A Growth Mindset: How Your Approach to Challenges Can Determine your Success Working Internationally

Working and living internationally has a special way of breaking you down. Just walking around a foreign city, you can spot expats cracking under the pressure. People who are otherwise nice, normal, and in-control lash out at taxi cabs, rub their foreheads furiously, wave their hands in fury, or angry-walk down the street with tears in their eyes.

It is amazing the things that it can drive you to do. Troy Erstling mentioned in our conversation that his early time in India was “a mindfuck,” and he has told me since that he ended up taking meditation courses and going on a yoga retreat in a desperate attempt to regain some sanity.  Even Matt Benfield who was in Frankfurt, Germany when I interviewed him, mentioned the periods of loneliness and depression he felt, some days having difficulty just getting out of bed.  

I too have felt myself slipping. Back in Hanoi, I would find myself in my apartment alone drinking beers slouched on my couch (a weird event for me as I typically only drink with friends or at meals) or doing yoga in my living room with the lights off and incense burning. These are behaviors that are far outside my own typical behavior. But in Hanoi –with karaoke constantly blaring, the relentless summer heat, the suffocating dust and smog, the sonic madness of incessant car-honking at all hours of the day, all coupled with the isolation of living in Vietnam alone —cracks in my sanity were inevitable.

working abroad working internationally
Life abroad can be overwhelmingly different from life at home.

Everyone who lives abroad has to confront these challenges and the resulting, often weird, breaks in our sensibility. Some are able to battle through and come out on top to enjoy the fruits of learning a new culture. Others simply can’t handle the adjustment. Those who fail enter their new culture and try to bend the cultural at their will, desperately trying to create Des Moines, Iowa in the center of Cambodia to no avail. Overwhelmed with frustration, anger and bitterness, they head home.

What is the difference between these two types of people? What separates those that are able to push through to the enjoyment of a new culture, and those who are forced by their own unhappiness and frustration to book a flight home?

I have wondered about this question for a while. And then I came across the book Mindset by Stanford Psychology professor Dr. Carol S. Dweck. And in it, I think, came the answer to my question of why some people are able to make it working and living abroad, and others are not.

The Two Mindsets

In Mindset, Dr. Dweck divides people into two different mindsets, specifically in terms of how they approach life’s challenges.

The first mindset is what Dr. Dweck refers to as a fixed mindset. Likely, you will be able to identify this mindset in yourself or someone you know. She defines the fixed mindset as:

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone… the fixed mindset… creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over…[that] you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character.”

When personal growth is seen as not possible, failures and adversity are can only be interpreted as reflections of personal shortcomings.

Those with this mindset use life and its opportunities, challenges, and experiences as ways not to learn and grow, but instead to confirm the qualities they believe, or have been led to believe, that they inhibit. Someone who has been told that they are gifted intellectually views a test as only an opportunity to confirm (or, in the case of failure, threaten) their superior intelligence. Similarly, a failed marriage is seen as a sign of being unlovable or a failure at relationships. When personal growth is seen as not possible, failures and adversity are can only be interpreted as reflections of personal shortcomings.  

The antithesis of the fixed mindset is the growth mindset which Dr. Dweck describes as:

“Based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments– everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

If you are someone with a growth mindset, you see challenges in life as opportunities to learn and grow, not as threats to your already preconceived beliefs about your strengths or personality traits. A failed test is not a sign of you being dumb, but instead an opportunity to evaluate your study habits. A failed marriage is an opportunity to identify areas of yourself that may be lacking and improve them, not a sign you are unlovable. Being cut from the basketball team is motivation to work harder. In all of these cases, motivation is derived from failure and the emphasis is placed on improvement and growth, and not a permanently damaged self perception.

In Mindset there are two very distinct mindsets that people inhabit, that much is clear. But how do these two mindsets apply to successfully living and working internationally?

Detriments of the Fixed Mindset Abroad

The fixed and growth mindset actually play a critical role in your international experience because your mindset is indicative of how you will handle adjusting to your new culture and adapting to a new way of life.

Take just a simple example. Say that you are working in a culture that places a much stronger emphasis on office hierarchy than, say, in the United States. In a meeting with a number of other higher ranking people (managers, C-suite), you freely and openly provide your opinion just as you would in the United States.

After the meeting, someone mentions to you that in the office culture of your guest country, people in your position only speak when they are asked; they don’t speak freely.

Those with a fixed mindset will likely be very upset and interpret the mistake as evidence that they cannot succeed in that particular work culture. To them, their social faux pas has illustrated their personality is not conducive with the culture. The feedback they received is seen as a threat or condemnation of their fixed personality, and change will not or cannot be made because that is just how they are.

Given the same scenario, a person with a growth mindset, will take into consideration the feedback they received and use that information to better assimilate to the office culture which they joined. They will be thankful for someone letting them know the expectations of the office and other employees, and look forward to not making the same mistake in the future.

The things that are valued about them in Minnesota may not be seen as strengths at all in Cambodia.

These types of occurrences take place every day when living abroad. It is amazing how many little cultural differences that there are between cultures, especially in the workplace, and how your ability to experience, receive/accept feedback, and make adjustments is crucial to your success in an international position.

Taking the time to internalize and reflect with the belief in self-improvement is the sign of a growth mindset.

What is important for the fixed mindset person to acknowledge is that even if they have been successful in their native culture, their personality/strengths/etc have only been validated in the context of their culture. The things that are valued about them in Minnesota may not be seen as strengths at all in Cambodia. The inability to learn and adjust to the culture by having a fixed mindset  will only cause friction, and they as an individual will never change the entire culture as a whole. The individual will always lose the battle with the greater culture.

Taking the Growth Mindset Abroad

Dr. Dwick writes this about the growth mindset:

“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even when (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times of our lives.”

Adapting (or, if you already have it, maintaining) a growth mindset when striking out abroad is a catalyst for optimizing the benefit you can reap from the experience of working internationally. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open to a new culture can change who you are professionally, but even more importantly, it can also force you to reconsider both your perception of yourself and your perception of an array of other facets of life.  

Am I, personally, a completely different person after living in Asia for three years? I would like to think not. But without the distraction of what is familiar,  I have had the opportunity to take a more objective and serious look at how I work, the things I value, what I want from my life, and the goals I am striving towards. Is a fancy car important to me? Do I want to work 16 hour days so I can have a fancy watch and eat steak dinners? Am I liberal hippy who wants to stick it to the man and doesn’t believe in American Consumerism? What makes me happy? Is being happy even important?

Not only have I had a chance to contemplate these questions in a way I wouldn’t have back home, Vietnam has shown me different answers to these questions that I may not have otherwise considered.   

Living abroad should be about admitting that you have been conditioned to look at life through a particular lens, of which there are thousands of others to see through.

And, at its essence, that is the purpose of working internationally and living abroad. The purpose is not to try and bully your way of life from back home into a new culture. It should be about admitting that you have been conditioned to look at life through a particular lens, of which there are thousands of others to see through. Your old way of thinking will often cause friction within your new context, a way of your new environment pointing out the limitations of your native lens, and in turn, opportunities to approach the world differently.

And in this instance of friction, the person with a fixed mindset will say it is your new cultures fault for the friction and refuse to look at the world in a new way.

The person with the growth mindset will pick up a new lens and peer through it with curiosity.


Do you have a growth mindset? How do you feel it helps you in your daily life? Has it helped you work through an international experience? Let me know on Twitter @12hrdifference or on Instagram.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.