Upstream Thinking Basics for Work Overseas

Mar 25, 2021 | 3 comments

Wouldn’t it be incredible to have a lens that allowed us to see into the future? A lens that would help us know what we need, plan for the coming obstacles and be ready for whatever we’re about to face?

Imagine the possibilities for life, family, work and ministry if we could start working now in exactly the right way for what we’ll need tomorrow or next week or next year?

Unfortunately, that futuristic lens doesn’t exist. We don’t have the option to see, think, process, plan and equip ourselves for the numerous outcomes, possibilities and eventualities. 

Yet, we can grow in our skill sets and learn how to prepare for the future. 

We can cast vision for the days to come with the tools, knowledge and resources we have available today.

We have the opportunity to become experts at thinking ahead, looking down the road and preparing for the days to come.

Whether packing, moving, parenting, leading, planning, working, language learning or simply living overseas, the expertise of thinking ahead can be a game changer.

Why is this important?

Dan Heath, in his book Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, expresses this concept of thinking ahead with a parable. He writes, “You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water—a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight… and another… and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.” —A public health parable (adapted from the original, which is commonly attributed to Irving Zola)”  

Dan helps us apply this to our work, saying, “Downstream actions react to problems once they’ve occurred. Upstream efforts aim to prevent those problems from happening.”

Upstream efforts help us think ahead and keep us focused on the long term, preparing us in a way that increases the chances of a successful outcome. At the very least, thinking ahead will help you have a plan in place towards a long term goal.

Taking the time to process in this way isn’t easy or quick. Nevertheless, utilizing upstream thinking principles in our life and work overseas is well worth the time and energy, often preventing the downstream stress, frustration and pain.

We know it’s not always possible to think through every situation or problem or challenge we could face in our work overseas. In fact, we know how many completely unexpected things can take us by surprise every single day!

But the incredible reward that comes from preparing, thinking ahead and planning with purpose is not only possible, but entirely worthwhile.

What are some basic principles for upstream thinking in our life and work overseas?

As busy global workers, how can we incorporate the skills of thinking ahead into our family, work and ministry?

Personally, I’m a huge fan of upstream thinking. As an Enneagram 6, planning and preparing are some of my favorite things. Digging into the future, planning out the expected and preparing for the unexpected, is a skill set that we’ve incorporated into our family life and work overseas. 

I wrote a post about 10 years ago about parenting ahead. As I read back over that post, I realized that these basic principles apply to almost all upstream thinking. 

Whether you are planning a move to a new country, building a team overseas, figuring out medical issues overseas, preparing for furlough, staying connected to God in stressful times, planning for upcoming transition, or helping your family through transition, there are practical, helpful ways to think ahead.

11 Upstream Thinking Basics for Overseas Life:

1. Think ahead. Yes, simply think ahead. This can be sitting at your table with a calendar, chatting with your spouse over coffee as you plan a trip or dreaming in a team setting with a white board. This is planning for the next week, the next month, the next year. This is messy notes, scattered thoughts, big ideas, and grand visions all coming together in baby steps, slowly becoming organized plans to be prayed over, thought through and implemented. This is deep thinking and idea gathering and question asking…What can go wrong? What are possible challenges? What is the goal? How do we get there?

2. Take the time. Upstream thinking takes time. It takes good discussion and a fair amount of digging to get past one date on a calendar to the goals, hopes, plans, possibilities of that event, move, transition, work or goal. Take the time for upstream thinking, no matter what the task might be.

3. Set expectations. In overseas life, this is incredibly important. What are your expectations? What are the expectations of your team? Of leadership? Of those you work with? As you plan, upstream thinking involves taking these things into consideration. What are the things, big and small, that you are expecting to have happen, to learn, to build, to do?

4. Be intentional. You’ve done the upstream thinking; you’ve taken the time to sit with the ideas and process what they mean. You’ve set and put forth expectations. Now, what are the intentional steps needed to see the plans, thoughts, ideas and goals realized? From the first move to a new country, to figuring out how to work in that country, to growing your team, to learning a language… be intentional about seeing the plans, the upstream thinking, become reality. What intentional steps can you take right now, next week and next month? How can you keep the plans and goals at the forefront of your daily work?

