Expat Life, Reasons to Travel

Living abroad makes you more creative…But what happens after you return home?


“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

Lately I’ve been felt so uninspired…so stuck. It seems that every time I settle down in front of my computer with a cup of coffee and the resolution to write something (anything!), I just end up spending the entire afternoon watching the screen cursor go blink, blink, blink as my mind mutinously continues to go blank, blank, blank. It’s so frustrating! And I’ve tried all of the usual remedies (reading, napping, going for a walk), but to no avail. It’s like my well of creativity has dried up. And even though I know that’s a horribly cliched comparison, it’s all my uninventive brain can come up at the moment.

This was never a problem when I lived in Japan. Or in Austria or Germany either, for that matter. No, when I lived abroad, my mind seemed to be overflowing with an endless surplus of creative ideas. And not just ones that involved stories or blog posts either, but business ideas and art projects as well. My closet is stacked with notebooks outlining plans for the coffee shop I’d one day open or the design ideas for the youth hostel I’d eventually own. In Japan, I’d stay up late into the night painting and spend my weekends sitting in cafes knitting handbags for friends. But back at home in America, I spend most nights watching Project Runway; dazed and unmotivated.

Apparently though, it’s not just me. Artists and writers have long been known to do some of their best work while living abroad. Just look at the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, who lived in Paris for most of his adult life, or Ernest Hemingway who was inspired to write The Sun Also Rises during after a trip to Spain. Irishman W.B. Yeats won the Nobel prize for the poetry he wrote while living abroad, as did Seamus Heany. And the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita while living in Manhattan.

Researchers William W. Maddux (INSEAD) and Adam D. Galinsky (Nortwestern University) attribute this to the psychological change one undergoes when adapting to a foreign culture. Learning a new language and struggling through culture shock cause a shift in perspective, which opens the mind to new ideas and sparks creativity. As explained in Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity, not only are people who live abroad more creative than people who don’t, but the longer they remain abroad, the more creative they become.

Interestingly enough though, the increase in creativity doesn’t occur in those merely traveling abroad. Apparently two weeks in Tahiti does not a Picasso make. You’ve actually got to live in another culture for an extended period of time, learn the language, embrace the customs and make an effort to assimilate in order for the change to happen. In other words, a year spent exploring the inside of the local Expat bar doesn’t count.

So what’s an uninspired writer/artist/composer to do? Country hopping every few years in search of inspiration may work for some, but most of us need a little more stability and structure in order to stay sane.

Well, apparently the simple act of recalling time spent living abroad helps reactivate the experience and keeps the creative juices flowing. As does learning a new language, making foreign friends and living in multi-cultural cities within your own country.

Huh. It’s hard to imagine how reminiscing about my life in Japan could possibly begin to compete with the experience of actually living there. But for now I guess that’s all I’ve got. Although I want (need!) to finish this novel I’ve been working on since, like, forever and a half ago, right now I’m thinking that another long stint abroad might be my only hope.

Watch this interview with one of the researchers.

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4 thoughts on “Living abroad makes you more creative…But what happens after you return home?

  1. As it usually goes with statistics that's true but doesn't have to be the case. Look at Bill Bryson and his books on America. Didn't your travels make you look at some US ways, customs etc. that you found normal before as a bit uncanny. Try a post on that.

  2. Hi! Loved you question: Travel vs. Living Abroad.
    I thought I loved to travel, but I’m thinking that Living Abroad might be more what I’m after. Hey, you can still travel when you live abroad! I shared your post on my blog.

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