I still recall the day I hopped on the plane alone, feeling a whirlwind of emotions — a little anxious, excited, sad, and hopeful, all at the same time. That day marked the beginning of a new chapter in my life as a grad student in London. That was 2009.
From a bachelor’s degree to Master’s, and internships to a full-time job, this period of living abroad and growing up extended over a period of 6 years. Numerically, it’s a single digit with almost no place among the infinite numbers, but in abstract, I have lived and learned more than ever solely in these 6 years.
Coming from the East to find my place in a Western society has its challenges — mainly background and cultural disparities — as well as its surprises such as the speed at which one can adapt, learn and find comfort when the mind is open and the heart is accepting.
So, here comes the ultimate question: what have I learned from the years of living in London as a student and expat?
#1 – Moving and renting in London
Over the course of 6 years, I’ve moved around 9 times residing in different parts of London due to fluctuating circumstances. Some say my alter ego is a nomad.
Renting in London was similar to visiting a popular bakery — good properties sell like hot cakes and you’ve got to get in there early.
Dealing with various property agents and landlords were mostly a pain in the ass quite frankly, but it served a good life experience. I’ve learned to document everything in writing — it will save you time and money should any dispute take place, which is likely. Also, don’t settle for the first thing you see although it appears to be attractive. These takeaways are based on my experiences as well as many other fellow renters who shared their woes with me.
I can understand moving home is a big deal, and if you are going through it, I would personally recommend 2 companies that are above par in removals and storage — Lovespace (affordable and flexible) and Seven Seas (great customer service).
#2 – Plan. Plan. Plan.
Like every other key cities, things move rapidly in London and time seems to run on the fast lane. The saying that failing to plan, is planning to fail holds true.
To put this into context, for example, I spent 6 months preparing for the application into Imperial College, took on several internships to ultimately increase my chances of full-time employment in the ever so competitive job market of London, and allowed months for research and planning before whisking myself away on hitch-free travel adventures. In 9 out of 10 times, I would achieve my goals.
#3 – Don’t be complacent
Often, it’s much easier to convince yourself you’ve done a good job than to be critical of your effort. Complacency happened across many things that I’ve done from university dissertation, marketing campaigns at work to daily mundane chores. The cost of complacency is either you don’t fully achieve the intended goal or purpose, at times resulting in regret, or in a worst case scenario, you fail. As a tip, I’ve learned to check through thrice, or ask for a second opinion. It costs nothing and usually always helps.
Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive. —Andy Grove
#4 – Cultivate healthier habits and lifestyle
From the change of environment, I’ve learned to not only live independently but also healthily. It struck a sense of responsibility in me and opened my eyes to some old and rather unhealthy habits.
It helps to identify certain bad habits by analysing problems backwards: what are the causes and triggers of your stress, emotional distress, or illness? For me, it was frequent indigestion cramps due to irregular diet. I kept a diary of the frequency of cramps and having analysed the data, there is a noticeable trend — the cramps usually occur on days that shift away from routine i.e. traveling to multiple locations in a day or any given busy day with little time to plan out my meals. Slowly, I altered my habits by setting goals and constant calendar reminders.
Joining an ultimate frisbee group was also one of the biggest changes for me. For more than 2 years I’ve committed to playing at least once a week. Not only did this improve my physical health, it radically energised me mentally. Most of my motivation came from the enjoyment of the sport itself as well as enjoying the company of my fellow team mates, many of whom have become great life-long friends. Sometimes, help from others does fuel the motivation that much further.
To understand why we do what we do and change certain habits, give The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg a go.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. —Aristotle
#4 – There are many unknown unknowns
All of our experiences serve as lessons that ultimately become knowledge. Everyday we learn new things and seek answers to the unknown. But for us to keep growing, we must not only seek answers to known questions, but also acknowledge that there are unknown unknowns.
Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State for Defence, once said: ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.’
Understanding this concept was valuable but it is only when we put it into practice do we learn from it — that is to keep an open mind. Every now and again, I’d remind myself to see and evaluate things from different perspectives and withhold judgments or rejections, more so when my intellect and beliefs are challenged. Often, I was surprised by how little I knew.
An open mind generally receives more than it expects, and sows from it. You could say that it is like a window to knowledge and opportunities.
#5 – The only permanence is impermanence
Change happens at every level — the environment, the society, our friends and family and even our values and beliefs. At times, there are certain changes that I don’t respond very well to, and inevitably, I often find myself losing the battle of resistance and fall into acceptance, which is in fact a good thing.
Even when the consequences look uncertain, embracing change have made a positive impact in my life. It encouraged open-mindedness, opened a window to a whole new world of knowledge, opportunities and influencers, and gave me courage for bigger changes in life. Before, I used to talk myself out of change, now, I tell myself to simply have faith and life will side those who do.
Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian novelist best known for his book The Alchemist, recently composed a beautiful piece on closing chapters and starting a new one.
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance. —Alan Watts
#6 – Be present and mindful
With an endless to-do list these days, we all tend to handle things productively by ‘multitasking’ to get as much done as possible in order to maximise ‘free time’. Often during these ‘multitasking’ times do my level of concentration and mind presence deteriorate. I usually do what I do because I had to, or for the sake of it. But, I learned that doing something didn’t have to be this way — it could be enjoyed and appreciated through mindfulness.
The practice of mindfulness involves being aware moment-to-moment and opening up all your senses, whether you’re eating, bathing, listening or breathing. For example, one way of mindful listening is by listening to understand, not to reply. Thanks to my previous company, Jacada Travel, for sponsoring the 10-week course at The Mindfulness Project. The understanding and practice with trained experts has opened yet another world to me. I realised how absent I’ve been but since, I’m slowly altering my habits to achieve mindfulness whenever possible. Having said that, mindfulness isn’t a destination to achieve but a journey to experience.
I was recommended to read Search Inside Yourself written by Chade-Meng Tan, one of Google’s early pioneering engineers. The book covers his personal experience with mindfulness and meditation and its benefits backed up with scientific evidence. This may be a good read for those who would like to get acquainted with the concept.
London was one hell of a chapter in my life that it has become home for a long time. It is with great sadness that we had to part. There are many people dear to me whom I have to thank, for all the company, trust and support. Without them, this chapter would’ve been a very different story.
My next chapter back in the East begins and as uncertain as it seems, I couldn’t be more excited.
Life is my one true constant teacher that looks like a coastal drive — there will be many bends on the road, you can’t see what lies behind every bend nor can you change them. Ride with amazing people and the journey will be all that matters in the end, not the destination.
If you need a little kick of inspiration, the Dead Poets Society starring the late Robin Williams will not disappoint you. #CarpeDiem