You might be taking a break from work to read this article. Perhaps you’re in the middle of a piece of work that requires a leap of the imagination. In the great spirit of discovery, you are now browsing the internet for inspiration. The good news is that we might just be able to help. The bad news is that the solution isn’t a five minute wonder and you’ll need to grab your toothbrush and pack a bag. Here is our solution in a nutshell. If you want to be more creative, work far from your hometown. Working abroad, it turns out, really fires up the creative juices.

We did say it might not be as easy as you’d like.

Working Abroad Opens Your Imagination         

Children are incredibly creative. Give them a box of toys and you’ll find that they do as much with the box as they do with the toys. They don’t have many boundaries, rules or preconceptions, so almost anything goes. Tell them the box is an airplane and they will accept that idea and build a world around it. Children don’t have a handbrake on their imagination.

Adults generally have a handbrake, a tether, a brick wall around it and a no entry sign at the entrance of their imagination. Alongside this reality is the expectation by employers that their employees will be a source of great creativity.

The final irony is that at no point in our education process are we taught how to be creative. If someone just gave us permission to go and play like a child, that would at least be a start.

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So how do we fix this staggering inability most adults have to be creative?  How do we allow ourselves to access our imagination more freely and use it to build new ideas?

Pack a Suitcase…Have an Idea

Psychologist Adam Grant works at the University of Pennsylvania and sees travel and the creative process as being symbiotic.

In his book “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World”, he suggests that working abroad has startling effects for creativity. “Cultures come with new norms and values and ways of looking at things, any time you have a problem, you have an extra set of resources at your disposal”

“Cultures come with new norms and values and ways of looking at things, any time you have a problem, you have an extra set of resources at your disposal”

The creative boost comes from immersing yourself in a culture which gives you “proxies for biculturalism.” 

A 2009 study found that people who lived abroad excelled at creative problem-solving and a 2008 meta-analysis found that multicultural experiences predict original thinking by bringing in ideas from foreign cultures. 

Mapping Creativity

Mark Twain found a way of killing “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” when in 1869, he was sailing around the Mediterranean coast and realised that travel was his weapon of choice.

The great American writer Ernest Hemmingway was a committed globetrotter and was inspired in many of his writings by spending time in Spain and France.

The book “Brave New World” benefitted from author Aldous Huxley’s transatlantic trip from the UK to the US when he was in his mid-40s.

In the fashion world Karl Lagerfeld is both an icon and extremely successful. Look at his ethos for a clue as to why; “(I’d like to be a) one-man multinational fashion phenomenon” he once stated. This was possibly helped by being born in Germany to a Swedish father and commuting between Italy and France for work.

People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality, are better problem solvers and display more creativity. What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products

The idea that working abroad may have the potential to affect mental change is now the focus of psychologists’ studies. Even neuroscientists have got in on the act to examine what many people have already learned anecdotally: in general, creativity is related to neuroplasticity, or how the brain is wired.

Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit. This means they’re also very sensitive to change: new sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain, and may have the potential to revitalise the mind.

Research in one study from Harvard Business Review explains: “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality, are better problem solvers and display more creativity. What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products.”

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Working Abroad and Social Immersion

Folk wisdom suggests that “a change is as good as a break”.  When it comes to creativity, it appears that this change is best brought about by a change of cultural immersion. Working abroad forces you to see the world through a new lens, and this, in turn creates new neural pathways. 

Since so much of creativity is seeing old things in new combinations, the perspectives provided by immersing yourself in a foreign culture help you arrive at the new. 

Need some bright ideas? You’d better start packing then. Working abroad certainly seems like the right thing to do!