“I would like to start a movement to support expats who are going through challenging times” With Katia Vlachos
“I’m a passionate advocate for people who go through relationship breakdown while living abroad. Every breakup is challenging, but going through that in an unfamiliar environment, away from one’s social network and support system makes it even more brutal. In addition, a lot of these people are isolated by their environment; for some reason divorce is seen as contagious (!), especially in expat circles. My goal is to raise awareness of all those challenges, so that we don’t stay away but instead offer our compassion and support to those going through such challenging times. I have already been working towards that goal through my writing, speaking, and coaching, with positive results thus far.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Katia Vlachos — writer, expat transition coach, and experienced expat. She writes on cross-cultural adaptation and the rewards and challenges of expatriate life. As a coach, she helps her clients navigate transitions, whether it is making an international move, changing career direction, or coping with separation or divorce. Katia recently released her debut book, A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment (LID Publishing, 2018).
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I’m a global nomad. I was born in Africa, grew up in Greece, and in my early 20s left to live, study, and work in the US and several European countries. A few years into my expat journey, and with relatively smooth moves behind me, I found myself deeply unhappy in Vienna, Austria. I was unable to adjust or feel at home — and that lasted for several years. As I was trying to understand why this was happening to me, I became curious about how people cope with international moves. My background as a defense analyst and researcher made me want to answer questions such as: What makes a difference in how we fare through moves? Why do some of us thrive, while others struggle? How can we make smoother transitions? I ended up writing A Great Move about how to make successful moves; starting a completely new career; and making a much more thoughtful and successful next move.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Sometimes very challenging experiences turn out to be blessings in disguise. For me, the struggles I experienced going through a divorce as an expat steered me towards my current career as a coach. I discovered that many expats go through relationship transitions — including separation and divorce — while living abroad. Divorce is tough, and for expats who must deal with it away from home and their support system, often in an unfamiliar culture or language, it’s even more challenging. I wanted to help, and one way to do that was to offer my services as a coach.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I didn’t find it funny at the time, but I wrote my book A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment twice. The first book I wrote was almost entirely academic, because it was written by the researcher in me seeking to answer my own questions about how people cope with expat moves. It took me several years to research and write that book, and then I realized that it wasn’t going to help anyone. The second book — the one that got published — took me less than a year because I wrote it in order to help a specific audience (expat assignees and their families) solve a specific problem: how to cope with transitions and make successful moves. The big lesson I learned was that the first step in writing anything is to know your audience. In other words, write with the reader in mind.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment is being released in the US on September 18 (it’s been available in the UK and Europe since last June) and we’re hosting a launch party in New York City on September 27. So, I’m full-on preparing for that and promoting the book on social media and otherwise.
In parallel, I’m building up my practice as an expat transition coach. I coach expats who go through challenging international moves, but also those who go through career transitions or relationship breakdown (separation, divorce). I give my clients the practical and emotional support they need to make it to the other side of the transition, whether that’s finding home in a new location, building a new professional identity, or starting a new life after a breakup. I find my work incredibly fulfilling and rewarding, and it’s a great way to give back to my (expat) community.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I don’t have a particular historical figure in mind, but, growing up in Greece, I was very much influenced by the ideas of Greek philosophers, particularly the Stoics. The idea of accepting the moment as it presents itself, fortitude, as well as the belief that we cannot control external events (or other people), only ourselves and our responses, have been great sources of guidance, especially as I get older. Also, the concept of “everything in moderation” has always been a guiding principle in my life.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I love the work of Nikos Kazantzakis, especially Zorba the Greek. Besides the fact that his writing is of breathtaking beauty (particularly in the original Greek), every time I read one of his books, I feel a deep connection to my roots and culture of origin.
Another author whose work I find inspirational, because of the field of work I’m in, is Jhumpa Lahiri. I love how she explores the feelings of displacement, foreignness, not belonging, or belonging in many different cultures — all very important themes in my writing and my coaching work.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
More and more people are crossing borders these days (there were 57 million expats in 2017 and the numbers are increasing). As in my case, not all cross-border/cross-cultural moves go smoothly (between four and ten percent of expat assignments fail) and the cost of failure is high — on a professional, but especially on a personal level. I believe that most failures are avoidable, and my goal is to help expats feel better equipped to handle both the practical and emotional aspects of their transitions; to not only survive, but to thrive in their global lives; to find home wherever they are in the world.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
Don’t write in a vacuum. It took me some time before I started sharing my writing with my audience (halfway through writing my first book, I started a blog) and if I could start over, I’d have done that from the very beginning. I would have involved my community and listened to their insights and responses to my work. It’s incredibly enriching and makes the work much more relevant and helpful, which is my goal.
Also, be very clear about who you’re writing for. A good friend once recommended that I write for one specific person, whether it’s a friend, a family member, or someone else. Doing that will help you find your voice much faster.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m a passionate advocate for people who go through relationship breakdown while living abroad. Every breakup is challenging, but going through that in an unfamiliar environment, away from one’s social network and support system makes it even more brutal. In addition, a lot of these people are isolated by their environment; for some reason divorce is seen as contagious (!), especially in expat circles. My goal is to raise awareness of all those challenges, so that we don’t stay away but instead offer our compassion and support to those going through such challenging times. I have already been working towards that goal through my writing, speaking, and coaching, with positive results thus far.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- If you don’t believe in yourself, others won’t believe in you. Just like we radiate confidence and authority, we also radiate the lack thereof. Show your authority, even if you have to fake it.
- Don’t do it alone. Ask for help. I used to worry people would think I’m too needy or too weak or both if I asked for help. Being in a position to offer help, and really enjoying every minute of it, made me realize that for most people it’s more a pleasure than a burden.
- Take risks and fail often, because that’s the only way to learn and become better at what you do. I try to instill that in my children.
- It’s better to do something good now than to wait until you can do it perfectly — because you’ll usually end up not doing it at all. I only regret what I did not do.
- It’s not selfish to make space and time for yourself. I didn’t discover self-care until relatively late in the game, but it’s been a game changer for me. It’s made me better at my work and a much happier person.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them :-)
Arianna Huffington — Not only is she a powerful (fellow) Greek woman, she combines that strength with kindness and compassion. I admire the combination.
Justin Trudeau — I admire his courage to stand up for his values and what’s right in the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!