(Photo by elzoh)
“I didn’t just hail from a different place. I had a different kind of life,” writes Gianpiero Petriglieri of the mobile lifestyle that comes with his work training global business leaders.
I am not a global leader, or even very gainfully employed just now. And I don’t usually read the Harvard Business Review. But my sister does. And she’s been calling me and our younger brother on our bullshit for a long time now, so of course she sent it to both of us.
My sister has lived in Washington D.C. since she graduated from college a decade ago. She travels, and she hardly darkens the door of her walk-up one-bedroom on Capital Hill with her work schedule, but she doesn’t fumble when someone asks her where she’s from.
In contrast, over the past four years, my brother has lived in Bologna, Amsterdam, D.C., and Lusaka. Even though I’m the oldest and the most “settled” with two kids and a dog and a husband too, and a much less far-flung life map than I have navigated by in the past, in the same four years I have lived in three U.S. states and two countries. To give an idea how free-range my youngest sibling and I are, my brother flew back to the States from Amsterdam to help me move my family to Mexico.
We live that “different kind of life” to which Petriglieri refers:
They are as eager to broaden their personal horizons as they are to expand their professional prospects. They do not expect or desire to spend their career in the same organization or country. They enjoy mobility and view it as necessary to gather the experience, ability, connections and credibility that will turn them from nomadic professionals into global leaders.
I think of them as a peculiar tribe. A tribe for people unfit for tribalism.
Their unwillingness or inability to settle — to embrace and be defined by one place only — draws them to each other. It makes them restless and curious. It helps them develop the sensitivity to multiple perspectives and the ability to work across cultures that are indeedhallmarks of global leadership. It also comes with a price.
That price is struggling with the question of home and its troublesome acolytes: identity and belonging.
Two years ago, when he came with me to Mexico, my brother bought me four chairs, to help my cavernous apartment a bit more homey. We both recognized the gesture's grandeur. Crossing paths last weekend in my sister’s D.C. apartment, my brother fuzzy with jetlag and my own mind frantic with work, brother and I discussed whether or not he should let his U.S. apartment go, the benefits of buying a flat in Amsterdam, the nature of love affairs when the continent of Australia is involved. We talk about this a lot: how to make another place a home, how to care for our selves, and our hearts, in motion.
We aren’t so young any more, and we well know by now the risks of a nomadic lifestyle. We have lost friends and lovers, missed family weddings and funerals and Thanksgiving dinners because we were just too far away. We are keenly aware of the strain our widening gyre puts on our centers.
But our work requires this, even if we aren’t “global elite,” or business leaders or any of the categories that read the Harvard Business Review. And, at least to us, our work is important. I’m a writer; my brother works for an international NGO. I try to make sense of the world while he tries to save it.
Yet Petriglieri suggests that the risks are even greater than our own internal cohesiveness, our psychic wholeness, that in fact uprootedness inhibits us at doing the very work we’ve uprooted ourselves to do.
Framing the struggle for home as a private reckoning with loss is simplistic and dangerous. It makes global elites more isolated and disconnected, less intelligible and trustworthy. It puts them in no position to lead.
No one wants to follow a stranger. Without some sense of home, nomadic professionals don't become global leaders. They only turn into professional nomads. Leaders need homes to keep their vision, passion and courage alive — and to remain connected both to the people they are meant to serve, and to themselves.
Like Petriglieri, I met my husband in another country. My two children were born on opposite sides of a border. Even with strollers and carseats and infants-in-arms, we are faster at clearing airport security than the average annual vacationers.
“What are you running away from?” my sister asked me, a decade ago, across the delays of an international connection. My sister visits everywhere, but she always returns to where she started. She is invested in her community, she sees her city in every season, she notices, intimately, the way it changes, the way it cycles and flows.
I didn’t know what she was talking about. The writing life and expatria have always seemed to me interdependent. That to write one must be a step apart, on the outside, seeing the world through a keyhole or viewfinder. How else can one really see anything without being overwhelmed by the enormity of absolutely everything?
But what happens if I go too far, too long? What happens if I break beyond the magnetic pull of my own geography, if I overstretch the stays of my relationships and transition, as Petriglieri describes, from foreigner to perpetual stranger? Will my writing cease to matter? Will anyone who doesn’t live as I do relate to what I write, or will my experience, even my language cross into the incomprehensible and become thereby irrelevant? Will I find myself speaking only to myself?
In that vein, can my brother “save the world” if he is no longer of the world? If the earth no longer holds him? If he lives beyond the reach “of intimacy, of commitments, of trust”?
No, if we are going to really matter, we need eventually to have a home. A place that is an extension of ourselves, a place we make that remakes us, a place to stand, a place to be.
Fortunately, my sister and brother and I exert upon one another a powerful gravitational pull. We’ve been lost together, but we don’t allow one another be lost unto each other. This pull is probably why my brother and I can sustain the way we live, why it doesn’t leave us hollowed out, even as our friendships fray, as our collection of packing supplies grows while our gardens die.
My brother and I aren’t about to stay put for good, to stake our plot and stick there—not at least while we are sentient and draw breath, and even if we did it wouldn’t change the fact that we are also always elsewhere. We depend too much on the triangulated view, on the long vistas in every direction, and the chance, as Elizabeth Bishop put it, “to see the sun the other way around.” It isn’t one way or the other, but a question of self-integration: We need a place to make the journeys matter, to make the work we do in the world matter.
The ultimate goal, if one keeps subbing her sad little job title for “global leaders,” is to have it both ways:
Hard as it may be to reconcile local and global homes, it is a privilegeto have a chance to inhabit both. A privilege that we must extend to others. That is, ultimately, the work of global leaders — connecting those homes within and around them.
To be wholly of this world, it seems that in it we must have a home, or at least be at home.
Read Gianpiero Petriglieri's essay "Moving Around Without Losing Your Roots" in the Harvard Business Review here.