Expat Creativity

In trying to think creatively about what to write this week I was reminded of research on the positive correlation between living overseas and creativity (Maddux & Galinsky), whether in the arts, science, business or just everyday living. (If you’re interested but don’t want to read the whole article, here are the abstract and a summary).

While I found the argument in this paper fascinating – living overseas helps foster creativity – I’ll admit to finding their evidence sort of uninteresting…using psychological tests to show creativity. But, there are many people who won’t consider an idea without this kind of positivist exploration, so if it popularises overseas living, great! For me, the overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence of the creative power inherent in living overseas is significant enough:

Both founders of eBay, Canadian Jeffrey Skoll and French-born Iranian Pierre Morad Omidyar, and Google co-founder Russian Sergey Brin founded their businesses in the US. French painter Paul Gauguin did his best work while living in Tahiti. New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford did the research that won him the Nobel Prize (Chemistry) while in Canada. German composer George Handel worked primarily in England. Australian Nobel prize winner (Physiology or Medicine) Elizabeth Blackburn was working in the USA…indeed, 92 of the nearly 350 Nobel Prize winners ‘from’ the United States were born elsewhere. Billionaire Hungarian financier George Soros made his fortune in the US. Americans Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Julia Child created their best works in France. Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s best films were made in the USA. Spanish painter Pablo Picasso worked in France. Australian songwriter Peter Allen composed in the US. Mother Theresa, Igor Stravinsky, Dan Aykroyd, William Butler Yeats, John Candy, George Bernard Shaw, Kristin Scott Thomas…the list of people who created interesting things or ideas while outside their country of birth could go on and on. If you’re following this blog, you may very well be one of them.

My own life experiences seem to support their claims as well. After struggling through my first year of graduate school to identify a research site and plan (my original site, Liberia, erupted in civil war weeks after I began the program), I took a year off and lived in the UK, working on a small ethnographic project on tourism and gender. A few months into my time in the UK, I had an epiphany: Hungary is the perfect place for dissertation research. A few years later, having completed 17 months of fieldwork in Hungary, I did most of the creative thinking for actually writing my dissertation while still living in Hungary. Could I have done it at home in the US? Eventually. Would I have written the entire dissertation in just a year? Not a chance!

More recently, upon moving to Melbourne, Australia, I co-founded a business, Culture Works. I was an academic prior to this and couldn’t imagine what else I could do with my PhD in sociocultural anthropology. I used to joke that I could either teach at a university or flip burgers – “speak into the clown’s mouth, please…” That was the extent of my creativity. Then, somehow, living in Australia, the cognitive shackles that held me to academia were released. It somehow became possible to co-found a consulting company to teach the principles of anthropology and intercultural communication outside of a university classroom. It became not only possible but almost natural to write a business plan, develop a website, start networking with business groups and cold calling potential clients. Within a couple months we had our first few clients and eight years later we are still going strong, creating new ways of applying what we know about culture to enhancing Australian workplaces.

But, I can’t take one bit of the credit for the idea of Culture Works. That has to go to my Australian-born business partner, who created the business ownership dream during her 13th year of living overseas. Back then, I could only sit and listen to her stories of entrepreneurship, probably because I was ‘at home.’ My brain wasn’t being challenged at every turn by what Maddux & Galinsky hypothesise is the key link between overseas living and creativity: adaptation.

Adaptation, they say, helps free us from ‘functional fixedness’ (p. 1054), the inability to reframe an object or idea in a new way. Adaptation opens our minds to the possibility that our own logic frameworks aren’t logical; our own behaviours aren’t appropriate or effective; our own reality isn’t real. Adaptation requires an openness to ‘try it and see,’ which is about as good a definition of creativity as I can think of. You could even say the act of adapting to a new culture – at a deep, cognitive level, not just the obvious food, festivals and fashion level – is in itself a creative act, which sets the stage for further creativity in your chosen field.

What did you do while living overseas that would have been cognitively impossible in your home country? Share your account in the comments section below!

p.s. If you liked Maddux and Galinsky’s original paper, check out a follow up article (article 2) or an interview with one of the authors.

