Why Living Abroad Makes You More Creative

In 2009, the first study was released which displayed empirical evidence that that living abroad has a clear correlation with creative ability. Today I want to discuss the question why this is the case. To do so, we will have a look at the work of two eminent figures in the field of creativity and insights: Edward DeBono and Gary Klein.

According to Gary Klein in his Book “Seeing What Others Don’t“, there are four types of insights:

  1. Connections: we receive new information, and combine this information with information we already had before
  2. Coincidences and curiosities: an unusual pattern repeats itself and sparks our curiosity because we can’t make sense of it, so we set out to explore the issue
  3. Contradictions: we come across an idea or information which absolutely makes no sense to us, leading to the feeling that “something isn’t right here”
  4. Creative desperation: we are trapped by assumptions which lead to a situation in which we can’t progress, but pressure forces us to escape the trap

When I looked at contradictions and creative desperation, both processes reminded me extremely of what happens when you move abroad, especially if it is for the first time. You have your assumptions, your way of viewing the world. Under normal circumstances, these assumptions are never questioned. That’s because they are cultural. When you live in your own culture, everybody around you has the same basic assumptions about how people should interact with each other in a society. In most western countries, for instance, it is a basic assumption that honesty is always the best option. Nobody would question that.

When I lived in a host family in Indonesia, I wanted to go on a holiday with my girlfriend. Of course I knew that in Indonesia it is uncommon to travel with your partner if you are not married, because staying in the same room together goes against cultural values. Nonetheless, I wanted to go and so I asked my host parents, who had two kids. They answered something along the lines of “that should be ok”. I didn’t understand by that time that this answer actually meant no. On the day before I was about to go, suddenly their answer changed completely. They asked me to get a letter from work which showed that it was a business trip, which they could show to their kids. For me, at that time, this was simply a lie and I was really disappointed in them. I didn’t realize at that time, that in many Asian countries telling the truth has plays a subordinate role compared to maintaining harmony. Sure, under normal circumstances telling the truth is valued, too. But the most important thing is to keep harmony between everybody. So from their cultural perspective, this was a normal thing to do.

As you can see, this situation fulfills both criteria. Firstly, I was trapped in the assumption that ‘honesty is always the most important thing’. Secondly, the idea of getting a letter from work at that time made absolutely no sense to me at all. Sure, I understood that my host parents didn’t want to have any negative influence on their kids, but why would you lie about it?


Let’s now look at Edward De Bono’s work

De Bono’s work is interesting, because his focus is about the question how we can achieve creativity deliberately. He has developed a technique he calls “provocations”. According to him, these are thoughts experiments which force us to “think outside the boundaries of reasonableness that had been established by our experience“. Can you see how this directly relates to contradictions, as well as creative desperation? It is a technique that lets us break free from our assumptions, and imagine what is possible. In fact, both De Bono and Gary Klein use the same exampleto describe their concepts: the way Einstein came up with his theory of relativity. Imagining what he would see if he was able to travel at the speed of light, was nothing other than a provocation as De Bono calls it.

He says that when we use the provocation as a technique, we deliberately ‘go mad’. We use ideas that do not make sense in our normal way of thinking. As an example, in 1971 oil was still drilled verticially. At a workshop with Shell, he used the though experiment “provocation, oil gets drilled horizontally”. At that time this seemed unthinkable, yet today it is the standard way how oil is being drilled, because it is a more efficient way of extracting oil.

Looking at both Gary Klein, as well as De Bono’s work, challenging one’s assumptions and extending one’s thinking beyond the natural thinking habits are two of the most important factors of creativity.  I propose the term “constant provocation“, which describes the fact that living in a new and different environment constanly forces you to do both: to challenge your own assumptions,and to go beyond your  natural thinking habits.

Since I first moved abroad, I always had the urge to move to new countries for three or four years and then to move on. Until today, this urge hasn’t gone away. When people asked me why I wanted to do this, I could never give them a clear answer. My feeling always told me that I wanted to be able to take on as many perspectives as possible. Why this was important, I wasn’t so sure. De Bono’s and Klein’s work made me realize what it really was that I wanted to gain from all this: a constant challenge. Something that always forces me to rethink my own beliefs and assumptions. Something that forces me to never stop learning and growing.





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