Some advice for 20-somethings moving far from home

My younger sister recently moved from London to Santiago in Chile. Since I performed a similar relocation to a very different place (London to Beijing) two years ago, I thought I would give her some advice. What was meant to be a few points ended up ballooning into lots of points. Since I haven't written any posts in a while, this is also a chance for me to relate some things I have learned recently. It's written with a reader in the mid-to-late twenties in mind, but lots of it is widely applicable:

Family and Friends

  • Be patient with mum and dad, enjoy our time together now that it is limited. Recognize that the next 10 or so years are truly golden ones where both they and us are fairly free from obligations to each other. But after this time they will both be getting old, and start to need our help more: medical problems, frailty, forgetfulness...the slide into old age. Then our relationship will be transformed. Kid-adult-kid.

  • Write long emails to your close friends. Even the closest friendships decay with distance, and through a thousand tiny acts of omission during the months away. Don't take it personally if people don't reply, but be one of the people who replies ;)

  • Learn how to identify talented people and then try and find ways to spend time with them. If you find someone's insight and intelligence intimidating, that's a good sign. If you're the smartest person in the room, that's a bad sign.

  • Linked to the above, try and find a mentor. Sometimes you will have to go out on a limb, or maybe appear a little pushy to get this - that's OK. The worst that can happen is someone says 'no'.

  • Get on to find people interested in interesting things.

  • Don't ask people 'what do you do?', it's vulgar. Ask them 'how do you like to spend your time?'

  • Remember what David Foster Wallace says: "You will worry less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do"

  • Linked to the above, be outcome independent. This is at the heart of being a badass.

  • Don't gossip. Say things which if the person was there with you, you would be willing to say to their face. Gossip is fun, until it's about you.

Local Culture

  • Learn to cook some local dishes - finding the ingredients will teach you things and it's a great conversation starter with locals. And you save money.

  • Understand how people feel about personal space - for example the Chinese hate being touched in most situations, whereas in France it's pretty cold if you don't greet friends with a kiss on both cheeks.

  • Learn a bit about local fashion - it often reveals mindset.

  • Respect tradition, people appreciate it. Don't wear hats indoors. Take your shoes off when you go to people's houses, don't piss on a mosque etc.

  • Tip well (apart from in Japan).

Language Learning

  • Seek out tools to help you learn - most major languages have many resources to help

  • Don't settle for an average teacher

  • Don't rely on a teacher

  • Taking exams usually serves as a useful motivation tool. As does agreeing to do presentations in the foreign language. Seek out opportunities to test yourself. House hunting is a tough one.

  • If you can't afford a teacher, there are tons of sites for language exchanges - just Google it.

  • A good way to learn to read is through "Graded reader" novels, which deliberately repeat the same vocabulary to help you remember. This is good fun.

On Reflection

  • Spend some time figuring out your values. When you are first immersed in a new culture it is a good time to consider all the things you think of as 'normal', 'polite' and 'respectful'.

  • Linked to the above, spend some time figuring out some deep psychological stuff. Adam Phillips is good for this. Get into some philosophy too - Nietzsche is fun.

Health, Safety and Money

  • Save money before you go. The amount depends on a number of factors such as (1) whether you already have a job lined up (2) the cost of living in the country (3) Whether you have dependents (4) Your debts/liabilities (5) Your 'employ-ability'. But one thing is for sure: you always need enough in your account so that you can bail and come home if something goes wrong. If you don't have a job lined up then you will enjoy a far less stressful time if you have six months' living expenses saved up.

  • Linked to the above, don't underestimate the cost of moving - renting a new place where you have to pay a deposit + multiple months' rent + new furniture etc. can add up quickly.

  • Save money. Every pay check, the first thing you should do is save money - at least 10% of your take home pay, ideally 30%. Build an emergency fund which will cover 6 months of living expenses. Then pay off debt (including student loans). Then start investing (in index funds) and saving for retirement. Living abroad, where costs are often lower, can be a chance to make huge progress in this area.

  • Linked to the above, read a bit about personal finance every year. Doesn't have to be much, 1 book will do.

  • Keep your expenses ('personal burn rate') low. It gives you more options.

  • Think long and hard before getting a mortgage. Houses aren't necessarily a good investment, though they can be. However, recognize that a mortgage is a liability, and one which you will have to do deal with for many years.

  • Linked to the above, never get a mortgage of longer than 15 years (in the long run, this will save you huge amounts of money).

  • Look after your health. You need health insurance for when things go wrong. In new places, with new bacteria, pollution, sports and people, there is lots of uncertainty. It's worth making a financial sacrifice, at least until you have figured out the local health system.

  • It's usually worth taking a day or two off to completely recover from illness to prevent 3 weeks of "powering through" at 50%.

  • Don't get drunk in places you don't know, especially late at night. You increase the likelihood of being mugged and ruining your mental impression of your new home.

  • Observe basic safety precautions: Don't keep too much cash at home, don't flash your phone in places you are likely to be mugged. Be observant.

  • Install tracking software on your laptop, and make sure you backup your files in the cloud (I like dropbox)

  • Don't hoard loads of possessions, they're overrated and make it hard to move fast.

  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep is shitty in so many ways.

Jobs/Career (especially startups)

  • If you join a startup without funding or a strong client-base, recognize that there is a high chance it will fail. Definitely not saying don't do it, but just be aware of the risks.

  • If the founder doesn't have a co-founder, it's a bad sign

  • If the co-founders are in different countries, it's a bad sign

  • If people seem good on paper but your gut tells you there's something off about them, trust your gut.

