Being an immigrant is hard.

It’s the extreme version of being new to something.

Imagine showing up in your current country not knowing anyone – would it be easy to adjust? Add on the real possibility that you don’t speak the local language (nor know anyone who can help out). Your family and friends, if you have any, are at least a time zone away. All you have with you is a suitcase of old clothing and personal items. You have some money, but it’s not enough to survive more than a few weeks – with no support network and a shortage of funds, every day becomes a struggle for survival.

So why do people do it?

Some do it out of sheer necessity: to escape war, start over after a natural disaster, avoid religious persecution, etc. Many do it for the money – they move to a place where their skills are in demand (often, immigrants send savings back home). Still others do it out of sheer boredom, or to simply experience another culture. In almost all cases, people emigrate in search of a better life – whatever that may mean to them.

The United Nations estimates that there are ~231.5 million international migrants out there (with ~95.9 million of those are in developing regions). The USA alone has ~45.8 million migrants living within its borders (14% of the total population). Whether they have chosen to do it legally or not, that’s a lot of people who took the risk of plunging themselves into a foreign culture.

Not every immigrant succeeds. Every year, plenty find themselves living in the same (or worse) conditions as before. Some struggle to adjust to the local culture, and end up living in insular communities full of people from their place of origin (e.g. in “Chinatown” or “Little Odessa”). Even if they end up doing OK financially, many report feeling alienated from the local culture, lamenting about how it was actually better back home. Sad stories (and endings) are common.

However, there is a lot we can learn from the successful immigrants – the ones who, against all odds, made it work and created a better life for themselves and their families. These are people who have worked incredibly hard and persevered. Some of the best stories are about those who have achieved more than anyone thought possible – America’s immigrant entrepreneurs are perfect examples. If you have time, look up the life stories of Do Wo Chang (founder of Forever 21), Vinod Dham (the “Father of the Pentium”), Andy Grove (co-founder of Intel), and Andrew Ly (started “Sugar Bowl Bakery”). There are many others.

Successful immigrants excel at turning their disadvantages into strengths:

  • Lack of money: immigrants who start with very little to their name (a common scenario) develop sensible financial habits as a result. They save more of what they earn, and plan ahead for the future. This experience of “starting from the bottom” makes immigrants very industrious – able to make the most out of very little. In short, they quickly learn the value of a dollar (or pound, peso, etc.) and make it a habit to spend/save wisely. Immigrants know exactly why a “rainy day” fund is necessary – they have already lived it.
  • Lack of time: Newly arrived immigrants quickly realize they are, in many ways, playing “catch up” with the local populace. Whether it’s regarding education/certification(s), work experience, or simply knowing the language, newcomers find that many people around them have a considerable head start. The determined immigrants use this as a source of motivation – they make sure to work smart (on top of working hard). This means not wasting any time, and looking for opportunities to make considerable leaps.
  • Lack of familiarity: this is what the term FOB (“Fresh off the boat”) is all about. Foreigners are usually out of touch with the local culture and customs (some even have an incorrect understanding, picked up from media/movies/stories). Unless they wish to stay in their own cultural enclaves (e.g. “Chinatown”), newcomers usually try to adopt (or at least learn about) all the local holidays and traditions. The advantage here is that of freedom: immigrants are free to act as they want and integrate/assimilate at their own pace. This also means the newcomer is free from many societal pressures that locals may face – there are no family expectations (other than back home), and any friends they make will already expect them to behave differently from the in-group. Immigrants can thus “get away” with much more in local society (see: white expats in Asia).
  • Lack of options: immigrants often have no local connections, which means there is no support network they can fall on for help, advice, job references, etc. This means that most roads are closed off to them at the onset, whether due to a genuine lack of skills, familiarity with the “way things are done here” or simply because they are new. Immigrants thus focus their efforts on the things they can do, and work hard to make the most of it. Less time is spent wondering “what if” – newcomers try to find a way to find happiness in whatever it is they are relegated to doing, instead of the other way around.

At the same time, immigrants actually have some natural advantages over locals:

  • Adaptability and an open mind: newcomers are, by definition, free from any preconceived notions or ways of thinking. They bring with them a willingness to adapt to rapidly changing situations (crucial in today’s fast-paced world) and are quicker to accept new methods, ideas, and people. This makes immigrants more likely to see the “big picture” when it comes to understanding their new city/country of residence (the immigrant’s approach is more scientific – they start with no assumptions, and learn based on evidence). Both these traits make immigrants great at spotting opportunities (where others may see only a roadblock).
  • An appetite for risk: having already risked “everything” as part of the move, immigrants understand that anything of high reward requires at least some exposure to risk. For many newcomers, moving cross-country for a job (or even starting a business) is not a big deal – after all, they already know the answer to “what’s the worst that can happen?” If they have to start over, so be it (just like anything, it gets easier the more you do it). It’s no surprise that there are so many stories of immigrants starting businesses – these are newcomers who not only saw a potentially lucrative opportunity, but also realized that entrepreneurship is one of the few ways to actually attain financial success (at least in most developed economies). Note: propensity to take big risks varies from person to person, and there are plenty of newcomers that prefer stability, too.
  • Street smarts: many newcomers arrive from lesser-developed nations/economies, and are thus naturally more aware of societal dangers. Even if they seem clueless or out of place, rest assured that they are all too familiar with human nature (it’s universal). It becomes harder to swindle, trick, or deceive them – a newcomer has his guard up, expecting that there is some sort of trap. Simply put, an immigrant from a less stable society probably has different definitions of “safe neighborhood” and “bad person.” Note: there are also some immigrants who arrive with rose-tinted glasses, expecting to arrive in a perfect society where everything will be different and where everyone is inherently good (these idealistic notions are quickly discarded as soon as they realize that human nature doesn’t change).
Local maximum vs. your real goal
Are you working hard just to reach the top of a “low hill”? Could there be a better goal for you?

