• Ron Snell

Thriving in Paradise

The rougher the water the better the ride?

As I visited with clients recently, one of their questions surprised me: “Why do some people thrive here, and others don’t?” They said they had chatted with several foreigners who didn’t seem to be thriving, and they wondered why. I gave them a quick answer, but I’ve been thinking about the question ever since.

I got a bit of new perspective from reading David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell. As usual, he encourages me look at things through different lenses.

Although we all admire David because he is the hero of the story, the truth is that when we go into new circumstances in our own lives we think we would rather be Goliath, with the power to call the shots and set the rules and arrange the playing field to our own advantage. Power. Strength. Resources. The latest and greatest gear and equipment. Create our world our way.

Gladwell’s book looks at it differently. He uses a variety of examples to demonstrate that often when people face depressing odds created by the presence of a giant, they are pushed to be resourceful, to turn their weaknesses into strengths. Some of the greatest stars started off “without a hope” of success.

Case in point: Christine is married to the man who asked me the question about thriving. She is the only person who has won the U.S. national aerialist championship seven years in row. I took the featured picture for this article of her while exploring waterfalls and swimming holes with them in Costa Ballena. She travels the world with an offshoot of the Cirque du Soleil. But when she started training in her sport, she was consistently at the bottom of her class and her coach advised her to quit.

A disproportionate number of highly successful people are dyslexics. A disproportionate number of British prime ministers and U.S. presidents have lost a parent in their youth. Sometimes, having all of the advantages is not an advantage. Sometimes, people who have the odds stacked against them become resourceful and thrive. Any sports movie that makes you cry is about these people.

I’m thinking there is something about all this that relates somewhat to moving to another country with its new language, culture, bureaucracy, and spiders.

Moving to Costa Ballena, our beautiful slice of Costa Rica, is not something we start off thinking of as a battle against an overwhelming force. We are more likely to think of it as a move into paradise, where the people and the climate are friendly and the fruits and vegetables are fresh. We begin our lives here enchanted by the wonder of it all.

Once we begin to settle in, however, there are certainly aspects of the move that make us feel overwhelmed and vulnerable. For some, it’s the spider webs all over the house. For others, Spanish. Or the cost of gasoline, or dense government regulations, or poor internet service, or lack of road maintenance, or a theft, or the fact that chocolate chips are so expensive, or people who say they will call back but never call back. Things that remind us again and again that no one put us in charge, that we didn’t make the rules, and that if try to fight them, we lose.

In this case, the giant isn’t any one person, nor any one thing. It’s a complicated combination of things that add up. Things that are not what we’re used to, that require different strategies. Not so much culture shock as chronic culture stress, where little things become big things.

Learning Spanish is an example we can all relate to. Taking on that giant is tough indeed. Many people go head to head with the giant and get crushed. They admit defeat and live here for years with just a few phrases at their disposal. Meaningful communication with some of the friendliest people on earth is effectively nil.

Some people, on the other hand, take on that giant and win. They are not smarter, they are not richer, they are not “naturals,” so they have to be clever and persistent. They learn how to use unorthodox methods, and borrow other people’s tricky strategies. They turn a great weakness, being like a little child who cannot speak, into a great strength, taking advantage of the fact that almost anyone will jump at the chance to help a child in distress!

As a real estate agent, I easily fall into the trap of only wanting to tell my clients how wonderful it all is. “The weather is fantastic. It’s the happiest country on earth. There’s so much to do. The scenery is amazing. If you buy here, you won’t regret it. There are lots of people who will help you with anything you need. It’s the best life you can imagine. Buy a bit of paradise and live happily ever after.”

What I’m tempted to leave out is that there are hard things about any major move, and this move will be no different. Moves include stress. There are giants in the land. At times you will want to scream. At times you will scream. You will rage at the cosmos. You will feel helpless and vulnerable. You will be the kid with a sling facing what you perceive to be an almost unassailable foe.

However, as you learn to be clever and creative, as you change your strategies and rearrange the playing field, as you discover your strengths, you will find that the challenges turn out to be the very best parts of your experience. This is a place of extreme beauty and natural wonders and an unbeatable climate, but if that’s all it were, enjoyment would be brief and shallow. You would grow bored and soft and almost inevitably resort to fussing about the little stuff and scrapping with your neighbors. You would not thrive.

So who thrives here? The answer to that is complicated, but I believe it includes this: like anywhere else in the world, it is those who find clever ways to face the challenges and turn unlikely outcomes into great achievements. It is those who recognize that they can’t change the playing field, so instead they figure out a new way to play the game.

In the end, those who thrive have never been more alive. You’ll enjoy them as neighbors.

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