Tag Archives: global professional

The Backpack Theory

Apologies for the lengthy absence. It’s been busy in Leysin.

“How much does your life weigh?

Wow, what a question. I just watched the shipper pull away in a truck headed to Asia. All of the stuff we thought we worked for over six years, down to four cubic meters.

“The slower we move, the faster we die.”

The ‘backpack theory’ speech is one of the most thought provoking commentaries you’ll hear about mobile lifestyle choices. I take issue with it because my family and I moved slowly in a foreign culture for six years and considered it living, not dying. This portable, disposable view towards the global or mobile lifestyle is toxic for the culture of international schools.

Let’s unpack the backpack.

The theory asks us to put everything dear to us in a backpack from pictures to people, setting us up for the rhetorical conclusion that since relationships are the heaviest items, they must be the first to unload if you want to travel light. Clooney’s job in the movie is to fire people on behalf of large companies unwilling or unable to do so. He is a hatchet man with no fear, no attachments, and little regret in his line of his work. His job is, literally, to discard of the heaviest item in the backpack. Obviously, the tension in the film is to test the theory.

“Make no mistake, moving is living.”

I cannot argue with this comment. It’s true. This is what drives a lot of us in this strange business of international education. Strange because we thrive on the adventure of new horizons but value the relationships that we built at the place we are leaving. Whether we admit it or not, we are in the relationship business. How many articles have we read, after all, in which the greatest indicator of student learning is the relationship between teacher and student? The criticalness of relationships in the education business is where we diverge from being ‘up in the air.’ Although some of us believe that unloading these relationships is the best way to travel light, in reality we will inevitably cross paths with that person with whom we worked in Peru, Egypt or Dubai. Moving is living, but not at the expense of everything else.

“Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically; star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans.
We are not swans. We are sharks.”

I have been doing some research on the differences between the notion of expat and the global professional. The expat (as we know) moves from his or her country of origin to work in an unfamiliar country. He or she gravitates toward groups of similar nationality and language, setting up patterns of behavior, food, and housing that mirror his or her country of origin. He or she may learn to appreciate some local customs, language, etc. but generally scratches only the surface, sticking to the familiar until he can move onto the next post where it starts all over again. Arguably, this is the shark. The global professional, on the other hand, has a more complicated story. He or she is more likely to be a TCK (third culture kid or adult), may speak a couple of languages, become connected in an authentic way to his or her colleagues, local culture, and most importantly, students. He or she may choose to live outside the comforts of the expat lifestyle and rather be connected in a way that does not remove his or her ability to “keep moving” but allows him or her to immerse themselves in the culture of the present, to move slowly without dying.

The international educator must resist the loyalty-free, relationship-free, move or die attitude of the shark. International schools are at their core in the relationship business. Although some of our friends at International Schools Review may argue that international schools are multi-national conglomerates that don’t care about people, they are not (for the most part). They are in the critical business of educating tomorrow’s global professionals. To do that, you have to move a bit more slowly.

It’s a tough choice we’ve made to be global professionals.
I know the backpack is heavy.
Carry it with pride.

Are you an expat or a global professional?

I am teaching a university course on leadership across cultures to an audience of twenty different nationalities and used thisarticle by Professor Peiperl from IMD. The conversation was fascinating. Where do you rank?

You are an expat if…

You manage your classroom environment by the content you teach rather than the people in front of you.

You manage your teams by the way in which you learned how to manage teams in your country of origin.

Your pantry is filled with food from your country of origin. (Especially if your luggage is filled with it when you go home for summer break).

You live in a compound that resembles your host country and you rarely leave it.

You go to the bars and restaurants that speak your language, serve the food from your country of origin and attract a clientele from either your country of origin or ones close to it.

You cannot communicate effectively with the support staff because you don’t speak the host country language.

You complain about “the way things work here” rather than adapt to the way things work here.

Your always consider yourself a “temporary” worker

You don’t have any friends from the host country.

Rather than adapt to the unique cultures of your working environment, you seek comfort zones by sticking to the habits and cultures that you identify with.

You are a global professional if…

You teach according to a level of cultural intelligence that allows you to connect with the learning aptitudes of different cultures.

You manage teams with an awareness of “high context” and “low context” cultures.

You stretch yourself by being inquisitive and learning from your surroundings, making these experiences part of your “leadership toolkit.”

You can speak more than one language, preferably the one of your host country.

You go to bars or restaurants outside of your comfort zone and where you are in the minority.

You stretch your global competency by having a keen sensitivity to the “way things are done here” rather than complaining about “the way things are done here.”

You choose (if you have a choice) to live in the community, exposing you to languages and cultures you may not be accustomed to.

You know how to communicate across cultures, not only in language, but with cultural intelligence. (Not everyone likes the loud American approach, believe me).

Okay, so this is technically from the 1970s, but it’s the first song that came to my mind when I thought of the topic. Yes, it’s hard to watch aging rock stars performing classics like this.