Lick Quick & Close the Window

This post is thanks to my friend and former student Magda, who seems to have an extremely sharp memory for the details of lectures I gave when teaching at the University of the Pacific!

The lecture Magda remembers concerns explanatory models for making sense of health and illness. For example, growing up in East Aurora, New York – a cold and snowy place in winter – we all knew that going outside in freezing temperatures with wet hair would lead to getting sick. And, having had frequent colds during winter, this theory was confirmed over and over. Similarly, I remember an anthropology professor talking about living in Tanzania and trying to eat oranges whenever she felt a cold coming on … then being roundly chastised by her host family for causing herself such harm: ‘Everybody knows you don’t eat such ‘cold’ foods when you have a cold! No wonder you’re often sick.’

The specific story Magda remembers concerns an explanatory model that Hungarians use to understand the cause of respiratory ailments: eating and drinking cold things. I was introduced to this belief early in my fieldwork. Whenever I took a big slug of Diet Coke right from the fridge my landlady (who generally followed me into the kitchen to watch my activities) shuddered and warned me to be careful or I’d get sick. At first I assumed she was concerned about the chemicals in Diet Coke, so I ignored her and kept drinking. But that wasn’t it. Every time she coughed, even a little clearing of the throat, she’d sort of mumble: ‘I must’ve drunk something cold.’ Once my language skills were strong enough to fully grasp her mumbling, I realised she was warning me against the coldness of the Diet Coke, not the chemicals. And since I was often unwell while living with her, she had frequent reinforcement for her belief. I thought this may be an old world, peasant belief of my landlady’s, but come summer time in Szeged (where I lived in Hungary, see Introduction), I realised it was much more widespread.

One of the joys of living in Szeged was the ability to walk the beautiful, tree-filled city centre on summer evenings, enjoying the fantastic ice cream. Every evening in nice weather the city filled with pedestrians; young couples, whole families, elderly people, everybody was out and about, many of them with an ice cream cone in hand. It astounded me how long Hungarians could prolong the experience, without ice cream melting down their arm. It got HOT in Szeged, 45 C [113 F], and yet hundreds of meters from any ice cream parlour there they were, strolling down the street, slowly licking a well-filled cone. Meanwhile, I’m working my tongue frantically just to keep ahead of the drips, finishing my two scoops long before I even exit the city square where I bought it! In order to keep themselves healthy, a whole nation of people has developed the skill of slowly licking an ice cream cone, while hapless foreigners either choke it down in an instant, or suffer the loss of face of having ice cream running down their arm…and the inevitable summer cold, too!

But you don’t have to leave the English-speaking world to experience a plethora of differing explanatory models, as I learned moving to Australia from the US.

Where I grew up, houses are hermetically sealed from October through sometime in April or May, or whenever people get around to taking down the storm windows. Keeping out the cold is not only economically and environmentally sensible but healthier as well. Having been here for nearly 10 years, I can only imagine the horror of most Australians when confronted with these sealed storm windows! Australians fear the closed window like Hungarians fear cold drinks: as a source of illness. Constantly closed windows mean ‘stale air,’ which is dangerously unhealthy.

I currently live in Melbourne and it never drops below freezing, but in winter it is cold enough to require heating our apartment during the day. I used to ask all the time (in a less than even tone, I admit), ‘Does it really make sense to open the window every night just to turn the heat on again every morning?’ I’m thinking: wasteful, costly, unhealthy – it’s cold at night! But, as I have learned, these are nothing compared to the ‘real’ risk to your health of breathing stale, foetid…unhealthy air.

Nearly 17 years together and my Australian-born partner and I still haven’t internalised the others’ explanatory model. Instead, we compromise, windows open more than I want, closed more than she wants: both knowing that our own logic is the healthier and more sensible of the two. Sometimes I think that our differing concerns about the apartment’s atmosphere causes one or the other of us to feel unwell at times when there is no physical cause, such is the power of our explanatory models…no different, really, from sorcery or witchcraft – belief being the potent facilitator. A blog entry for the future?

Have you come across an explanatory model that differs from your own? What is it? I’d love to hear about your experience!