At one point during a summer month spent in northern Italy and southern Germany, I decided I was going to live in Europe. Not travel, not study (though I did both as means to an end), but really set up a life here.
I didn’t know when, and I didn’t know how, but I knew that I was going to make it happen.
The thing was, I was only 14 when I returned to the U.S. that summer. No one really believed me when I told them my goal – I guess credibility in terms of big life choices isn’t really up there in peoples’ minds when you’ve only just started high school.
But I sure as hell knew what I wanted to do. So I went for it, step by step.
It took years.
I prioritized learning languages over everything else at university, even giving up the idea of completing a double-major with theatre, another passion of mine.
I tutored exchange students and joined a buddy program for internationals, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from another perspective. I applied for and was accepted to a study abroad program in Bonn, Germany. Study abroad was the “easy” way to go to Europe – the path most people expect you to take when you’re studying German, French and Italian.
But of course, one semester wasn’t enough. I wanted to build a life, remember?
Preparing for graduation a few years ago, I knew I had to figure out a way to get back over to “the other side of the pond.” I had doubts about my fluency though (German = not easy), and didn’t feel I was competent enough to dive in and apply for real jobs amidst the Euro crisis and recession – especially as it’s harder to get hired if you’re not a citizen of the EU.
What skill did I have that would be valuable? Some talent that could get me a job, or even just a scholarship? Any chance to get back over there, to get my foot back in the door…
My skill was actually something simple: I am a native speaker of (American) English. That is something most Europeans are not. But…most of them do really love English. What’s more, they need it. And they’ll pay good money to learn it, especially from a person who can explain it in their language.
Friends and professors had told me about the different types of Fulbright grants, encouraging me to apply for the English Teaching Assistantship scholarship. From my experience tutoring, I knew I was a good teacher, but I wasn’t really sure if I actually wanted to be a teacher.
My thoughts returned to my goal of living in Europe. Winning the Fulbright would be a solid way to do that, at least for a year. Why not just try the teaching thing and figure out if it could work?
The Fulbright Program had placed me in a tiny town north of Frankfurt, Germany. I taught English for 10 months at a lovely little middle school (and somehow ended up teaching ballroom dance in gym class and co-directing the school choir too…).
The year ended, and I knew three things.
1) I was fluent in German, huzzah!
2) I definitely was NOT meant for a career in teaching English.
3) I wanted to keep living in Europe.
Here’s where I got crafty. I didn’t want to pay for a place to stay over the summer after my Fulbright year, so I connected with a family looking for a short-term au pair. This way, I was getting paid and not paying for food, shelter, transportation, or insurance. Even more important, I had time to look around for other ways to legally stay in the EU.
Through the Fulbright network I stumbled on a job opportunity in Frankfurt that looked like it might fit me. Again, I doubted my abilities – I only had about half of the qualifications on the job description.
And again, I went for it. Two weeks after I applied, I had an interview. Two days after the interview, I was offered the job, along with a two-year contract…cue the triumphant music and joyful cartwheels!
Now I’ve been living in Europe for more than 2 years, rocking the languages, immersing myself in travel adventures, gathering great experiences and connecting with people from all over the world, every day.
This 8-year process worked because I had a well-defined idea of what I wanted for my future self. I had a “supra-goal”, and it guided my life choices until I had accomplished it.
[supra-goal (n.): a top-level, overarching goal which takes precedence over all other goals; a goal against which all other goals are aligned]
If there is something you’ve been holding back on doing, something you really want for yourself but can’t seem to get started, or if you don’t know exactly what you’re working towards, I’d like to share with you how to define your supra-goal and make those big life choices in 6 steps.
Make the commitment right now that “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. Be brutally honest with yourself. You can definitely think of at least a couple of ideas that you really, truly want for yourself.
Do you have five minutes to spare right now? Grab a pen and paper, and allow yourself to imagine your dream life. Write down the who/what/where of your ideal future self, five years from now. Be BOLD and thorough about this; this is the premium version of yourself and your life – what does it look like?
If you’ve already done this exercise, it’s always good to redo it and reevaluate to see if your dream life has changed. Then, continue with the next step.
