I was offered a job in South Korea right out of college to help a company grow relationships with key international stakeholders. I said “yes” without hesitation. After all, what could go wrong?
Back then, I hadn’t developed my “spidey sense.” I ignored glaring red flags, including that I was recruited over the phone for a position in Seoul that required me to network with Japanese professionals. Never mind that I didn’t speak Japanese or Korean, despite my Korean heritage. To cap off the warnings, my degree was in political science, not management or international business.
Of course, my youth and inexperience won out. I took a 14-hour flight from Toronto to Seoul, where I was picked up by the CEO’s driver who took me straight to the office. Jet-lagged, disoriented, and clad in jeans, I faced a grueling day of meetings. Regret set in — hard.
The next three months went from bad to worse. The CEO and my supervisor didn’t agree on how to use me. I shuffled from team to team, job to job, function to function. It wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted; it was a huge mistake. My career seemed at a standstill. Depression sank in.
At that point, I was ready to head home. Yet in that darkest hour, I had an epiphany: My destiny wasn’t in the perfect — it was in the now.
Riding real life — and real regrets — into the sunset
Certainly, I was in an uncomfortable situation. I knew that. Without family or friends, I was stuck halfway around the world without a support structure to lean on. However, I had the power to completely transform the situation by flipping my mental state from shock to empowerment.
Consequently, I turned my biggest regret (or so it seemed) into a serendipitous decision by making some bold, deliberate moves. Here’s how you can turn a bad situation into a positive turning point in your career:
1. Embrace the suck
There I was in Korea. I could choose to hang with other English speakers to replicate life as I knew it in Canada, or I could learn about the history, culture, and people of the new country I just landed in. I chose to accept the situation I was in and make the most of it.
By signing up for Korean language lessons, I sacrificed plenty of recreational hours to improve my ability to communicate. During my limited free time, I hung out mostly with native Korean speakers. Not only did this accelerate my learning curve, but it also allowed me to better capitalize on my unique opportunity. I was fully out of my comfort zone, forced to appreciate the value in resilience and positivity.
As I adjusted to cultural norms that were different from my own, I stumbled upon business truths I never could have learned in a classroom. Had I not embraced the suck, I never would have attained these important life lessons.
2. Use positive self-talk to open yourself up to risks and change
Although it sounds trite, I literally got my mojo going again with some old-fashioned self-talk (sometimes in the mirror). After taking stock of my potential strengths and weaknesses, as well as looking at other career paths, my confidence improved. I became open to trying new things, even if I repeatedly failed.
At that time, I saw a recruiting ad in an English-language newspaper for a PR agency. The organization wanted native English speakers to manage multinational clients. Armed with a degree that had nothing to do with communications and a bank account with dwindling funds, I didn’t have the qualifications — or even the means to earn those qualifications at a college. But I didn’t let that stop me from getting foundational knowledge. I researched corporate PR and communications topics online and in books.
I built my proficiency so I could completely change careers and land the job — which I ultimately did. Once in the role, I redoubled my efforts to become a master at my burgeoning professional path. Looking back, I can see how my openness to change has paid off tenfold.
3. Seek out mentors and internal champions
After joining the Seoul PR firm, I sought out people who were willing to spend time and energy teaching me the skills I needed to make smart choices. In time, those connections also helped me land a job with an international PR agency, the next step in my career.
I’m convinced that you can never have too many mentors or internal champions within your organization. My mentors have encouraged and coached me, ultimately making me a better leader and human being. It’s tough to navigate corporate dynamics and politics alone; when you have mentors, you don’t need to.
Be sure to look beyond your areas of expertise for people who will help you grow. You’ll learn more if your mentors come from diverse backgrounds. For instance, my mentors not only hail from China, Australia, Singapore, Great Britain, Germany, Canada, Brazil, and the United States, but they also come from finance, sales, marketing, operations, human resources, and technology.
My move to Korea opened the door to an industry I would likely never have entertained had I stayed in Canada. Because of the two years I spent there, I’ve had a career that’s taken me to four different countries and allowed me to apply my trade at startups and Fortune 100 companies alike.
While I originally regretted my choice to move to Seoul, it wasn’t a mistake. Not only did I find a career that I’m passionate about, but I also met my future wife. It was good fortune. Because of a knee-jerk decision as a wet-behind-the-ears university graduate, I began an amazing experience that is still continuing to this day. Those early experiences grounded my thinking and outlook — all because I zigged when so many others would have zagged.
Emile Leeis a senior executive with more than 20 years of experience in international communications. He develops communication strategies that help companies burnish their brand image and reputation, engage their employees, and further their thought leadership. Emile has also served as a communications executive at Johnson & Johnson, SAP, and EDS. When not at work, he can be found with his family watching or bantering about baseball.