Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty: Applying Wilderness Leadership Skills to Expat Life in Belgium

If you had bet me in September that I’d be rushing to the airport 3 months before the end of my Fulbright grant in the middle of a global pandemic, I likely would have laughed and guaranteed you that you would lose money. As luck (and a wild combination of international events) would have it, you’d be rich! And while it was jarring to leave so suddenly and under such wild circumstances, as a very recent expat, one of the lessons most heavily ingrained in my brain by spring was the fact that more often than not, living abroad requires large amounts of continuous flexibility. Sometimes you ask for a ham sandwich and get a buttered croissant. Other times you apply for a residence permit, wait anxiously at the mailbox, only for it to mysteriously arrive after 6 long months and a slew of emails in Dutch. Perhaps you’re the American who attempts to buy a full cart of groceries with a Maestro Card… at the only grocery store in town that doesn’t take Maestro Card. Whatever it may be, being an expat is amazing and entirely life-changing, but not always because it’s rainbows and perfection the whole time.

When I was 17, I spent a month backpacking with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. A foundation of NOLS’s curriculum revolves around 7 central leadership skills, one of which is “tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.” This does not mean that we must be consistently suffering in order to succeed, instead it teaches that as a leader, you must learn to “live in rhythm with what you can control” and only “control what you can.” When spending a month in the backcountry, it’s laughably easy to pick out situations that were difficult and grueling – amassing 100+ mosquito bites in a day, for example, or spending night after night violently shivering yourself awake in the middle of an unexpectedly long high alpine cold season. Yes, those situations were frustrating and challenging at the time, and those 30 days were filled with so many more painful moments than these, often compounded on each other, but I still consider that month as one of the best of my life, and that’s not because we took lovely showers and slept under a down comforter every night, it’s because we learned to endure, learned to lean in to challenge, and gained the ability to handle new and uncertain situations like a leader.

I think about tolerance for adversity and uncertainty a lot because I believe it’s one of life’s biggest game-changers. Attitude is a choice, and it dictates the way we feel and experience moments in our life, big and small, challenging and easy. Generally, it’s impossible to control when the turbulence in our life will hit, but controlling what you can (your reaction and attitude) is the difference between an enjoyable ride and a miserable one.

Philosophical chats aside – what, you ask, does living abroad in Belgium have to do with uncertainty and adversity? You had a lovely bed, a very effective radiator, contact with family back home, access to efficient train systems across the country, amazing beer and chocolate never more than a few steps away… this sounds more like a wonderful European fantasy than a backcountry sufferfest! To that I say, absolutely. Living in Belgium often felt like a fairytale, and one of the greatest privileges I have ever received. To no end was I close to suffering, but were there moments that felt impossibly difficult? Yes! Applying leadership skills and dealing with challenging moments isn’t exclusive to the wilderness, it’s everywhere and all the time, merely on a different scale.

Applying a tolerance for adversity and uncertainty in the backcountry versus during my time in Belgium is apples and oranges. Moving across the world to an entirely new life with new routines, new languages, a new job, and a new culture, without the safety nets I relied on in the U.S. was jarring in the beginning and not an overnight switch. Of course, month one was full of stumbling blocks, whereas by month six I had gained traction and stability. The bumps in my road of expat challenges often featured navigating bureaucratic red tape to gain residence or necessary documents, compounded with a language barrier and a cultural love for process and paperwork. And more than once I ended up with a flat bike tire 3 miles from the university and in the middle of a farm road, with a mere 15 minutes until class started, and the only bike shop in town was all Dutch-speaking only. Sometimes though I was navigating big long speed bumps at the same time, like persistent homesickness or the compounded loss of close friends from home while stumbling through the often-awkward building of new cross-cultural friendships.

Tolerance for adversity and uncertainty isn’t just for when you hit the breaking point, it’s important when you’re feeling stuck in any capacity. Good leaders understand that they can’t control everything and realize the value in letting the uncontrollable go. The number of times I inadvertently made a fool of myself in Belgian grocery stores or laundromats or pharmacies for a cultural misunderstanding or crashing into the language barrier is somewhat embarrassing, but you can’t be right every time, and part of adapting to home in a new country is being wrong a lot, learning from it, and rolling forward. I bet you’ll like the beer you got better than the one you ordered, and maybe next time you’ll be able to laugh at the absurdity of the thunderstorm that hits halfway through your bike commute to work. Choosing to enjoy the bumpy ride is every bit as important as getting through it.

Being back in the U.S. for 3 months now has reminded me of all the things I took for granted pre-Fulbright, like how easy everything is to navigate when it’s entirely in my native language, and how comfortable it is to slip back into friendships and routines from home. Like with the unexpected pandemic evacuation, when things come up that feel difficult and uncertain, I look back on the variety of expat challenges I made it through, large and small, and think I already know how to deal with this because look at all that I’ve already done. As a result, I’m also often stuck thinking about how much I miss the little excitements and uncertainties of each day in Belgium. Yes, it was often uncomfortable to be wrong so often, but the consistent growth was immeasurable, and each success was so much sweeter. Leadership is a skill for a lifetime, whether it be in the wilderness or in the middle of rural Flanders. Fulbright has shown me my capability to adapt and thrive in so many more situations than I once thought possible and given me the continuation of leadership and cross-cultural skills to take with me on the next adventure, and lifetimes beyond.

Nola Peshkin was a 2019-2020 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Belgium. She recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Washington, and has spent her time since working as an outdoor and environmental educator in Seattle. In addition to her ETA work in the classroom at Hasselt University, Nola looks forward to taking courses in Dutch, bettering her French, and engaging with the community through volunteering on local farms and environmental protection projects, as well as participating in local outdoor recreation activities.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State