It seems fitting to write this from a shipyard in Germany, because what I wish I had known when I was 22 was how global and networked my business and my life would become.
When I was 22, the only time I had been outside the U.S. (other than when one bank of a river I was canoeing was in Canada) was on a one-week vacation to Jamaica when I was 11. I’ve been very fortunate to have had an international business career notwithstanding my late start. But I would have done a number of things differently if I had understood the potential at an earlier age.
First, I would have been more diligent in mastering French. This is obviously not because it is necessary to speak French to have a successful international career. French is no longer the language of the global elite or of diplomacy the way it was back in the day. But I would have applied myself even more because there are definite advantages to understanding people and cultures though two or more languages. I’m grateful that I learned enough French to be eligible to attend INSEAD for my MBA. It would have been much better if I could have taken it much further. Fortunately, it looks like my children will take their linguistic talents to or beyond where I wish I had gone.
Second, I would have familiarized myself with Asia a lot sooner. My first trip there was as a spectator at the Olympics in South Korea when I was 28. My first business trip was two years after that. While I visited Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Southeast Asia many times after that, I didn’t go to China until 17 years after I attended the Seoul Games. That took too long. I, along with probably many others these days, wish I had known that the Chinese possessed the extraordinary energy they subsequently demonstrated to the world. While there weren’t many clues along these lines when I was 22, there were some that I ignored. When I was a young lawyer, a colleague had spent considerable time in China and spoke Mandarin. Most of us thought he was exotic at best or just plain strange. Oops.
Third, I would have leveraged even more intensively the networks of which I’m fortunate to be a part — alumni of the schools I attended, my father’s global contacts, the international dimension of organizations I’ve joined. To the extent my father had a global business career, I saw the benefits of these networks, and it was remarkable how many times he would run into someone he knew. But I could have done even more, and sooner.
Some percentage of the effort to network will be wasted. Some will pay off handsomely. It’s not easy to predict which will be which. That’s life. In my opinion, the odds are you will accelerate your career success by consciously pursuing networking opportunities around the globe. Besides the professional benefits, traveling the world is considerably more enjoyable when you have friends and acquaintances wherever you go.
Fourth, I would have appreciated even more what it means to people from other cultures to have you attend their special events, such as weddings. These events are often far away and unlikely to correspond to openings in your schedule. The distance provides a convenient excuse to say thanks but no thanks. But if you make the effort, there’s a good chance you will create goodwill to last a lifetime. I made it to some events. I wish I had made it to more.
The college students whom I know today are generally much better traveled and much more aware of the world than I was at 22. Despite the hassles of traveling, it’s much easier to get around the world today. There’s also the online world full of information and insights about the real world. That is a portal to which I did not have access at 22.
Semesters and full years abroad are commonplace today. People from everywhere are working nearly everywhere. There are fewer barriers but there is also much more competition across the globe. If I had understood more at 22, I would have pushed harder and faster out into the world.
This entry was originally published on LinkedIn.