Updated: Mar 23
I crowdsourced some wisdom for you
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We each embarked on our first postings with ideas in our heads that we were going to make our mark on the world and help further our country’s interests within our host country.
By the time we step off the diplomatic merry-go-round, we’ve accumulated such wisdom that few things relating to moving house, starting over or walking into a crowded room and introducing ourselves to strangers concern us.
This diplomatic life is a great teacher. Those of us who have been on multiple postings start each new posting applying the lessons we’ve learned through our pasts.
But what advice would you give yourself before your first posting as a posted diplomat or as an accompanying significant other?
I asked the subscribers to The Lonely Diplomat for the advice that they’d give themselves prior to their first posting. This post is how they responded and is now provided to those of you who are preparing for your first posting.
Lists are good and necessary, but there's a bit more to the uprooting your life and serving your country thing than only making sure that the utilities are disconnected.
The advice in this post has been made generic so it applies to both a posted diplomat and an accompanying significant other.
1. Have a mentor
I often find myself quoting former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld when it comes to this diplomatic life:
‘…we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.’
Despite needing finger puppets to keep track of what we each know or don’t know or don’t know we know or know we don’t know, this perfectly encapsulates how many respondents said that they’d wished they’d approached their first postings.
It seems that many of us prior to our first postings were ill-prepared for the unknown unknowns and the known unknowns.
Many respondents said that they’d wished that they had someone in their corner before they went on posting to help them through the events, the thoughts, the feelings they experienced that they’d not anticipated.
They wished that they had a trusted mentor with whom they could share their thoughts and feelings and ask for advice. They wanted help and advice for when they experienced or learned the unknown unknowns.
For me on my first posting as an accompanying significant other in Venezuela, it was being completely unprepared for the what happened after my diplomat significant other left for work on the first day. I vividly recall today – almost 20 years later – the sound of the front door closing and thinking that with her went my lifeline to the Spanish-speaking world around me.
I’d spent so long preparing for the move and making the move that I had not considered what I’d do once I’d got there.
I adapted. But I wish that I’d had a mentor at that time who could’ve helped me through that complete overwhelming feeling where EVERYTHING felt different and to tell me that it was completely OK to eat ice cream for dinner because it was the only thing in the house and that it was OK to be scared to leave the house, but that it would pass.
Do you have someone – or know someone – who could serve that purpose for you?
I also was unprepared for what happened when the introductions and tour of the office was over and I found myself in my office alone on my first day as the posted diplomat in Ho Chi Minh City. I recall the terror within me when I went to answer my ringing phone. I desperately wanted to do well and not get it wrong!
That feeling stayed with me for months as I started what I discovered to be a whirlwind three-year posting characterised by long and intense days at the office and frequent travel. I loved the job and wanted to do it well, but that came at the price of my time with my family. The feelings of having to leave my children’s fourth birthday celebrations early to get a flight to Hong Kong for an important meeting stay with me many years later.
It’s a powerful reminder for me that this diplomatic life – and the desire to do well – comes at a cost.
I would have loved a mentor who I knew would call me out on the hyperbolic bullshit I was telling myself and that the world would still revolve if the work I was working on late into the night at the office waited a few more days.
If you’re to be the posted diplomat, do you have someone – or know someone – who could serve that purpose for you?
We diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life are an intrepid bunch. We go and live in all sorts of places around the world for years at a time. This live changes us. It’s an undeniable part of the allure of this life.
So, as a first time postee, the advice is to keep exploring. Know when your next holiday is and where it is. Explore where you live.
Exploration – and curiosity – is the first step to being connected to where we are in the world.
As a diplomatic significant other, explore how your skills, interests and experience can be used to benefit where you are.
The same advice applies to your work. The world of diplomacy is sometimes (read often) very hierarchical and scripted.
Get curious. Identify opportunities. Make your job your job. Explore the boundaries of your work and challenge yourself. You may (read will) experience some resistance to this approach from some who simply want you to do the work assigned to you. By all means do your job, but look for ways for you to happen to your job, not your job to happen to you. A good leader will want to recognize and engage your willingness to explore.
Again, a good mentor who can help you see past the immediate frustration at hand is invaluable.
3. Know thyself
I often heard the advice from the respondents: ‘Never say no to an invitation in the first six months of your posting’. This is sound advice.
You will have to put yourself out there, again and again, to meet people in both a professional and personal context. There will be many times when the distinctions blur.
Allow yourself to grow and change, for the experience of a posting will grow and change you.
But know thyself. Are you an introvert? Prioritise the creation of the space and time where you can replenish yourself and know that it often feels like you’re the only introvert in a sea of other diplomats who are gregarious extroverts. Know that many are acting a part and are also introverts and want nothing more than to curl up on the couch with a good book and not be working the room at another national day event.
Do you exercise? Find a place and establish a time to exercise. Do you have a hobby? Find somewhere and a time to practice it.
Do you have close friends and family? Prioritise time to connect with them.
This seems so blatantly self-obvious now, but when you’re in the throes of a new posting, it’s amazing how you can get swept up and away in it all and forget these basics.
