Have you ever thought about attending a conference outside your home country(s) and culture(s)? You may want to. Not only is it an excellent opportunity to get an international perspective on your field and network with colleagues outside your geographic bubble, but it is also a chance to stretch your personal and professional horizons and lay the groundwork for a global career. Plus, you get to see a bit of the world at the same time.
Expand your perspective
The further we advance in our fields, the more likely we are to accept the inherited wisdom about what works, what is acceptable, what kinds of knowledge are valid, and what areas of research or development are the most promising. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – after all, in order to succeed in any career, you have to learn how to play the game.
The trouble is that the better we get at playing the game, the more difficult it may be to see our blind spots. It’s hard to drum up completely novel ideas, join in conversations that aren’t taking place, respond to trends that you don’t know about, or pull new ideas out of thin air. Attending a conference in another country both allows and forces you to see things from a totally new perspective – that of the country where you are a guest.
This isn’t just a matter of humility, although it can be humbling to recognize that your country may not have all of the answers. (Sometimes, the opposite can happen, too, and you may walk away feeling that your country is actually farther ahead than you realized). Either way, you will be better able to situate yourself and your work within a richer global context and conversation, which is the first step toward truly having a global career.
Make new friends
Another reward is meeting international colleagues. In my case, as an intercultural specialist, I find it particularly exhilarating to engage with people from countries as diverse as Columbia, Russia, and China, but this can be a positive and instructive experience for anyone. For one thing, in our global economy, you truly never know when you might need to cast your net wider as part of a job search, and knowing people in a range of countries potentially gives you many more options.
However, even if you don’t plan on applying for a job in Tunisia or Australia, knowing folks there means that you can ask them questions and use them as a resource. This can be helpful in everything from understanding the local market and getting ideas on how to better interact with diverse team members who are from that region to helping you spot trends and headwinds ahead of your domestic peers and having new wells of inspiration on which to draw. This isn’t just for folks in multinational corporations or in sales, but is valuable for everyone from doctors and teachers to those in logistics. If you are lucky, you may also make a new friend, too.
Stretch those horizons
Attending a conference overseas is also an excellent way to step outside of your comfort zone. Not only will you need to navigate a new city (and possibly a new language), but you will also encounter plenty of cultural differences that mean you can’t take all of the little things for granted. For many Americans, this means finding a way to get acquainted that doesn’t depend on small talk, adjusting our expectations about what presentations should be like, learning how to project professional signals so they are appropriately received, and retraining our ear to follow unfamiliar cadences and uses of the English language.
It may also mean temporarily following an unnatural schedule with last minute changes, eating unfamiliar cuisines, being pulled into “mandatory” activities, and responding to all the little problems and needs that crop up when one travels. In short, it is an excellent opportunity to be forced to see things (and oneself) with new eyes, to be creative, to experience a perspective shift, to become more comfortable with ambiguity, and to flex your resiliency muscles. It isn’t always easy, but it can be very fertile soil for a kind of personal growth that is very hard to replicate at home, where you can operate on autopilot.
See the world
Finally, a major perk of international conference-going is that it takes you to a different corner of the world. By using conferences as an anchor around which to build a trip, my husband and I have crafted itineraries that have given us access to places in Eastern Europe and Asia that might otherwise be off our beaten path. It also gives us a sense of purpose, rootedness, and connection that is very satisfying: we like having a reason to be in a city so that – for a few days at least – we feel like we are part of it.
It is true that this does require some resources, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that much more expensive than a domestic conference. I’ve found that it is often nearly as costly for me to fly across the U.S. as it is to fly to Europe or Asia during the off-season, which is typically when conferences are held. Moreover, American conference prices are often higher than our global counterparts, as are hotel rooms (especially if you look outside major international cities). Plus, when we consider that we are killing two birds with one stone (getting a business trip and vacation out of one plane ticket), it starts to sound like a pretty good deal.
If global conferences aren’t on your radar, 2017 is an excellent time to start considering them. If you do decide to travel overseas for professional development, I am happy to help you with your cultural preparation! Bon voyage and good luck!