You can apply the immigrant’s thinking to your own situation.

First, you must accept that even partially adopting the newcomer’s (beginner’s) mindset can be advantageous. It’s less about moving somewhere, and more to do with approaching problems with a fresh perspective, an open mind, and optimism.

Using every advantage and working doggedly against all roadblocks, a determined immigrant fits the profile of a “honey badger” perfectly. He or she has no time to worry about what others may think – after all, why bother with trivialities when there’s so much work to be done?

Naturally, others will try and drag you down if they see you going against the grain. If you start acting like an immigrant (e.g. start being frugal with your money, seek new opportunities), you should fully expect to encounter resistance from the people around you (including your family). The immigrant’s rational, scientific approach to improving their life makes some uncomfortable – it certainly goes against ingrained, local folk wisdom (e.g. “if you keep your head down and work hard, the company/market/economy will take care of you”).

Here are some ideas for how to act like an immigrant (and benefit from doing so):

  • To get yourself in the mindset, try pretending to be a tourist in your own city. Do a Google search for “visit [your city]” and see what all the tourism websites recommend to do. It sounds cheesy, but it’s really just to get you in the mood (worst case scenario: you ‘ll end up discovering something cool about your town/city that you had not known before). There are probably sights, restaurants, and local events (e.g. festivals, performances) you have not heard of – start experiencing them.
  • Set aside a day for exploring a neighborhood that you haven’t been to before. If you typically drive everywhere, take public transport instead. Pick a new area, and walk around – observe the people, local businesses, etc. If you’re in a big city (over 1 million population), you’re likely in for a treat – a different neighborhood may have an entirely different ethnic composition.
  • Go online and read about the resources/materials available to newcomers arriving in your area. Start with government sites (example: USCIS). You may just find out something new about your country, and whether or not it’s immigrant friendly to begin with.
  • No matter your level of wealth, try thinking frugal. Get scrappy. Start going to free classes or workshops offered in your area. Check out public spaces – go the park, get a library card, etc. (You will likely realize that having fun does not have to involve spending money).
  • Be brutally honest with yourself about your own situation – do you have a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise regimen)? Are your finances in order? Do you have a solid financial plan (with monthly budgets, and a plan to save for the future)?
  • If you are employed, think about your current position – are you simply adding lines to a resume, or is it part of an overall plan to achieve something bigger? If you know of better alternatives, why haven’t you applied yet? Is geography (your location) a limiting factor?
  • Think about where you would live if you had to start all over again. Would you live in the same neighborhood that you’re in? What if you didn’t know anyone in your area?
  • Get a piece of paper and make a list of all the things you’re good at – be as vague or specific as you like (e.g. “making others laugh” or “operating a hand drill” are both fine). Just write it all down, even if it’s something you have not done in a while (“playing the flute”). In short, think about all your skills and abilities. Is there a way you can leverage more of your talents? Even if this exercise does not lead to any direct action, it will serve as a good reaffirmation of what you can do.
  • Is there something in your everyday life that you find frustrating and/or annoying? Think about recent complaints you may have had (or heard from friends/family). Instead of being frustrated at difficulties or inconveniences, try thinking of them as opportunities instead – would you pay to have that problem go away? How much is it worth to you? Are there others with the same problem, who have simply accepted that this is just the way things are? Make it a habit to note these things down – think of it as training/rewiring your mind to constantly scout for business opportunities.

Ultimately, the best way to adopt an immigrant’s mindset is to become one yourself.

For many people reading this, permanently moving to another country may not make much sense – you may already be living a good life, surrounded by people you love and working in a growing economy.  With that said, I encourage you to take advantage of any opportunities to relocate somewhere temporarily and experience a new culture.

Whether it’s a temporary posting at a remote office or a college semester abroad, a true relocation (not just an extended holiday) will do wonders for your ability to communicate and get along with others. You will likely mature faster, and develop a stronger appreciation for people from abroad. On top of all that, you will have the chance to completely reinvent yourself: wear a blue hat on your first day abroad, and people will simply assume that’s what you do – you wear blue hats. Important: if there are others from your home culture at the new destination, make an effort to break out of this bubble while you’re there.

Worst-case scenario? You will return home with a deeper appreciation for everything you left behind (and may have previously taken for granted).

Be a beginner every once in a while – it pays!

PS. If you do ever want to become a real immigrant/expat and move abroad, check out our sister site: ImmiGuides.