What do modern-day expatriates have in common with Odysseus and Hercules? The stages of a mythological hero's adventure provide a useful outline of the challenges that await companies and people who venture across borders.
Odysseus faced the cyclops and the sirens. Hercules performed 12 seemingly impossible labors. The heroes of mythology have much in common with successful modern-day expatriates, as unlikely as the comparison may seem. The stages of "the hero's adventure" - as mapped out by Joseph Campbell - provide a useful outline of the challenges that await firms and individuals who venture into foreign lands.
Let's compare the plot of the hero's adventure with the plight of expatriate businesspeople.
Expatriates leave behind the domestic offices of their organizations and the social support of their established lives. They embark on overseas assignments that are fascinating and full of adventure - but initially lonely.
Like Odysseus, the newly arrived expatriate faces new locations that are shrouded in ambiguity and full of unknown languages and customs. Like Hercules, the expatriate faces tasks that are challenging - often well beyond what the same person would have been asked to accomplish in the home country. In most cases, an expatriate has more autonomy and more responsibility than back home.
Modern-day expatriates aren't in much danger of encountering a cyclops or the Hydra. But unfamiliar obstacles of all stripes and colors do appear during an overseas assignment. They force the adventuring hero to question his or her own identity, values, and assumptions about everyday life.
Some of the obstacles appear in the form of paradoxes an expatriate must learn to resolve, such as how much of his or her own identity the expatriate must give up in order to be accepted by a different culture.
When expatriates perform their tasks successfully and learn to adapt to other cultures, they experience a solid sense of satisfaction and mastery. For many, the return home is marked by a sense of loss at leaving behind the magical charm and fulfillment of the sojourn. But among other changes, expatriates tend to return with greater understanding of foreign lands; increased self-awareness, self-confidence, and interpersonal skills; and more tolerance for differences among people.
I interviewed 35 U.S. expatriates after their overseas assignments. Their comments echo the themes that surfaced repeatedly during my own 14 years of expatriate life.
My interview subjects never referred to themselves as heroes, but they spoke of the satisfaction of mastery, the difficulties of negotiating obstacles and paradoxes, and the recognition of personal transformation that came to them through their overseas assignments. All of those qualities are characteristic of a mythical hero's adventure.
The stages outlined in such myths can help companies and individuals look beyond the practical journey and prepare for the psychological territory that expatriates traverse.
A call to adventure: choosing expatriates
Mythical heroes come in two types - those who choose to undertake their journeys and those who blunder into them. The same is true of expatriates.
Most expatriates I interviewed (80 percent) reported that they were thrilled when they first heard about the possibility of going abroad. Several decided instantly to accept the overseas assignments. Others hesitated only long enough to obtain the agreement of their spouses.
In Living Abroad, a 1982 study of Swedish expatriates, author Torbiorn writes that expatriates should really want to work abroad - even to the point of being idealistic or having a sense of mission. Only employees who show high levels of enthusiasm and involvement are likely to make the necessary sacrifices and to be committed to achieving a real understanding and acceptance of the conditions in the host country.
Expatriates who are ambivalent at first - those who do not perceive an overseas assignment as a call to adventure - might eventually develop that perception while abroad. …