  • Don't underestimate the value of health insurance as a job perk

  • Understand that if you go on a "local" contract, you may pay lower tax, but it will make using tax-efficient tools back home (such as ISAs and company pensions) impossible, which can suck. Do your homework.

  • In your job, it's important to have projects that you can point to and say that you did specific things. Otherwise you're just another person flapping a CV.

  • When you manage people, treat them particularly well during those times when the power discrepancy manifests itself - e.g. when they ask for time off, when they come to you with a problem, and when they quit.

  • In the workplace, don't cry. If you often feel like crying, that's a bad sign.

New Directions

  • For big projects in your life, set aside 5 years.

  • The 10,000 hour rule is pretty good.

  • Stop watching TV. Especially the news. Sometimes I watch CNN and BBC and think that I'm watching a soap opera. Because that's all it is now.

  • Don't just take the path of least resistance. If something is making you feel unhappy or unfulfilled, take some time to really understand why, then make concrete plans for the short, medium and long term to fix it. Don't be an ostrich in the sand.

  • Finding passion is something that only happens through taking action. Most things that you could become really interested in won't be interesting until you attain a base level of competency and understanding of them. This requires you to apply yourself, and means that the world is full of closed worlds which will not be apparent upon casual observation.

  • Linked to the above: Action isn't just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it

  • Focus is key. You can't "dabble" in everything, you will just end up sucking at everything. Pick a few big things to really focus on. Don't try and do more than 3 significant things in a week (not a hard and fast rule, just indicative). This is one of the classic things which is simple but hard.

  • If you apply the above, you can get surprisingly good at most things in a year.

  • Partying and idleness are great for a few months. Then they get old.

  • Finish things. Unless they suck. If things are difficult, finish them. If they suck, ditch them.

  • Understand when to say 'no', and learn to do it in a way that explains and doesn't create hurt feelings.


  • Linked to the above, don't allow yourself to believe you can't do something. It might take you a long time and be really hard, but most things are within the bounds of possibility. However, don't fall into the foolish trap of thinking that it will just happen. After a while, hard work starts to look like talent.

  • Linked to the above, before attempting huge projects, complete smaller projects first. Get yourself used to finishing things. This will also grow your confidence and self-belief.

  • Track things that you care about. Make notes. It's easy to forget. And easy to forget your progress. Get a buddy who you track goals with. If you don't have a buddy who is up for doing that, find one.

  • Linked to the above, from Aldous Huxley: "Every ceiling, when reached, becomes a floor which one walks on as a matter of course and prescriptive right"

  • Accept contrast. You can't have excitement without boredom, love without loneliness. When you find yourself feeling nervous about something, realize that this can be a good sign.

  • Linked to the above, enjoy happy times, because they will pass. Life is a fucked up sine curve which tends back towards the average. This is also true of the worst times, and this is where the adage 'this too shall pass' applies.

  • Ennui is normal. Take action to shake it off. Or accept it for a bit. But don't teeter in between, that's draining.

  • Beware of real burnout. This is a serious thing. Listen to your body on this, you will know. To counter-act: do simple things you enjoy. Read great fiction. Do sports.

  • BUT, recognize multiple possible outcomes and have a plan for each. Don't assume things will go to plan. Sometimes the parallels between life and chess are startling.

  • Don't be one of those lame-asses who's too 'crazy busy' for important stuff. Prioritize and make time. There is always more time - get up at 5AM, use your lunch break, use your weekends, call in sick, start a fire.

  • Be kind. Cynicism is rampant and unhealthy. But be smart, understand when people will take advantage of your kindness. Don't try and help a psycho and get killed.

  • Whenever you want something, the most important thing to do is to decide the process to achieve it. This is an action you will do on a daily basis to get you closer to the goal. Some days you will feel exhausted and just not be able to do it, that's OK. But don't skip it two days in a row.

  • When faced with a really tough choice, it helps to get it all on paper. This also applies to tough problems. Draw a diagram, list pros and cons, plot different scenarios.

  • Sleeping on problems really works. The caveat is, the problem should be 'top of mind' - you can't have lots of conflicting problems. But if you really can't figure something out, and it's your main priority, try sleeping on it. So many times, I wake up in the morning and figure something out in 10 minutes which I was stuck on all day the previous day

  • When you want something from someone, think about how you can make that person's life easier. Get out of your own head.

  • Generally, regretting not doing something is worse than regretting doing it (unless you get paralysed or raped).

  • Read novels which make you marvel at how beautiful the writing is. Hemingway does this for me, so does David Foster Wallace. Read novels which amaze you with their imagination, Snow Crash did this for me recently.

  • Never let yourself be bullied - no matter the context. But don't lose control either, then they win. Deep down, people are animals. If you fight back, it becomes too much energy to continue the attack.

  • Don't burn bridges over ego.

  • Be humble. Be grateful. Don't fake it.

  • Find ways to give back - this is a recurring theme among successful people.

On dating

  • When you get into any serious long term relationship with someone from a foreign country, your ability to maneuver will shrink. This is especially true if they are from another country whose citizens are given a hard time by western democracies. Are they willing to live abroad? What about their family? How will they cope? Visas matter. Not saying don't do it, just saying be aware.

  • If either of you is operating in your non-native tongue, misunderstandings occur more easily. You need to be aware of this.

  • Some things you say during relationship fights can never be taken back. Even when you are furious, hold your tongue until you have a chance to think about things carefully.

  • If you break up with someone, 9 times out of 10, it won't work if you try and get back together again. Relationships are like a porcelain vase.

  • More than anything else, divorce is rooted in money issues. Give your relationship a chance, and be responsible with your money.

Good luck with your foreign adventure!