How to Adapt: Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

2020, Nov 21  — 7 minute read

My family immigrated to the United States ten years and a few days ago. At that time I was twenty and didn’t really want to be here. And with that came the inability to adapt which lasted about five years. Partially, it was due to me having a girlfriend, a dad, and all of my friends left behind. But realistically, there were other reasons about which I will talk about here.

Mistake 1: Not Learning to Talk Their Way

I always thought that my knowledge of the English language was pretty good even before I came to Kentucky. Apparently, there are quite a few ways to talk that will jumble all of your words and only someone with the same ability to speak would be able to decipher the message spoken. It took me about three months to start understanding people here. What I wasn’t willing to do was start talking their way, hence anyone could easily identify myself as a foreigner because of my accent, and anyone new I’d meet would be asking questions like “What brought you here”, to which I would always reply with “airplane”.

Lesson 1: Learn the Slang

It’s always easier to connect with people if you “speak their language”. That also applies to technology or any other profession. There is a lot of terminology and slang that different fields use, so the best way to become one of their own is to learn what all of those words mean and try using them in conversations with people from that field. One example in the technology field would be learning design patterns and being able to describe a potential solution design in a couple of words instead of several sentences.

Mistake 2: Comparing to the Past

Going to a grocery store was also fun. Since I still remembered the prices on different products from my hometown, I would always try to convert the US prices into roubles and compare it with what I was used to. This led to me either not buying something I really wanted because in my mind it was much more expensive, or I would default to the cheaper options, paying attention only to the price and not the quality of the product.

Lesson 2: Stop Living in the Past and Accept the Present

I almost found myself doing it again at my new job. Yes, the knowledge I acquired previously definitely helps me do my work, but always comparing to how you’re used to doing things is not healthy and can lead to frustrations. Instead, it’s better to learn why your new team is doing things their way and make sure you understand that some decisions may have been made under pressure and it was the best approach at the time. Don’t just blindly complain that something is done not in the most elegant way. I have to keep reminding myself that every time.

Mistake 3: Adapting Bad Habits

My favorite food places became Burger King, Dominos, and Mad Mushroom. Weird choices but not completely illogical. I didn’t drive the first year and these were the closest option to home - right across the street. They were also affordable, in each of those places I could eat for $11 or less. And yes, I had learned how to eat the whole pizza by myself which resulted in me gaining about ten kilograms. Back home, going out was a rare treat. Here in the US, it was just a weekday.

Lesson 3: Don’t Adapt Bad Habits

It’s a lot easier to create a new habit rather than get rid of an old one. Hence, it’s often better to not start doing something, especially when it’s bad for you, or in the case of software development, the codebase. Always do your best.

Lesson 4: It May Not Be Worth Learning If It Makes No Sense

Yes, even ten years later I still use the metric system. This is one thing I am not willing to do to adapt - switch to the measuring system that makes no sense. At least completely. It’s not that hard for me to figure out that a kilogram is approximately two pounds. I do know it’s 2.2 but that’s too much math in my head even for me. And I do know that a mile is approximately 1.6 kilometers. Also, there’s almost no difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit once it gets to about negative thirty. But using ounces for liquids, and feet, yards, or acres for distance or territory is always going to remain a mystery for me without Google. If someone really needs me to speak in these terms, I can use Google. Otherwise, I just don’t want to bother using a part of my memory for this knowledge with the risk that some of my childhood memories will be erased.

Mistake 4: Hoping Won’t Make You Successful, Hard Work Will

When you’re twenty, you still think anything is possible in your life. The problem is, you don’t know yet or just refuse to believe that playing games and waiting for things to happen isn’t going to make you successful. Or you do but want to think of yourself as the lucky one, the CHOSEN. I could never keep a job for more than a few months because I thought that if I keep playing enough poker, eventually I am going to win a big tournament and be set for life. The problem was, it was not 2003 anymore and the playing field got tougher. People were spending more time learning the game than playing it and those people did get the results they wanted. I just thought I was lucky or talented and I don’t have to waste time doing that. Big mistake.

Lesson 5: Work Hard

Eventually, I got tired of just wasting money on poker games and working random jobs. I figured there must be a better way to make it work that won’t swing my emotions based on whether I won or lost. That’s how I got into IT, where I could just always be negative and complain. Kinda kidding, but the lesson is - it did take me some time and motivation to learn things and get a job.

Mistake 6: Not Making More Friends

Another big mistake was avoiding gaining American friends for quite some time. In the beginning, I became friends with Nepalese people and a guy from Indonesia. Very nice people, and if they consider you a friend, they will always help you. And they were very hard-working and they wouldn’t refuse to do any job if that meant providing for the family.

Later I learned how to become acquainted with Americans and found some great people through church and poker, with which we’re friends to this day. And they did introduce me to better food options too. For about a year I refused to eat chips at a Mexican restaurant before my meal and I wish I had never tried Choriqueso.

Lesson 7: Grow Your Network Early

The bigger your network is, the more opportunities you will have. You may not get help through them directly but it’s always possible that a friend of their friend is looking for someone to do work. Just be open to connecting with people and identifying at least one thing you can do well. Without it, they won’t know how to help you.

I only started adapting after my dad passed away in 2014 and I spent about six months back in Russia. The death of a relative or a friend makes you re-evaluate your life, so I got two jobs to try to get back on my feet and was figuring out what to do next with my life. Eventually, I became a software developer.

About a month ago, after being with the same company for over four years (I guess I finally learned how to keep a job), I accepted an offer from another tech company and had to use my existing knowledge of how to adapt during my first three weeks so far. Here are some bonus lessons based on that experience.

  1. It is a lot easier to adapt when the rules are enforced on you. For example, if you’re from a country where they drive on the left side of the road, it wouldn’t last long if you came into the US and started driving on the left side here. You’d either get into an accident or a jail. Or one after another. At my new company, one of the expectations is having a 70% unit test coverage. Depending on the repo, your build will keep failing until you address it.
  2. Don’t try to come to a new place and start introducing or changing the existing rules. You will spend time, energy, and accomplish absolutely nothing. People are creatures of habit. If someone has been using NSubstitute for unit tests, don’t try to write your tests with Moq. They will tell you “we use NSubstitute” here. It’s just not worth arguing since you’re new and can’t change what people have been doing for months or years. Just remember that Moq is better.
  3. If you say something, make sure there is no possibility of any ambiguous interpretation, especially if you have a few people whose first language isn’t English. Otherwise, you may not get the right answer and someone could even think you’re dumb. But hopefully not.
  4. If you are just starting at a new company, ask to work on a ticket requiring code changes early. This will tremendously help you learn the new system. A theory is all good and fun but it’s by trying to run the code and understanding how the different components are connected together that you learn about the system. This will also help you have more questions at the beginning when people are still more accepting of them.
  5. Keep learning and don’t take people’s opinions on how to do things personally. This will mostly come up with code reviews. Instead, try to learn from them and ask the “why’s”. Usually, those people mean good and they care about the quality of the codebase. And hopefully, after a few months, your opinions will matter too.

Adapting is hard, whether you are migrating to a new country or just changing jobs. People are different everywhere and a lot of their opinions are formed based on the places they have lived, their education, parenting that they had, and their ability to learn. The easiest thing for you to do when trying to adapt is making sure to follow the rules, asking questions, and trying to understand that if people have been doing something for months, years or decades, it’s unlikely that you can change the way it’s done. Even if you come up with an undefeatable argument.

Which mistakes have you made when trying to adapt before?

Subscribe to be notified of future posts!