Most of us have some crazy dream living inside of us — start a company, write a book, move to Bali. Any of the above. All of the above. Maybe your dream is so crazy you haven’t told anyone about it. Or maybe it’s the thing you talk about every time you’ve had a bad day at the office. But what would it be like to actually chase down that dream? I wanted to know. So I called former CEO and regular HBR contributor Nilofer Merchant.
Last year, she fulfilled a dream when she packed up everything — house, husband, and kid — and moved to Paris, planning to stay for at least a year, maybe more. It’s not the first time she’s radically reinvented her life. For instance, she’s pivoted from being an executive in charge of billions in product at major tech companies like Apple and Autodesk to founding
own consulting firm — which she then shut down, at the peak of its success. Her HBR book was named a best business book of 2012 by Fast Company, she gave an acclaimed TED talk, and she was given the Thinkers50 “Future Thinker” award in 2013. And then… Paris. I asked her how she decided to blow up her life mid-career — again — and make the leap. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
HBR: What was the impetus for the move?
Merchant: It all started when my husband said something like, “Hey honey, do you realize we’ve accomplished all of our dreams?” And I’ve always thought, if you don’t have any dreams together then you don’t really have a reason to be together. That’s the reason it’s so hard when your kid leaves to go to college — that’s your shared dream, walking out the door. We realized we really should come up with new dreams.
What was the decision making process like?
It started with a glass of wine. We talked about “crazy dreams.” That night we probably generated 20 ideas, and I don’t remember any of them except the one that stuck, which is, “We should live a year abroad and give our son that experience.” That was five years ago, and then three years ago we asked ourselves, “Are we serious? Because if we are, we should start.” I would send him articles on Shanghai, or Delhi, and ask, “What about this? Or this?” In the end, choosing Paris was us coming to terms with the fact that it was going to be hard enough for all of us to relocate, but we thought it might not be quite as hard in Paris.
You and Your Team
When you’re feeling stuck.
We also had to decide, did our son get to vote? We’ve raised him to be involved in every decision. But we were also sure that if he had a vote, it would be a veto. We decided he would get to vote on where to live in the city, and which school he got to go to, but we told him he couldn’t vote on the fact we were doing it. Living abroad teaches you a bunch of skills and attributes you can’t find in a textbook. That’s the investment we’re making in our son’s life. We did it for him more than us. Divergent thinking and creativity come from making a new map in your mind, and when you go to a new country, you build new cognitive maps. Once you’ve learned to have a new and different map, you can make more of them; your ability to adjust to one situation teaches you how to adjust to others.
What did you end up doing about your jobs?
My husband really didn’t want to quit his job. So, he actually wrote a script, and he practiced the script ahead of time, went in to work a year out from the date we’d planned to move, and said, “My family would like to move abroad, is there any way I can move my job?” In the end, it took my husband’s company 9 months to say yes, to help us with the visa, but even towards the end, we were really starting to wonder what would happen.
As a keynote speaker and someone who travels a lot for work anyway, I would assume that your job was a lot more flexible and easy to move. Is that true?
Well… it wasn’t seamless. It’s costing me more in terms of time to travel [to speaking engagements] so I’m doing fewer. But I’ve been able to add a European speaker’s bureau, which is a positive.
But there have been other complications too. I passed up an opportunity to be on a Fortune 100 board, which was a plum opportunity. But based on the time zones, I would have had to be on conference calls at 2 am. And when I thought about it, I realized that this priority of our family bucket list overruled my individual, professional bucket list. I had to tell myself to have faith that opportunities do come back around.
How did the reality of moving to another country match up with your expectations?
I hated the first six months for a variety of reasons. My son was really sad. He’s in a foreign country, and can’t even do the homework assignment because he can’t understand what it even is. We didn’t insulate him by putting him in an American or international school but in a full-on French school. So, it was sad to watch him be so sad. My husband was traveling for work probably 70% of the time for the first 3-4 months. And I felt like an idiot in every social interaction because my French was so bad. I went from being an effective communicator and competent person to just feeling stupid. So I questioned the decision…[but] this is how you learn and grow. It’s not by having something be super easy.
Was there a turning point?
There’s no one moment, it’s more your shoulders come down from around your ears. I learned to laugh at myself a little more. My husband had to learn to say no a few more times at work. My son is now number two in his class in French when he is the only non-native speaker in his school. It’s a truth about change that everyone loves the idea of what change gets you, but no one actually likes to change. And of course, we know it’s a big privilege to do be in a position to do this at all.
What would you say to other people dreaming of changing countries mid-career?
Three things. First, it took five years for us to go from idea to reality. I think most people give themselves less runway and then wonder why it’s so impossible. I see this same dynamic play out all the time in companies trying to change or innovate — it’s like, “Let’s cram for it like an exam,” instead of building a set of practices that lets you make any idea into a new reality. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need.
I also think it was important that we said we would stay for at least a year. We’d heard enough stories from people who, in the first 3-6 months, just turned around and came home. But in our case, the commitment we made kept us working through the tough times.
Finally, we had to come to terms with the expense. Relocation is expensive anyway, and when we first moved, the dollar was $1.38 to the euro, and well, everything I bought I just wanted to cry. I finally said, this is just the expense of becoming more global. And that’s worth a certain amount. Even if it doesn’t financially make sense in terms of every single penny, it makes sense in terms of the bigger picture – in terms of what you’re getting in return.
This isn’t the first time you’ve radically changed your life or career. Does it get easier to embrace big, bold changes with practice?
This is the third major reinvention. And I will say that in each iteration, when you actually start, you feel like your success years are behind you. And then, 3 or 5 years later, you’re like, “This was brilliant!” Not because it was obvious it would work out. But because in chasing the dream you manifest this other thing — invention, reinvention, achievement — it is in the doing, you become.
But, as you begin that transformation process, you’re tearing down the house you know in order to build the new house. Sure, you’ll reuse some of the materials. But the tearing down process is so scary because a part of you thinks, “What if I can’t build it back up?” I think that’s why most people don’t do major change — because the tear-down feels scary, and vulnerable, and destabilizing.
So are the internal challenges actually more pressing, in a way, than the external ones?
They’re hard to separate. For instance, one day I went looking for index cards and five hours later I came back — without index cards — and lay on the couch and said, “I want to go home.” So first it’s thinking “What are index cards called?” and figuring that out. Then it’s going store-by-store through the neighborhood asking, in my terrible French, if they have this thing. And they don’t. At home, it’s just “Oh, I need index cards.” Go on Amazon. Click. And it’s there the next morning. In France, Amazon doesn’t quite work that way… stuff arrives when it wants to arrive. So after this five-hour hunt, I’m sprawled on the couch, defeated.
So some of that, clearly, is internal. But the external challenge was there. You’re learning a bunch of things, and you learn first by not knowing. So any major change involves you feeling inadequate.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
So there’s a saying, if someone really told you how hard it was to have a child, no one would ever do it. Every year or two, some article will say how expensive it is to have children. On the face of it, the number seems insurmountable. But I always think no one should ever look at things like that in aggregate. The same is true for a book, or any creative project. If you look at the blank page and think of the 85,000 words you have to write, you’d get overwhelmed. You can’t look at it that way. The way you make your dreams come true? By making them come true.