Over the last three years, I’ve visited nearly two dozen countries on five of the seven continents. I lived and worked in the Philippines for eight months, Ghana for another six, and Kenya for exactly one year. In addition, I spent around six months backpacking through various a dozen far-flung places like Burma, Uganda, the DRC, and, most recently, Thailand. In fact, as I write this, I am sitting at the beach bar at Ban’s Diving Resort in Koh Tao, where I will spend the next few days diving the reefs and wrecks around this tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand. In a few days, I head to Koh Phangan, which chewed me up and spit me out when I went two years ago. After crashing a motorbike, leaving me with the famous Koh Phangan tattoo on my left leg, I vowed never to return to that terrible place. And yet here I am, a mere six days away from the legendary Full Moon Party, which, with an estimated 10,000 people packed on the beach, I expect to be the wildest party of my life.
Visited 25 states (11.1%)
About a year ago, the Economist published an article about expatriates – people who live abroad. Using a bit of scientific research and the example of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others, they make the case that expats, as they are called, and former expats, tend to be more creative than their domestic counterparts. As with most of these things, it is difficult to separate correlation from causality, but, either way, on tests measuring creativity, people who have spent considerable time immersed in another culture score higher these tests.
From what I have seen, I think that is, by and large, mostly true. I am not sure whether living abroad makes you more creative or more creative people are more likely to live abroad. But there are logical explanations why this would be the case.
For one thing, living abroad, by definition, broadens your perspective. It forces you outside of your comfort zone and makes you look at your own world from afar. You are exposed to a different way of thinking about life and an approach to living. What is important to you and the people you have been surrounded by your entire life may not matter to people raised in a different culture, and vice versa. Family and religion are paramount in the Philippines, while ethnicity is a critical, if sometimes destructive, element of African culture. But even differences between African cultures can be as stark as those between countries on different continents. In Ghana, the sense of what it means to be Ghanaian is clear, manifested in the traditional music, clothing, and food, while the Kenyan national identity is more closely tied to tribal affiliation. In each culture, the answer to the question “Who are my people?” is different. It is shaped by tradition, culture, history, and factors that you might not normally expect would shape the way that people see themselves in relation to others. And the more different ways you see this, the easier it becomes to understand how other cultures that you have not visited rationalize their own decisions.
Through the people you live and work with, you learn first that there are different ways of looking at the world. And the more places you live and work, the more ways of looking at the world you come to understand. With greater exposure to different perspectives, you become more empathetic and understanding of differing viewpoints. Your views don’t necessarily change – they can become stronger as you see things from the other side. Having your perspective challenged is a goodthing.
Living abroad also leads you to try new things. You eat food you might not normally eat, and drink perhaps more or less than you are accustomed to. More often than not, you are introduced to something you like, which reinforces the notion that openness is a virtue. And when the essence of creativity is a willingness to break from the old way of doing things and try something different, the experience you get from living in a place where you are forced to do it every day is undoubtedly good practice.
Tomorrow, I will give a few more reasons why I think traveling makes you a more creative person.
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