Always live as if you’ll be here permanently

Christian’s guest blog earlier this week reminded me of a golden rule when you move, especially if you only move somewhere on some sort of temporary assignment. That rule is: always live your life as if you’ll live permanently where you are.

You can take this too literally. I don’t mean buy a house on the first day of a 3 month assignment, that would be silly. But don’t put off doing things you would do if you lived there for an extended period. In particular, don’t put off making the effort to make friends and don’t put off learning at least the basics of the local language if it’s not one you speak.

My father was an officer in the Royal Navy so I was what in the US is called a Navy brat. We moved a lot, every year or two. If you take the view that it’s not worth bothering to make any friends because you will only be there for a couple of years, then you’ll never have any friends at all. Then, one day, when suddenly that two year assignment turns out to be five years, you wasted the first couple of years. I actually went to boarding school so most of my friends were there rather than at home; it’s good to keep at least one foot on the ground.

But then in my twenties and thirties I moved every few years. I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, but I actually worked there for 6 months before school and for another 6 months afterwards, so I was there for four years not three. I went to Scotland to do a PhD and ended up living in Edinburgh for nearly seven years. I came to the US for what we intended to be a couple of years and it stretched to five years. Then I went on a two year assignment in France that turned out to be six years. Since then I’ve been back in the Bay Area but who knows if and when I might go somewhere next. The pattern in most of those moves is that I ended up living in places much longer than I expected and so the earlier I treated it as a significant period of my life rather than as a temporary assignment then the more I would get out of it.

For instance, in France I started to learn French before we went, rather than waiting to find out that my two year assignment turned out to be much longer. By the end I spoke it fluently. Nothing will make you “go nuts” (in Christian’s terminology) faster than sitting back saying “it’s not worth learning the language, making friends, exploring the area or anything, because I’m only here for a year.” Anything longer than you’d contemplate living out of a hotel room means that the golden rule should start to kick in.

I told this rule to a friend when he moved to work for me in France, having been temporarily based in Germany and then Paris. He said it really influenced him: he rented an apartment he wouldn’t mind living in for a long time, found a partner, learnt French fluently, took his driving test and so on. Last time I talked to him, he was still there, twenty years later.

When you learn scuba diving, you get taught how to help a buddy whose air has run out. You have a spare regulator for just this emergency. But, as my instructor pointed out, you only know for certain where one of them is. It’s in your mouth, so that’s the one you give your buddy. In the same way, the only thing you know for certain about where you will live is that you live here right now, so that’s what you have to build your life on.

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