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  • Writer's picturePetra Zlatevska

How to UNplan your life and still pursue your passion purposefully

Have you ever wondered how people muster the time, patience and chutzpah to write that book, found a new business or start a brand new career from scratch ? Something completely “un” them? What in their past led them to doing what they currently do ?

I often have.

My dream during university was to become a diplomat or work in foreign affairs. Indeed, back then I assiduously did everything I thought I should be doing to prep me for this path. I studied foreign languages, finished a law degree, completed internships at an Australian government agency in Peru and at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. On my 26th birthday, I sat the Australian foreign service exams. A few months later, I found out I was not accepted into the graduate programme.

Fast forward to 2009 and landing in Berlin with no German language skills. No job lined up. I had in fact come to finish my LLM research thesis and stay for a year log sabbatical with my husband. I realised that that dream was just that: a dream from a time in my life where I could not have known what the future was going to hold.

In the post-GFC world of Germany aged 29, I had to quickly UNlearn a couple of things in terms of what was needed to come to grips with the many changes (and with an ever-increasing unemployment rate in Berlin) :

  1. Learn to get COMFORTABLE with being completely UNCOMFORTABLE .

I had to call on those lateral thinking skills I learnt through life and at university, tap into the hidden creative stores and muster lots of chutzpah.

After finishing my research thesis and passing the B1 German language exams, I applied for countless jobs as legal researcher, as a language translator, as a university research assistant, legal secretary the list goes on.

THANKFULLY none of them worked out.

I was literally forced to learn to listen to my intuition and be willing to try out lots of different things, things I had not necessarily “studied for” (amongst others, location scouting for a PR company, teaching business English to adults at the Freie University at 7:30am in Winter).

Through trial and error, and tweaking the career plan I had set in train for myself as a law graduate, I learnt to survive in a place like Berlin through zero-ing in on my skills and the things I genuinely really loved: public speaking, writing, communicating.

2. Learn the art of crafting a ‘career plan’ so that it is a constant work in progress, an UNplan, rather than a rigid document of unachievable bullet points.

What many haven’t said is how Berlin as a city can really take its toll, both good and bad.

Many have come and departed realising that as an Anglophone without German, you can only get so far with ordering your daily Brotchen in broken deutsch.

This city can make and break you much harder than New York and not just because of the the rude Berliners with their Schnauzer (bad attitude) but also because it is not a place built by migrants (unlike Australia or the US).

Sure there are people from overseas, Gastarbeiter (guest workers who were meant to leave) and the recent waves of refugees following civil war in the middle East. A Population increase can’t necessarily change the people’s mindset of “try and try again”. Whether because the weather is so damn depressing or because everyone else who has made it this far is also in the same reinvention game, it’s like career S&M once you’re in, you don’t want to stop.

No arrival guide or business book could have prepared me for the level of courage it takes to attend an in-person interview with the mullet-sporting Beamtin at the Prenzlauerberg Finanzamt (tax office) in order to be given a new German tax number to be able to write invoices for my new business, to haggling for a higher hourly rate for a new contract with a German law firm, to backing myself to not give a discount on your daily rate for a workshop moderation, to requesting (politely, and over a period of half a year) payment of unpaid bills.

Through persistence in the first three years, a motley mix of word-of-mouth, scouring the internet longer than I’d care to acknowledge, and cold-calling and cold-emailing I landed a new media client, my first moderation gig, university lecturing positions and a legal consultant role.

And now I have been back in Sydney around three years. We had barely returned home. Then covid and global lockdowns hit.

Self-reinvention is yet again my destiny. I have been re-inventing myself again. And I am still going. Nor have I made millions (yet).

2. Become an evangelist to non-believers of the benefits of using your first career (as a non- German) to do something completely new and different in your new country (in my case, Germany) .

Of the most character-shaping experiences was sharing my vision with other German (legal and business) professionals as to why I wasn’t going to spend another ten years sitting for the German legal admission exams to be able to work here as a German Anwältin (Solicitor).

I felt compelled to state to them that 1) there was no practical nor existential purpose to this and that 2) a law degree from an Australian university is a passport, a one-way ticket to somewhere potentially unknown. We are trained not just in law (and later as lawyers if we choose to become admitted to practice), but often with another degree whether in business, arts, science or engineering. As mine was in Arts it was the gift that kept on giving.

I was shocked at myself and how flexible I was able to be (or at least sound).

This city, and Germany by extension, a country renowned for its innovation and engineering prowess but struggling in the flexibility stakes, had forced new-comers how to learn to depend on ourselves. There is literally no one else who will fight those battles for us.

There is constant dance between strength and vulneravility. Between reinvention and reflection.

3. Embody grit and Resilience, even if you don’t associate yourself with those traits

I came to realise GRIT and RESILIENCE are such under-rated character traits when you live in another country,particularly in one where you’d never think you would spend such a sizeable part of your life and have two children in the process. One that I thought I actually didn’t possess in any large quantity. Yet it has been growing steadily, invisible but still there.

Without resilience, its counterpart flexibility cannot thrive. We would become stifled, overwhelmed. Resilience gives us and has given me, if nothing else, the courage to try, stuff up and improve.

Over and over again.



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