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Portable Careers: Two expats tell us how they’ve adapted their careers for a global life

Whether they’re on the corporate path, freelancing, or not working at all, at the back of many expatriates’ minds is the notion that they will at some point move to another country. For some, especially those in jobs they enjoy, this can be a daunting prospect, given the effort it’s taken to establish themselves in one place. Indeed, transplanting yourself and your career to a new country requires perseverance: there are cultural nuances to understand, employment laws to navigate and often a language barrier to overcome.
Another way to view it is as an opportunity for reinvention: a chance to hold true to your passion while adapting to new circumstances. What’s not exciting about that prospect? Here we profile two women who have relished the challenge.

portable careers in Singapore
Jacinta Noonan and Jo Parfitt tell us how they managed to adapt and develop their careers while crisscrossing the globe.

Jo Parfitt

An expat since 1987, Jo has written 31 books in that time, established a publishing company, and created what she calls a portable career to which she devotes about four hours a day from her base in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

She has crisscrossed the globe, living in Dubai, Oman, Norway, Brunei and the Netherlands as her husband’s job has changed, and raised two children along the way.

“I’ve always found a way to work: from writing a French cookbook called French Tarts and being published after boldly plucking up the courage to speak to a fellow passenger on a train who turned out to be a publisher, I’ve always looked for opportunities, and pushed the boundaries,” she says. “In Dubai in the 1990s I even ran classes teaching people how to use desktop publishing programs.”

The foundation of each career reinvention for Jo – what she calls her “red thread” – has been writing. Now, her real job is running Summertime Publishing, and expanding on the success of her book, Career In Your Suitcase. Written by Jo and Colleen Reichrath-Smith, and first published in 1998, the book is currently in its fourth edition and has spawned a series of workshops encouraging expats to turn their passions into their careers. Jo has teamed up with Jacinta (she met both women in the Netherlands) to present the workshops based on Career In Your Suitcase.

“My favourite analogy is the tilting hat,” says Jo. “Wear the same hat wherever you go, but be flexible, adapt to local needs, adjust to new opportunities.” To illustrate, Jo describes the writers’ circles she has launched in every country she has moved to. “It’s simple to do, especially now with social media, and a great way to meet like-minded people, find commonalities and forge a new network in a new country. I’ve now found 26 writers in KL simply by setting up a Facebook page.”

Jacinta Noonan

Trained as a primary school teacher, Jacinta says that her career has changed as different opportunities have presented themselves in different countries. “When I left Australia and realised I couldn’t teach in the UK, I instead went to the Netherlands and found a job in the corporate sector, in logistics. While it was a well-paid job, I knew it wasn’t my passion.” It took a leap of faith to move on, yet through some new opportunities she found a role delivering management training programmes focused on people development.

“That’s my ‘red thread’: communication and people,” she says. Since our interview in Singapore, Jacinta has relocated to Europe where she continues her work as a personal coach and trainer with a passion for helping women in transition. “We first need to acknowledge that careers are generally not linear. There are highs and lows, periods when you go around in circles and others where you tread water. There’s no straight line to success, nor is it easy to find and follow your passion. You need courage and self-belief, and to be true to yourself.”

While the good news is that these two women are living proof that portable careers are possible, the flip side is that it takes hard work and lots of energy. Jo, Colleen and Jacinta are currently rolling out “The Career In Your Suitcase Way”, a programme comprising workshops, a workbook, support groups and coaching. The aim is to help people find meaning in life, and reinvent themselves. Along the way they are recruiting potential facilitators who will go on to create careers in suitcases of their own, by running the programme in their own locations.
Jo says the following six steps can help you on your own portable career journey:

  1. Know yourself: Be consciously aware of your backstory. Can you describe yourself in one sentence, in a mission statement that hones your story and defines your vision? This will be at the confluence of what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and what you can be paid for. Your career will fall in around this. Use it intelligently as a filter for opportunities.
  2. Plug in: Explore your passions, values, interests and purpose. Where do you find your energy? This will sustain and keep you going as long as you engage with it.
  3. Navigate an uncharted path: Use your personal North Star to guide and keep you on course, as you navigate your way off the beaten track.
  4. Recognise opportunity: Look for open doors. Notice unexpected and unplanned things along the way that fit your criteria; also allow room for serendipity to play a role in your journey. A chance meeting and the courage to make an introduction could be a tiny step towards a big future.
  5. Connect: Link in with others along the way, support them, learn from them and apply that information. Use your local and global networks, give and receive, network and stay active to be remembered.
  6. Adapt: Adjust to new information and opportunities as everything continues in motion around you. Say yes to opportunities.

Career support and networking opportunities:

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of Expat Living. Subscription offers here.