Why Living Abroad Is Broadening

Researchers ask how travel and time in other cultures affects creativity.

Posted Nov 11, 2016

In a few days, I'm off to London and Amsterdam to promote my new book, Rest. While I'm pretty familiar with London, it'll be my first time to the Netherlands, and it's got me thinking about the literature on travel and creativity.

People have traveled for creative stimulus and to expand their intellectual horizons for-- well, a very long time. Monks traveled for years to precious libraries or holy sites. The Grand Tour institutionalized travel for creativity in the 17th and 18th centuries, and some artists (like Paul Gaugain) rangerd further afield in their search for artistic inspiration. But what is it about travel that stimulates creativity? And how far afield do you have to go to benefit from it?

One answer comes from the work of Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky. Galinsky and his collaborators have conducted a couple imaginative studies that measure how cultural distance affects creativity. In one study, they tracked the promotion histories and reputations of Israeli engineers in Silicon Valley companies, and compared the track records of those who had assimilated to American culture, those who felt like aliens, and those who were bicultural. They found that bicultural engineers were promoted faster, and had better reputations among their bosses and peers. In an industry that prizes the ability to be innovative, to get inside the minds of your customers, and to spot new opportunities, biculturalism made a measurable difference in who got ahead.

In another study, Galinsky and his collaborators looked at the fashion industry, particularly the top designers at major fashion houses. Top designers circulate between fashion capitals and houses, so they travel quite a bit. They have create new lines of clothes and accessories on a regular basis: at least twice a year, and sometimes more often. Finally, their work is subject to constant scrutiny and critical review. 

Galinsky collected eleven years’ worth of ratings of major fashion house lines by the French trade magazine Journal du Textile. (The Journal asks buyers— the people who decide which lines will appear in stores— to rate the creativity of a collection on a scale of 0 to 20. Very convenient!) They then looked for relationships between a designer’s ratings and their foreign experience. The considered the breadth of experience designers had abroad, measured by how many countries they worked in. They also considered depth, defined by how much time designers lived abroad. Finally, they estimated cultural distance between a designer’s home and where they visited.

What they found was that breadth and cultural distance gave designers a creative boost early on, but in the long run, depth— how long you spent living abroad— was most important. Learning to adjust to a new place requires going through culture shock, adapting to new surroundings, making new friendships and professional connections, and developing an ability to make sense of unfamiliar norms and customs. However, even a short period working abroad was better than nothing: the worst thing a creative designer could do was play it safe and stay home. 

They also found that the impact of time abroad was curvilinear: The benefits would rise, peak, and eventually start to decline, forming an inverted U. Working in two countries in a year was simulating, but working in seven or eight was overwhelming: you just didn’t have time to assimilate, or internalize what you’d seen. Likewise, bridging cultural gaps could force you to become more open, to set aside old prejudices, and embrace new ideas; but go to TOO different a place, and you end up spending all your energy dealing with culture shock and linguistic confusion.

While I'm not likely to get very deep into Dutch culture in just a few days, it'll still be good to talk about the book in a completely different country, and to think about rest in a new place.