Monday, August 3, 2009

Reason to live like the locals

In my years in China, I came across many types of lao wai (foreigners). There were the tour groups congregated together, gaping and pointing as they traversed the city, like spectators watching a show. There were the business travelers, always on the move to their next meeting, always trying to make the next buck in the China market. There were the unabashed expats, living in their foreign communities, eating Western food, looking down on the locals and living life just as they would have back home. And then there were lao wai who seemed sincerely interested in all things China. Those who embraced the culture, who saw the locals as equals and as friends, and who adapted their lives based on cultural expectations.

I've always been biased toward the latter, thinking that that lifestyle reaps the most benefits. It increases your global awareness and interpersonal sensitivity, and it's just one heck of an adventure. Now recent research shows there's one more benefit to add to the mix: creativity. That's a pretty darn good selling point. (I mean, who doesn't want to be more creative?!)

I spotted news of a recent study conducted by Northwestern's Alan Galinsky and INSEAD's William Maddox that found that prolonged periods of time immersed in a foreign culture increased individuals' creative problem solving skills. The more time individuals spent overseas and the more they adapted to the local culture, the better they performed in a series of experiments requiring the use of creative problem solving. (For a more in-depth look, you can read the findings published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology here.)

These findings are not surprising, given what we know about creative thinking. While some individuals may be born with a gift for creativity, it is also a competency that can be learned, fostered and refined over time. At it's core, creativity is about making cognitive connections between concepts and experiences to come up with innovative ideas and solutions. (Tangent: For an interesting look into building creative processes in organizations, read Sticky Wisdom brought to us by the folks at ?What If! Innovation.) It stands to reason that an overseas immersion experience greatly deepens our exposure to new experiences, concepts and even patterns of thought, enabling us to "think differently" when faced with problems or challenges.

Interesting to note, however, is that this study found that simply travelling overseas was not enough to significantly increase creative problem solving.   This suggests that it's not only the quantity but also the quality of new experiences that builds creativity. Depth is as, if not more, important than breadth.

I speculate that this relates to my July posting, Geography of Thought. There, we saw that deep descrepincies in patterns of thought exist between varying cultures. While short trips overseas enable us to gain a surface-level understanding of different cultures, extended immersion facilitates the acquisition of new patterns of thought. This then allows us to view challenges from entirely new perspectives as we integrate our old world-view with the new.

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