Why You Should Go On An Exchange

I started writing this article a few weeks ago, while in Chile, after driving around backroads for several days and unsure if my car was going to make it to the next dairy farm. I was hopping from city to city and squeezing in some late night work email. Back then I was pondering… how on earth did I build the confidence to walk into a completely strange place and have the nerve to explain to a 70 year-old dairy farmer with the best cattle in the business that he may need to consider a few more things in his operations?

I left Brazil for Canada in 1998 at the tender age of 16. I went from surfer girl to boarder girl in a matter of weeks. Left my parents, my siblings, my friends and my life at the beach. Swapped my Axé Music for Classic Rock. A guitar strapped to my back, I went to live as a new high school student 7,000 miles away with complete strangers (by the way…some of the greatest people you will ever meet). I remember that like it was yesterday. Saying goodbye to my family and holding back the tears that only came down when I stepped foot on that plane to Edmonton-Canada.

The plan was to stay for a year, learn the culture, the language and return to….my comfort zone. It would have been so much easier to stay within my circle. The place where I had grown up, had my friends, my family and my school. At that point, the furthest I had ever gone was a couple of states away on family vacations.

But no. I was hungry to do something different. Looking back, I could not have dreamt in a thousand years that this is how my life would have turned out. No one warned me. No one had warned me how hard this was going to be. That year was the hardest. Not because of the late nights agonizing over how to write that English paper, trying to make sense of how I was supposed to summarize Shakespeare in my second language, but because I needed to adapt. Whatever ways of thinking and speaking had been effective for me up until then, would not necessarily be effective moving forward. And that lesson has continued to hold true today, not only in my life, but in business as well.

If my parents hadn’t encouraged me to look into joining a high school exchange program and I had basically said that my plans were to stick around and go to Med School, I would have missed a huge chance to grow. My life could have turned out just as great, but I bet you ‘dollars to a hole in a donut’ (Canadian much?) that I would have been a pretty limited individual compared to who I am today. The point is: Take chances even if they don’t look like they fit in very well with your current plans, because “what screws us up the most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” And I couldn’t agree more.

Translating it to business

Getting out of your comfort zone creates resilience and perseverance. I often times joke around with my colleagues when they ask me “how do you just hop from flight to flight, city to city, country to country, deliver presentations in different languages and show up (exhausted, I might add) to a meeting the next day”? I tell them that it builds character. You learn to survive. You learn that you can only really plan as far as your day goes. Because tomorrow is another day. Do you know what else it teaches you? It teaches you to be kinder to yourself and to others, because you never really know what someone else has gone through to be there.

Going on an exchange gives you a 360 degree perspective. You are able to relate to more experiences, people and culture. You become a more flexible and adaptable individual. You judge less. You listen more. Wasn’t it Darwin that said “it’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”? And I bet he knew a thing or two about evolution.

Since the only constant thing in life is change, you may as well learn to embrace it. Change will come. I guarantee you. You will no longer be managing that account that you helped to develop and build. It will come a time to pass the baton to someone else. And you should learn how to do that gracefully, because it will demonstrate to others around you that you really understand the meaning of growth. Because change is growth.

Had I just kept within my “bubble”, I would have missed so many wonderful experiences. Good and bad. You don’t just wake up one morning and become the person you are today. You make a conscious choice to learn, to get out there and experience situations that many could only dream to have in a lifetime. You make a choice to go on a high school exchange, a college exchange or a work exchange. I am not saying you have to move 7,000 miles away, but by simply choosing to leave your comfort zone, you are already contributing so much to the people around you and to yourself.

Expanding your circle of knowledge by interacting with people with different backgrounds, languages, cultures, political views and upbringing…all so distinct from yours will help you learn to appreciate other’s perspectives. What you once judged so fiercely will be replaced with “Wow, I never thought of it that way”. Your mind opens up in ways that you never thought possible. You no longer have room for preconceived ideas in your vocabulary, because you realize that narrowing your mind with preconceived perspectives becomes damaging. It’s damaging to businesses, relationships and future growth.

Of course, I didn’t learn all of this during that year as a high school exchange student, but it was the kick start to a life long journey of adaptation. And don’t confuse adapting with changing who you are, your identity. That last part is very important to remember as you move through life and change scenarios. Adapting while maintaining your core self may seem like an obvious advice, but it may take many different scenarios for you to fully comprehend and apply that concept. Once you have learned to recognize those signs, it will be life changing. You will always have your preferred places, people and style. But since we do business globally, it’s important to remember how to be effective in many different places.

In my 30 something years – 17 of which spent somewhere else other than my birth place – I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of experiencing diversity and the joys of learning what works for me both professionally and personally. Steven Jobs said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” If I hadn’t decided to go on that high school exchange to Canada, I would not have completed my undergrad at the U of A and then taken a job in one of the World’s First Bovine Genomics Program over 10 years ago. I probably would not have gone to grad school 2 years later, and eventually landed an awesome opportunity at the World’s Largest Agrigenomics Company that helps farmers and ranchers become more productive in feeding the world.

Going on an exchange opens doors and horizons, builds resilience and perseverance. Because when life and your business throw you some of those curve balls – and they will – your ‘out of the box’ experiences will provide the right swing to knock it out of the park!

About the Author Elisa Marques

An advocate for lifelong learning. A self-admitted textbook collector. I have been traveling around the globe since the tender age of 16 and have lived in 3 different countries. Some say that the 90's cartoon character "Carmen SanDiego" was loosely based on me, but who knows. I am a nerd at heart with a huge passion for science, marketing and teaching.

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