How Studying Or Working Abroad Changes The Way You Think

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How does studying or working abroad change you? You return with a photo album full of memories and a suitcase full of souvenirs, sure. But you may also come back from your time in another country with an ability to think more complexly and creatively—and you may be professionally more successful as a result.

These are the conclusions of a growing body of research on the effects of study- and work-abroad experiences. For example: A study led by William Maddux, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, found that among students enrolled in an international MBA program, their “multicultural engagement”—the extent to which they adapted to and learned about new cultures—predicted how “integratively complex” their thinking became.

That is, students who adopted an open and adaptive attitude toward foreign cultures became more able to make connections among disparate ideas. The students’ multicultural engagement also predicted the number of job offers they received after the program ended.

More generally, writes Maddux, “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity, our research suggests. What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.”

Angela Leung, an associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University, is another researcher who has investigated the psychological effects of living abroad. She reports that people with more experiences of different cultures are better able to generate creative ideas and make unexpected links among concepts.

Like Maddux, Leung found that the advantages of living abroad accrue to those who are willing to adapt themselves to the ways of their host country: “The serendipitous creative benefits resulting from multicultural experiences,” she writes, “may depend on the extent to which individuals open themselves to foreign cultures.” This openness, she adds, includes a tolerance for ambiguity and open-endedness, a lack of closure and firm answers.

Could it be that people who choose to study or work in other countries are already more inclined to be complex and creative thinkers? David Therriault, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Florida, anticipated this possibility. He and his coauthors administered creative thinking tasks to three groups of undergraduates: students who had studied abroad, students who were planning to study abroad, and students who had not and did not plan to study abroad. The students who had actually studied abroad outperformed the two other groups in creative thinking.

Studying or working in another country can make us better thinkers—more flexible, creative, and complex—if we’re willing to adapt and learn from other cultures. As the title of an article by William Maddux advises: “When in Rome . . . Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do.”

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Have you studied or worked abroad, and did it change the way you think? Please share your thoughts below.

WHAT TO READ NEXT: Recent posts about creativity from the Brilliant Blog:

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8 Responses to “How Studying Or Working Abroad Changes The Way You Think”

  1. I grew up in Iowa. When I was 16, I went to Germany as a foreign student. To say it changed how I thought about the world is a significant understatement. Any international travel will change people, but 14 months in a foreign country really expands your ideas of what different cultures mean to the people who live in them. From the simple things like what to eat and how to spend your free time, to the more complex things, such as the effects of religious (or non-religious) beliefs on culture, you are confronted daily with puzzles about human experience. It is hardly surprising to me that this makes people better problem solvers and more creative. The assumptions they have held for many years have been challenged and now they are free to accept many more alternatives.

  2. Annie – we were recently visited by a business ‘connection’ from Japan. His group are in our niche of providing music education online. During our meeting he said ‘you have incredible bandwidth’ which I thought he meant actual digital connectivity and internet speed…lol. Later I was telling him about a great opportunity I have to visit Australia as artist in residence and he once again said, ‘that’s amazing bandwidth’ and explained that he was impressed at how ‘connected’ we were to folks in many areas and many locations around the world. I hadn’t thought about it but he is correct; we do constantly reach out, try to work with or at very least communicate with people in many disciplines. Perhaps part of that comes from being a musician; working with and being open to people across cultural and racial lines. I can totally believe there is something to the notion that studying or working in another country can make us better thinkers and more flexible, creative, and complex. Seems perfectly logical! Cheers from Dallas.

  3. Rob says:

    I spent a year studying in England. I would agree with the conclusions of this article.

    I’d also be interested in studying people who culturally “travel” within their own geographic area. I’ve had similar experiences in my home town by crossing unspoken cultural lines such as those of race and economic standing.

    It might be possible to have this kind of creative growth through getting to know people who you wouldn’t meet with every day even if they live in your own town.

