Work your best angles: My international student advantage

Work your best angles: My international student advantage

When people learn about where I‘m from, they usually respond in one of two ways: “Wow, you don’t have an accent at all!” or “Wow, it must be really difficult to be so far from home!” While the first one may be considered a compliment, it’s the second one that I find interesting. Apparently, if one has traveled so far from home, they must have experienced some amount of life-altering turmoil to do so. To be honest, my experience has been a little different.

My name is Ali Janjua and I came to McGill from Pakistan in 2004. I graduated in 2009 with a BCom in Economics and started working in Alumni Relations at McGill University soon after. I’ve been working at DAR (Development and Alumni Relations) in various capacities for the last 3 years and was recently hired as the Alumni Career Services Associate. Don’t get me wrong, the past 8 years have had their ups and downs. It wasn’t easy to uproot myself and assimilate into a totally different country and culture. In reality though, I’ve found that the hurdles I faced during that time have greatly helped me professionally.

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” – Stephen Hawking

Moving from Pakistan to Canada may be one of the greatest geographic and cultural changes that one can make. Not only does it take 16 hours by plane from one place to another, but once there, you have to adjust to a totally different climate, an increasingly diverse society and a different way of thinking. The change certainly took some getting used to. Sometimes I wonder how easy it would have been for me to step off the plane and be completely paralyzed by the daunting task that lay ahead. Looking back now, as unprepared as I was when I first arrived here, I wouldn’t change anything I did. By jumping into the deep end without any preparation, I learned just how flexible and adaptable people can actually be. People who decide to move far away from home have to force themselves to change their ways of thinking and perceptions of people in order to adjust to a new way of life.

Eight years later, I now realize that the ability to adapt to changing circumstances is a skill that is extremely important in the workplace. In any given profession, things rarely proceed as planned. One cannot be too attached to a certain way of thinking or working and we need to be able to adjust to situations as they change around us. Sometimes, the solution is to “jump into the deep end” and throw yourself at the problem in order to figure out the best course of action. Even then, you need to have the willingness and ability to change on the fly in order to find solutions to any problems that may arise.

“If you’re going to hunt elephants, don’t get off the trail for a rabbit” – T. Boone Pickens

Growing up in Pakistan, it was a waste of time to obsess solely over little details as plans could often be completely ruined by something out of our control. I remember once a party had to be revamped and held by candlelight because a careless driver had run into an electrical transformer and cut off power to my house for 2 weeks. From a very young age, I learned to accept the fact that I could not control every small detail of my life and must look at the greater scheme of things in order to progress. Thus I grew up with a philosophy that everything eventually works out and that if today was a bad day, I should do my best to make tomorrow a better one.

Once again, this is an invaluable lesson that I apply to the workplace. While attention to detail is extremely important, one should always be able to step back and look at the big picture. Often, we move from one task to another and do not look beyond today. We can get too concerned with a small problem and not realize that it may be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. If we take a minute to step away for the minutiae of our everyday work lives, we may find solutions that are more fitting, more creative and more efficient. While we should certainly pay attention to the detail in our work lives, we cannot forget that there is always an overarching goal that needs to be focused on. Forgetting the overarching goal is a greater mistake than messing up one small detail.

“Creativity is the sudden cessation of stupidity” – Edwin Land

This picture was found on the aptly named Tumblr "Weird things that happen only in Pakistan"

This picture was found on the aptly named Tumblr; "Weird things that happen only in Pakistan."

Now I may be biased but, I am convinced that Pakistanis are some of the most innovative people on the planet. I recently came across this picture of an ingenious solution to keeping a Coke cold. It highlights just how creative people can be at finding solutions to given problems. People who have to achieve results with very limited resources at their disposal and who do not have the tools that we consider commonplace, often have to be creative in order to get things done.

I apply the same sort of thinking to the need for innovation in the workplace; in a time of increasing financial insecurity, the ability to find solutions with limited resources is essential in every profession. In my experience and the research backs me up on this, people who have lived in other countries often have innovative and creative solutions to problems in the workplace and are able to come up with exciting new ideas. The “training” that people receive growing up, moving to or living in other countries highly useful when it comes to applying lateral thinking skills to the workplace.

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