Moving to California: Thoughts and Reflections After 10 Years in the UK

Around this time last year I stepped off the plane into the US for the first time as an adult. This week I found out that starting August, I’ll be living in San Francisco.

Karl the Fog. Photo by Ian Simmonds

My husband and I are moving to start a new chapter there. He’s only been in the UK for a couple of years, while I’ve been here for exactly ten.

I’m really excited, but it’s also pretty daunting. My last big country move was in 2007, when I moved to the UK from Romania, where I’m originally from. The most exciting part is embracing a new way of life and culture, one very different from the places I’ve lived in. The scary part is being far away from the rest of my family, who remain in Europe.

A sense of perspective

A month-long break for paperwork, packing, and moving gave me lots of time to reflect on these ten years. So here’s a bit about the journey, some things that learned along the way, and hopes for this new chapter.


Past

Ten years is a long time to spend in a country, and it makes me realise that I’m no longer the seventeen-year-old I am inside my head.

The decision to move to the UK was steadfastly mine, and divided friends and family. Colleagues at work were excited, some classmates were too, half of my family was (the other half wanted me to stay close to home), and none of my teachers believed in me.

I showed promise at programming, hardware, pulling things apart and putting them back together. (This often exasperated my family, who thought I was spending unhealthy amounts of time on the computer.) But instead, I chose to study advertising and brand management. Human behaviour and why we make the choices that we do fascinated me.

At that moment in time in Romania, to become anything other than an engineer or doctor was to be a bit mad. A soundbite doing the rounds was that the third most popular language spoken at Microsoft’s HQ in Redmond was Romanian. It was meant to persuade you down that career path, and instil some sense of pride. Appealing as it was, it was false. But no one listened.

“Who would hire you with a degree in social studies?”

Actually, a lot of people. As I later discovered in UK agencies, many people graduated from vocational degrees that would make Romanian parents squirm. Classics. Medieval philosophy. Comparative Chinese and Russian literature studies!

I never regretted my decision. I went abroad to study, and actively encourage others to study, travel, volunteer, or live abroad (thoughtfully) if they can. Exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking is invaluable. In hindsight, if you go through it, university will appear as a phase in your life so rich with opportunity, you should never waste it living someone else’s (failed) dreams and ambitions.

My first picture on arrival in the U.K. — Manchester, 2007

And so university started, but it was not an enjoyable time for me personally. My mother passed away, as did two of my dear grandparents. When my dad and I stepped off the plane to visit my campus, Northern Rock went under in the first signs of the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. News reports turned grim, as did the economy soon after, and business after business shuttered in the city. The iPhone came out that year. I wanted one so badly at the time, but just couldn’t have one as a student. Jobs were scarce, unemployment was high across Europe, and most students were warned there wouldn’t be jobs for them after graduation.


My break into the world of work happened because of Twitter and Facebook. Those of us in universities in 2007 had Facebook (thanks, ac.uk email address!), along with a few other early adopters. In 2010, my first and proudest achievement at work was to build a Facebook game that brought in around 20,000 users. The number shocked us, as we had no idea how many people were even on it and taking it seriously. Momentous as it was back then, it would now count as a tiny growth hack done by the intern. It was an early sign of what is now fact: long-term jobs and job security are gone, and if you don’t adapt and learn new things regularly, your skills will be obsolete pretty fast.

Fast forward ten years later.

All my jobs have been in companies big and small, experiencing high or very high growth in a short space of time, working very closely with the founding partners. From this period, I learned three valuable things that I’ll take with me:

  • One: seek companies that are growing, and always stretch yourself even if it seems painful. There’s that famous Eric Schmidt quote in ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.” But rocket ships don’t come to you, so you have to find them, and be smart about how you convince them to give you a ticket. And where there is no clear-cut structure or path ahead, you have to forge it without losing yourself in the process. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile.
  • Two: don’t plan your career, but work to create different kinds of opportunities for yourself. I discovered Marc Andreesen’s writing in 2007, and luckily someone re-uploaded his since-deleted blog posts. It took me seven years to figure out what some of it meant. The term ‘portfolio career’ hadn’t been coined back then, but that’s exactly what we were starting to see. When you have to re-learn every 3 or 5 years you have to be a “jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than master of one.”
  • Three: seek good managers, people you can learn from, and always pass down the knowledge. I’m working on this one still. It’s very hard to teach others a sense of urgency, critical thinking, creativity, team work, commitment, humility. But being around great managers and seeing how they act and make decisions helps much more than reading 200 Medium posts on the subject. It’s easier than it looks to reach out, and they don’t even have to be in your company or immediate surroundings.
Poke makes the best leaving cards

So here we are ten years later. Survived London, worked with people from over 23 countries, and made some work I’m really proud of.

Thanks to life in Britain, I’ve become a far more resilient and resourceful person than when I left the house in Romania aged 18.

Present

I’ve only ever been to the US twice in my life (one doesn’t count, because I was a toddler). I’ve never eaten mac and cheese, a pop tart, or saw the inside of Bed, Bath and Beyond. Give me some time — and recommendations in comments below!

It strikes me as an overly optimistic, very dynamic, fast-paced place compared to Europe — a welcome change given where we are in our lives right now.

Born into a family of engineers, books and history (‘documentation’) are my go-to when I want to learn about new things. So I asked the internet for the best fact-based, non-romantic book on California. The internet said I should start with the late Kevin Starr’s California: A History, so I did.

The former State Archivist does a whirlwind tour of the state’s history, people, struggles and cultural mores, from early days all the way to the post-war population boom and birth of Silicon Valley.

In California, everything that isn’t explicitly forbidden is allowed. In Europe, everything that isn’t explicitly allowed is forbidden.

It became so much clearer why everyone (or what feels like everyone) there is set on making the world a better place and optimising themselves or others. For people and companies in California, there’s a sense that everything that isn’t explicitly forbidden is allowed. In Europe, everything that isn’t explicitly allowed is forbidden. It also explains why and how this spirit of betterment permeates the atmosphere in a way that it doesn’t anywhere else.

Everything is ‘awesome’, a level of positivity that makes British and Romanian people very suspicious. Octavian, another Romanian buddy living in the US, also noted this in “What does “it’s a good start” mean?

Cultural differences in a nutshell, thanks Octavian

Sitting at a life and career crossroads, these are all sentiments I can get behind. But clearly my ‘positivity’ vocabulary will need refinement.

Future

The plan so far is to take it slowly — as much as one can. I get way too excited when I think about all the places I can visit that I’ve only seen or heard about in books and movies.

There are so many things I’m looking forward to.

To be close to other fantastic cities teeming with history and culture; Portland, LA, Seattle. Not to mention South America and Canada. To be close to landmarks, nature, parks and Redwood groves that I love so much. To be surrounded by a lot of smart people — California’s academic institutions have a level of influence on the city and the Bay Area in ways Oxford and Cambridge don’t over here. To be in a diverse and tolerant city, thankfully one that is a bit smaller than London. That I am definitely ready for.

And lastly, to change what I do for a living (but more on that later).

So here’s to giving it 110%, good ratio of tacos to burritos, and maybe one day getting used to temperatures in F and not C. 🇺🇸

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