5. Be clear. As overseas workers under stress, dealing with culture shock, figuring out new systems and often feeling misunderstood, these thinking ahead ideas seem great when you’re sitting at a conference learning them or while you’re at your home reading this post. It all sounds great… let’s do it. But as real life hits, being clear about where you are, what is possible, how things are going and figuring out what is possible in a day is vital. Be clear about what you can do, what needs to be done, and stay focused on the baby steps of upstream thinking. If you aren’t clear with yourself and with others, you’ll quickly be overwhelmed and find yourself lost in constant downstream efforts. 

6. Don’t wait for the problem. However perfect you think your team is, or how wonderful your marriage is right now, or how happy your kids seem, there will be problems. Overseas life guarantees that you will face problems. Problems will come. Inside your team and family and outside where you work and minister. Don’t wait for these problems to come to the surface. How can you pour into your team today? What can you foster in your marriage on a daily basis that will help keep you both strong in the challenges to come? What can you do to build a good relationship with your kids, making sure that they are being cared for? Don’t wait for problems. Do the upstream work today.

7. Be responsible. In upstream thinking, there comes a point where you’re responsible for making it happen. For stepping out of the thinking process and moving into the doing process. It will take a measure of perseverance, dedication and responsibility. It takes following through with plans, following up with team members, and following up with yourself. 

8. Don’t over-correct. When you get lost in the planning and the preparing, you forget that real life is still happening around you. The unexpected will still come your way. In these situations, especially in relationships, don’t over-correct. Don’t come on too strong, bring up past wrongs, or forget that everyone is walking their own journey overseas. Have grace for your team, your spouse, your kids, yourself. New mercy each day for the problems, challenges and misunderstandings that will seem to mess up all the plans and preparation. 

9. Keep calm. In the midst of the challenges, stay calm. Learning upstream thinking principles takes time. Applying upstream thinking in your family circumstances, team dynamics and organizational structures is a huge job. You can plan, think ahead and prepare and still things will happen. Calmly take a look at where you are. Go over the plans and remember where you’re going, remember the goals and expectations. Then, go from there. One baby step at a time.

10. Know yourself and your team. Are you a starter and not a finisher? Are you a planner but not a doer? Is your team good at talking about things but never getting around to implementing the plans? If you find there are hang-ups in the upstream thinking process, what are ways that you can grow personally, spiritually and relationally? Would a life coach be helpful? Is there someone you could bring into a team meeting, in person or through workshops, to facilitate the next steps? These are great questions to ask when upstream thinking is a struggle or you find yourself stuck in downstream efforts. 

11. Keep building the foundation of upstream thinking. This is a process. Building a foundation or rebuilding what’s been the foundation in the past, takes time, energy, effort, perseverance and a lot of patience. Use the upstream thinking basics to process what you’d like that foundation to look like in your family, your work, your team and your spiritual life. How can upstream thinking strengthen the foundation of these areas in your life?

While we may not have a futuristic lens to prepare for what’s to come, we can use these basic upstream thinking principles to be good stewards of our days and plans.

We can take the time and put in the energy in the early seasons to facilitate our expectations, goals and plans. 

What are you currently working on that could use this upstream thinking? How can you apply these basic principles in your life, work and family?

Thank you to all who have taken the survey! If you haven’t taken it, there’s still time. You can take it here.

Photo by Thiago Palia on Unsplash

Jenilee Goodwin

Wife, boarding school mom, runner, writer, lover of books and a huge coffee fan




  1. Phyllis

    Hmm. Life overseas really tends to work against super American ideas like these. 🙂

    • Jenilee

      Life and work overseas can definitely feel that way sometimes! 🙂 The goal is to help workers and teams anywhere in the world find creative, new ways to prepare and plan in their context or culture, whatever that might look like!

    • Amy Young

      Phyllis, I don’t see this as a super American idea :). Repeatedly the Bible talks about reaping and sowing. The book of Proverbs goes into great depth about the difference between the wise and the foolish (I think Solomon would agree with much of this article :)). As you said, life overseas tends to have lots of “down stream” reality you/we have to react to . . . what we are trying to do at Global Trellis is move what we can upstream so there is more margin for the downstream stuff we can’t contol :).


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