Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to explore contemporary metaphors used in career literature pertaining to career development in an international context. Design/methodology/approach: Qualitative interviews with thirty-seven skilled self-initiated expatriates in one geographical location were conducted and used for data analysis. Findings: The metaphor of a "river" more aptly captures the career development directions and influences experienced by skilled self-initiated expatriates. Originality/value: The paper provides an analysis of career development influences which impact on the career direction of self-initiated expatriates. It provides useful information and recommendations for career (international career) academics and practitioners with regards to career development influences to be considered with regards to skilled self-initiated expatriates. Â© Emerald Group Publishing Limited.