An Expat’s Perspective on a Non-linear Career

January 16, 2024 by Callahan Hager

I’m writing this blog having just finished a short-term secondment with the CEF. It was an incredible learning experience and opportunity. I’m leaving Slovenia with a better grasp of what the people that make up the CEF do, and perhaps more importantly, who they are. And likewise, I’ve come to appreciate that our two organizations are far more alike than they are different. While our respective work and opportunities are nuanced, we’re ultimately working towards the same goal: strengthening public sector institutions through quality learning.

Conversations with CEF colleagues over my three-week posting in Ljubljana of course focused on work: public finances are strained globally, and governments are facing, broadly, many of the same challenges. Meetings with CEF colleagues focused on organizational challenges, strategic aims, sector trends, team structures, upcoming projects, etc. Our conversations were positive and creative: How can we make X happen when we only have Y? What can we do that is different and interesting? We’ve never done this before, but let’s try it and see what happens.

I think it’s safe to say the business meetings were mutually very beneficial, and reaffirmed my appreciation that both CEF and CIPFA are focused on trying to make a difference - we’re working to provide both practical and professional support for public sector professionals.

But the more common questions I received were focused more so on my personal experiences: What do you really do? How did you get to where you are? What’s your story?

All I could initially say was that I was from a small town in North Carolina, and that I caught the travel bug when I was 20. My personal interest in cultures, languages, linguistics, and history didn’t really develop until I went to university. After that, I essentially just tried to get myself in front of as many international opportunities as possible. To go further and farther.

But after some greater reflection, my stint at the CEF helped me realize a couple principles that have shaped my story and path thus far, beyond that of just wanting to have an international career. Disclaimer: these are my personal views.

1. Careers don’t have to be (and often aren’t) linear. That can be a very good thing.

I graduated university with the notion that most people find a path and stay on it. That certainly hasn’t been the case for me. Over the past ten years, I’ve worked in financial planning, public relations, investor relations, international education, and foreign affairs. I even had my stockbrokers license at some point in that timeline. While my professional experience is more varied than I would’ve ever hoped or planned, the diversity helped me get closer to narrowing down the type(s) of work I’m good at, and more importantly, what I enjoy.

When I think about my peers, their stories aren’t far off mine. I’m not saying that jumping around the way I did was efficient – it most certainly was not. But it did give me exposure to an array of cultures, disciplines, workplaces, and contemporary issues. I’ve also tried to approach every job as a learning opportunity, and I think these questions best sum up what I mean by that:

  • Is this line of work what I thought it would be?
  • Is this job something I like doing? Do I want to do this in the future?
  • Is this job something I do not like doing? Do I want to avoid this in the future?
  • Is there a skill/experience I’m gaining that I can apply in the future?
  • Is this job giving me a perspective (personal or professional) that adds greater depth to my other experiences?

Thinking about it now, I haven’t said “no” to many things over the past decade. I think that mindset has afforded me a lot of rich experiences (as well as an interesting CV).

2. Taking a calculated risk is sometimes necessary. Likewise, a risk for one person may not be viewed the same to another

At various points in my career, I’ve decided to take risks. Sometimes it was because I felt stuck in a role that wasn’t a good fit. Other times it was to push myself to try and progress. It’s hard to imagine I would’ve ever ended up where I am now if I hadn’t taken those risks. My opinion is that they were necessary, and have paid off. Some examples of what I view as risks include:

  • Quitting my job to go back to study full-time
  • Moving to another country without a job
  • Applying for a more senior role that I didn’t feel quite ready for
  • Studying in a foreign country
  • Taking an unpaid internship

I’m mindful that for some people, these points may not seem very exciting or particularly risky – but the risk felt very real to me at the time. Likewise, I appreciate I was privileged to be able to pursue all of these risks, and had friends, family, and mentors to encourage and/or support me most of the way. Sometimes when you really want something, you have to lean in.

The point I’m trying to make here is that you can’t expect something to change if you don’t do anything different. If you don’t like your situation, how can you work within the parameters around you to change it?

In sum, I’m certainly not a career coach, but I am a firm believer that both taking some occasional risks and diverting from the traditional path can help create opportunities that otherwise would’ve been out of reach.

As I wrapped up my time with the CEF team in Ljubljana, I was reminded of a quote that resonated with me when I was younger, and still does to this day. It seems a fitting way to conclude:

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can. As much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

-Anthony Bourdain


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