating alone – and not feeling like a complete friendless loser – is an experience of living in another country that makes you realize what a strong, independent, and utterly awesome, mature human you are.

Arrivals and departures screen at an airport
If you have a flight to catch, you better catch it! Mom or pop won’t be there to remind you.

3. You plan a budget and stick to it.

In countries such as Vietnam or Peru, where the wages probably aren’t much to write home about, but you’re there for the experience and to travel, it’s likely that budgeting is your new favorite word. Learning how to juggle the cost of rent, food, social activities, and travel can feel like spinning plates, but persistence and a sensible way of keeping track of your expenses will become your major allies. Real adults have a frenzied obsession with Excel spreadsheets, and those of us who work abroad soon foster a love of these magical documents too. 

4. You learn the truth about the cleaning fairy.

Although we kid ourselves otherwise, the cleaning fairy – who picks up your dirty underwear from the floor and magically puts it through the entire laundry process – doesn’t actually exist. Time to learn how to be an adult. When you’re living abroad, it’s all on you, buddy. You reach “Adulting Level Pro” when you remember to do the washing up before you’ve completely run out of bowls and are forced eat directly from the cereal box. Don’t even get us started on washing your bed sheets...

5. You have to make ALL of your own telephone calls.

Alone in a foreign country, you’re forced to face the worst feature of adulting: the dreaded telephone call. There’s no time for wimping out; that dentist/doctor/hairdresser appointment needs booking. Yes, rehearsing the conversation in your head, in front of the mirror, with a nearby cat; are all perfectly acceptable strategies for overcoming this terrible trial. Extra “I know how to adult” points are achieved by those who overcome this mammoth hurdle in another language.

Notebook with a pen and a sticky note with meeting and conference call schedule on it
You become the master of your own schedule while working abroad.

6. You can travel around a new city without getting lost.

Underground systems in Tokyo and London were designed to confuse the foreign traveler, so if you can find your way to work every day in your new city without getting too lost, then you’ve pretty much nailed the whole adulting thing. But, working abroad also teaches you how being lost is actually part of the fun; you might discover a new side of town you never even knew existed or chat with someone on the metro because you accidentally missed your stop. 

7. You become the ultimate tour guide.

Of course your friends make a beeline to your house as a (free) holiday destination and they expect you to be the one who does all of the planning when they’re chez ti. It’s actually pretty fun being a tourist, even in a city that you now call home, and your own time spent exploring your new environs means you become a planning whiz. You’ll never have any trouble proving yourself to be the finest tour guide your new city has ever seen once you know how to act like an adult.

8. You deal with being away from home for family events.

Life abroad has its ups and downs, and no more so than when you’re away for birthdays, Christmases, or other special events. When you’re thousands of miles away, the idea of facing the festive season with your newly adopted family, in a hot climate, and without turkey becomes strangely appealing. You experience events the local way or even as part of a group of foreigners who combine all of their Christmas traditions into a strange – but still magical – festive mash-up.

9. You become the master of independence.

Working abroad can be tough, and surprisingly lonely at timesbut you shouldn’t ever be ashamed to call on your nearest and dearest at home to help you through the lows. Part of learning how to be a grown up is becoming that independent person who can “survive” away from their parents and the security net of their best friends. You pick up the courage to venture out and are duly rewarded, with new mates and the confidence of being comfortable in your own skin: win-win.

crowded metro car
You now navigate public transport #LIKEABOSS.

10. You’re introduced to new cultures and professional environments.

Taking a job abroad requires a whole new level of cultural awareness. Maybe the idea of formality in the office is different than what you’re accustomed to, but adaptability is an essential life skill to help you know how to adult so hard. For example, many other countries live in the moment and don’t make plans until the last-minute, but accepting these off-the-cuff invitations to dinner with new colleagues teaches you tons about the culture and proves that you’re keen to make the most of every opportunity thrown in your direction. You embrace this new professional environment and demonstrate you know how to work abroad, leading to a great reference from your employer, a brilliant new global professional network, and the confidence and skills to work anywhere in the world.

11. You’re unfazed by new people, even those you disagree with.

Working with colleagues from a range of different backgrounds and cultures is an excellent way of learning more about the world and discovering one of the greatest, and underrated, grown-up skills: diplomacy. Not everyone you meet abroad will necessarily be to your taste, and this teaches you to accept that you don’t always see eye-to-eye with people - an excellent life lesson that so few adults seem to master.

12. You embrace being the designated adult.

If working abroad with children, adulting becomes a whole different ballgame. Within five minutes of starting your job, you transition not only into an adult, but the adultiest adult in the room: the responsible person who passes judgement on whether Sharon did indeed steal Nancy’s pen and who pushed who first. If there’s someone crying, you’re the one dealing with it. If anyone poops – yup, you guessed it: your job too. Did we mention learning how to adult isn’t always fun?

two women sitting with cups of tea
You meet up for tea now, probably. And you talk about politics and current events– even with people you don’t agree with!

13. You become fantastic at small talk, in all your spoken languages.

Learning a new language when you’re working abroad not only propels you into the supreme heights of adulting, but makes you more attractive and more employable too. Knowing how to make small talk in not just one, but two languages is also an undervalued life skill, which you will never regret having acquired. For many newbies working abroad and trying to learn how to adult, picking up a new tongue is the highlight of their time abroad, as seeking out fresh new challenges and developing confidence in different contexts are some of the most important parts of being a successful and happy adult. 

Long gone are the days you just eat popcorn for dinner and beg your mom to call and schedule your yearly check-up! Well, at least one of those things is true— you still sometimes just eat popcorn for dinner, but it’s your right as an adult to make that call.

Working abroad will teach you how to adult once and for all. It teaches you important lessons in resiliency and responsibility. It’s a sink-or-swim crash course in navigating the real world; one we know you will pass with flying colors! But nothing too crazy, you know how to act like an adult now. Stick to dark neutrals, but go!

Get out there & spread your wings, you beautiful, adult-y butterfly you!