  4. Unfortunately, I’m probably not the best person to judge my performance! Since 2009 I have worked and traveled extensively in Ukraine (at least 3 trips every year–I spend a total of six-to-eight weeks each year in country and am in regular contact with colleagues, co-workers, and assistants who live there). I have also traveled the length and breadth of the country–from Ivano-Frankivsk, to Poltava, to Donetsk–from Kharkov to Crimea.

    I believe there has been a good amount of personal intellectual and emotional growth as a result. I know my experience has changed the way I look at the world and especially the way I look at Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia.

    I have come to love not only the culture but the literature as well. The experience has led me to read novelists like Nikolai Golgol to poets such as Ivan Franko, Taras Shevchenko, Lesya Ukrainka to Anna Ahkmatova. And I have possibly even changed some of my thought patterns to a degree.

  5. Barbara says:

    I am glad to see that there is evidence of what many people have experienced. I also agree that crossing cultural boundaries inside own country is beneficial. I travel with college students to different service projects, and they do meet people very different from themselves and grow as a result. One of the more significant projects is the collegiate week at Habitat. Working along side people who are building their first affordable home is inspiring, and it allows our students (who come from modest backgrounds) to see the Habitat clients as people with jobs and with dreams.

  6. Ayako Ezaki says:

    I went to a university in the US and during that time I also did a semester aboard in London, and traveled to many other countries abroad. I can confidently say all of these experiences have influenced the way I think, and collectively have shaped a part of who I am today.

    I think that one of the most important aspect of studying or working abroad is the experience of things not going well, and learning to accept that sometimes life doesn’t go as expected. As mentioned in the article, I can see how the experience of facing and coping with various challenges abroad can positively impact creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

    In my experience “international” experiences are a great plus for professional development, as they enable you to bring new perspectives to your team, to better navigate intercultural communications, and to be a more effective team player (who is open to different perspectives) and leader (who understands finer nuances of communications in a diverse group, and who can better spot different opportunities to harness talent).

  7. I am a born and bred Londoner currently working in an Advertising Angecy in Lahore, Pakistan. Both my parents hail from this city, but my farther moved to the UK in his early childhood, my mother tagged along after getting married. I have visited the country previously for a couple of months at a time during my school holidays. I have fond memories of the summers spent here in the sweltering heat, chasing after the air conditioner.

    But now I live and work here. And it’s not the same place I remember. The main difference between my experience and anyone else’s on this page is that I look like the people around me, and speak the language (just about it). That means I get the semi native treatment. It’s only when they hear the twang in my accent, do they realise something is not right, “He’s a gora”.

    Working in this country has certainly been an eye opener for me. But it has also made me develop a great deal as a person. An office environment here is much like I would have imagined it was like in the 80’s. No holds barred. HR is only there to pay your salaries. Certainly a far cry away from the City of London and all the rules and regulations of the West. Handling different kinds of people, with a different culture and mindset has been very challenging, but it’s also made me learn lots of things, mostly out of necessity. I’ve learned to adapt to the surroundings, to the people, to the culture, to the working environment. Everyday I learn a new way of getting things done around here. These are experiences that I would not have been able to experience had I still been working in London.

    Sometimes my mind feels overworked, trying to make sense of the situation, or whats going, I now have to do business communication in a language that I normally communicated in to ask what’s for dinner. But I’ve also realised that as time passes by, and you learn, you become stronger and better. My mind and eyes have been exposed to so much I would not have seen. My perspective on life has changed, it has made a more mature person. more grounded. All this leads to me believe that I will return to London a better person, with another brightly coloured string added to my bow.

  8. Hi, I liked the TIME article, especially seeing Doellgast’s famous stair of his Pinakothek restoration in Munich – where I studied architecture in the 50’s, after having returned from benefitting from an AFS scholarship in Amarillo, Texas, attending a year (52/3) in high school there. Unforgettable, and grateful to AFS, Amarillo Kiwanis, and most of all to my hosts – Dixie Dice (of dance studio fame) and husband ‘Pappy’ Watson of KGNC. Whether I lived up to expectations? I still keep trying at least; web and blog sites may show how. Glad to see that AFS is still in the news. Long may it continue in Stephen Galatti’s footsteps!

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