4. To thy own self be true
For all its amazingness, this diplomatic life will test you. Indeed, my work lets you know that you’re not alone in living the highs and lows of this diplomatic life.
After years of effort to get into your country’s diplomatic service, you’re finally at the good stuff: the posting! As one path ends, you begin a new one.
You want to do well for your country and for yourself. You want to get ahead; to get promoted, have another posting or that opportunity to showcase your awesomeness more broadly.
As you take on the world and make it a better place within what could be a phenomenally competitive and risk-averse working environment, take a moment to learn about who you are, what’s important to you and WHY it’s important to you.
Knowing who is, and what are, important to you and then defending it – fiercely, if need be – is paramount in your first posting and onwards through your career.
This will seem like an act of great rebellion, but you being clear on how you approach your work will create space for others – including your boss – to do the same.
Know this: Your work must adapt to you.
There is ALWAYS going to be lots to do. There are ALWAYS going to be crises to respond to, visits to organise, calls to arrange, briefings and cables to read and write, meetings to attend and staff to lead and manage.
Your work will subsume you if you aren’t clear – or at least, aware – of who and what are important to you.
This is critical if you are to stay connected to your self throughout your diplomatic life.
5. Have your Plan B
It’s important to remember that this diplomatic life is life continued in another place. What plagues your and/or your relationship will continue during your posting.
As my friend Georgie Ryan eloquently said in Episode 2 of The Lonely Diplomat podcast: ‘Same shit, different country.’
No one wants to talk about or consider that their relationship will end. But the reality is that this diplomatic life is tough on our relationships. Sadly, many don’t survive the immense stresses and the lived reality that is knowing that the job ALWAYS has priority over the relationship and the family.
If you’re an accompanying significant other, knowing and having your Plan B is critical. As author and expat coach Katia Vlachos recommended in Episode 23 of The Lonely Diplomat podcast ‘On diplomatic breakups with Katia Vlachos’, your Plan B provides you with that security and peace-of-mind should your relationship end.
Your Plan B needs to consider what happens when you find yourself as a former diplomatic significant other and are no longer entitled to the help and support provided by the diplomatic mission and the diplomat’s employing agency. This includes:
- Having your own access to money the immediate aftermath of the diplomat’s death or the marriage ending
- Knowing your visa options outside of a diplomatic visa should you wish to remain in country (if there are child custody issues, for example)
- If you need to depart the host country rapidly, do you have somewhere to live in your home country?
- Having your own income stream (check out the content with Amel Derragui in ‘Want to know more?’ below)
- Keeping your professional qualifications and connections current. Having both will help you get a job when you need it most.
Part of my Plan B was the knowledge that my then-wife and I would give each posting a one-year trial period. Towards the end of our first year of posting, we’d discuss if all in the family were enjoying where we were and then decide to do another year. We’d return to Australia if someone in our family was not happy.
I also learned the importance of having my own income stream when our marriage ended.
6. It’s allowed to suck sometimes
I say this a lot. I mean it.
This diplomatic life can be a roller coaster. Its highs are dizzying, and the lows are abysmal. It’s an enchanting and intoxicating blend of our individual lives and being part of something much bigger than our selves.
But it’s life. It’s a job. It’s allowed to suck sometimes.
Indeed, it must suck sometimes. But when it sucks more often than it doesn’t, I invite you to have a kind and honest conversation with yourself and with those most important to you about what you’re doing. A mentor can also help you through those times when you need the input of someone who understands but is not intimately involved.
Resealable plastic bags. They’re tough and can be reused again and again. They’re perfect for packing up those smaller things that belong on a shelf, in a cupboard or in a drawer when moving. They make unpacking and putting away in their new spot at the other end an absolute breeze.
Did you notice a theme?
The best advice is to get people in your corner from the outset of your diplomatic career. Someone with whom you feel comfortable in going to for advice and insight when you’re in need of a different perspective. Someone who, frankly, will call you out on your bullshit and remind you that you’re capable of being more when you settle for mediocre.
This job will change you. The job will want to change you. You will want to change for the job. You’ll want to do this to get ahead: to get promoted, another posting or an opportunity to showcase your skills and talents. Knowing who you are, and then remaining true to who you are – even when uncomfortable, inconvenient or unpopular – is the way to remaining connected to who you are and those most important to you as you lead your diplomatic life.
Indeed, diplomacy will want to lead your life. Make sure you live your diplomatic life.
Want to know more?
A reminder that ‘Minister’ and ‘Ambassador’-level members of The Lonely Diplomat can access my mentoring services and can talk to me regularly – and in real time – about what’s happening in their diplomatic life and receive wisdom distilled from lived experience as a posted diplomat, an accompanying spouse, a parent AND as someone whose relationship ended while on a diplomatic posting. Upgrade your membership here.
Thank you for supporting my work at The Lonely Diplomat by becoming a site member. I really appreciate your support and I hope that my work continues to serve, support, challenge and inspire you as you reconnect with yourself and the world around you.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post and suggestions for future posts.