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.

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