2. Connect your dream with the present.
Define what differences there are between your present self and your ideal future self. What needs to change for your awesome future self to develop?
Compare your dream life to your present. Are you very far away from it? For me, it was a question of location and skill set: I was somewhere where I didn’t want to be, and I lacked the languages to be able to thrive in the place where I wanted to live.
Where does your dream life fall in the context of your present life? Accept that reality, and admit to yourself, “I’m at this point right now, but I want to be somewhere else in the future.”
Once you’re clear on what you want for your future self, figure out the initial step you’re going to take towards it. Now you get to do the cool part of goal-setting, something I find really energizing: set an intention to work towards.
Here it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know” if you’re trying to think of the first step to take. For me, luckily, it was a clear path at first. I knew that to communicate effectively in Europe and add value to my skill set, I would have to start learning other languages. I made a commitment to take language classes while in high school and university.
Tip: if the first step isn’t so clear to you, seek out and connect with people who have done it and have the results you’re looking for. It’s much easier to figure out what to do if you have the advice and input of someone who has been through it themselves. Ask for help – it’ll make it easier for you and put you on a faster track to achieving your supra-goal. I had friends and contacts from my involvement in international activities at college, from studying abroad, even from family members and friends in my hometown. Who do you know who might know something useful about what you want to achieve?
4. Take action.
A dream without action is just that: a dream.If you are clear on your intention, put aside hesitation just for a moment and take that first step which you’ve defined.
If you can get the ball rolling just a little, you can quickly overcome your mental inertia. (Easier said than done, I know, but this step is crucial and gets easier once you start practicing it!) Search for opportunities to arm yourself with useful knowledge and personal contacts to propel you forward and give you an edge.
The very worst thing to do at this point is nothing. Even if you seriously have no idea what the right thing to do is, try something – anything – and you’ll learn from it, be able to reevaluate and take another, more definitive and refined step the next time.
5. Take another step.
Keep taking action. Reassess as you progress, come back to that supra-goal. Is it still what you want? Are you still clear on your intention? Are you taking concrete steps that are bringing you forward?
Even if the path gets confusing or you encounter some roundabouts or dead ends, you are making an active effort and can congratulate yourself for not giving in to stagnation.
For me, it was a mini set-back when I realized I wasn’t cut out for teaching English full-time. After all, it’s one of the easiest ways for native speakers to earn money while traveling or living abroad. I didn’t get discouraged, though. Instead, I kept my eyes open for other opportunities, ones that didn’t involve teaching, and landed the job I have now.
Here’s where it gets tricky. You’ll probably run into roadblocks where your present self wants something that seems to be in complete opposition to what you want for your future self. In this case, you can do one of two things:
a) Give in to immediate gratification (empower your present self)
b) Hold out for future pay-offs (empower your future self)
The reason why this is so tricky is because you could potentially have your cake and eat it too, i.e. do the thing your present self desires, and still achieve the thing you imagine for your future self.
(Example: I declined a scholarship to study in Germany when I was 18 in favor of continuing a wonderful relationship with my boyfriend at the time. It did seem like I was putting off my dream, but for a very good reason – my heart was in the right place. 4 years later, I had been awarded the Fulbright scholarship to teach in Germany, and by that time, the relationship had ended and I was in the position to take full advantage of the opportunity.)
Think of your future self. Will you be better off for your current actions? Will your future self look back with regret? Or will you look back and be grateful to your present self for making this decision, for taking this course of action?
We all know it’s impossible to predict our own futures. But it’s definitely possible to create them.
Remember that when you choose which actions to take: if they align with your supra-goal, you’re on the right track. No matter how many roadblocks, or if you give in to your present self’s desires – your path can always lead you back to you supra-goal, even if it takes a bit longer than you first thought :)
What are your supra-goals? What are you dreaming about and what are you going to do to make that happen? Leave a comment below…I’m curious, and here to help you out!
About the Author
Ginger is a Peak Potentials Coach and the Feel Good Team’s resident nomad. Through her coaching, she helps you navigate major transitions, whether to new locations, new jobs or to new phases in life. Ginger also coordinates with writers for The Feel Good Lifestyle so that you have fresh, inspiring content.