Living Abroad: Does it Make You More CreAtiVe?

August 7, 2009

The Duncker Candle Problem

Look at the picture below. You should see a candle, a pack of matches and a box of tacks next to a cardboard wall. Can you figure out, using only the objects on the table, how to attach the candle to the wall, so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or the floor?

If you’re in the mood to share (and we’d love to hear from you!), scroll down and leave a comment with your answer!

Can you figure out the answer?

Can you figure out the answer?

Now, here’s the correct solution; you need to empty the box of tacks, use the tacks to pin the box to the wall, and place the candle in the box. The box acts as a candle holder! Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get it, I didn’t either.

The Research

In a recent study, William W. Maddux and Adam D. Galinsky used the Duncker Candle Problem, illustrated above, to test creativity. (Were you creative in your answer?) Due to previous research in the field, the psychologists hypothesized that creativity correlates to living abroad. Research has already found first and second generation immigrants and bilingual individuals have comparatively high levels of creativity, and in their article, Maddux and Galinsky presented a long list of creators, including writers (Hemingway and Yeats), artists (Gauguin and Picasso) and composers (Handel and Stravinsky), who created their most famous works during or immediately after living abroad.

The Dream by Picasso

The Dream by Picasso

Maddux and Galinsky conducted five experiments, and found a strong positive link between living abroad and creativity. According to the research, the more time an individual spends living abroad the more likely they are able to solve creativity tests, like the Duncker Candle problem. While the study is not causal—meaning the research does clarify whether creative people tend to live abroad or living abroad fosters creativity—the study does offer some strong empirical evidence for a link between living in foreign countries and creativity.

Surprisingly, traveling abroad (i.e. visiting) did not have the same effect! This suggests that having to adapt or acculturate to a new culture is what really drives this creative ability correlation; living in a different culture and learning cultural norms allows, maybe even forces individuals to see life from different perspectives, positively affecting creativity.

These findings have special implications for children growing up abroad. Maybe this research provides a different perspective in looking at the pros and cons of sending expat children to local schools and exposing them to the culture of the host country? Maybe those of us in the international community can celebrate and share our creativity, a very positive aspect of a sometimes difficult life? Maybe parents can begin to foster creativity in their children, creating an “in” for them into a social network? (This references the article titled “Education Outside the Classroom.” Check it out!) One thing is for sure, this is another piece of evidence that expat kids, TCKs, Global Nomads, and the like, really are the next generation of global leaders.

A special thanks to Joseph Leahy for bringing this article to my attention.

Find this interesting? Read the whole article!

Maddux, W. W. & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: the relationship between living abroad and creativity. American Psychological Association, (96)5, 1047-1061.


Recalling Expats?

July 27, 2009

In recent months, companies have begun recalling expats from multiyear assignments up to 12 months early… The CEO of a Pacific Northwest manufacturer (who requested his publicly traded company’s name not be used) is pulling his European division manager home after only eight months of a two-year assignment because the business can’t continue to foot the $500,000 annual bill for his salary and living expenses.      –Workforce.com, March 5, 2009

Education is a top priority for middle class families in every culture worldwide, and always has been.  This was true of Eastern European immigrants to the United States 70 years ago, Chinese families who have pinned all of their hopes and dreams on their sole child, and parents in the Northeastern part of the United States who are still, according to the New York Times magazine on July 19, willing to spend $40,000 on college placement counselors for their children despite the economy.  This results in scarcity of suitable school options in major cities globally.  Even if there are vacancies in less popular schools, those that are generally considered “top tier” are overbooked no matter what the economic situation.

As a result, repatriation, which always is difficult, brings additional challenges when it is sudden and forces families to seek schooling for their children mid-year, particularly under rushed and stressful circumstances.  In addition to the logistical challenges involved in gaining admission to schools, children are excluded from extracurricular activities – the football team already has been chosen, as has the cast of the play – essential aspects of re-entry if they are to successfully make friends and reintegrate into their home cultures. Repatriation to one’s former home is particularly difficult, according to Craig Storti, because expectations and reality clash.  When employees are moved home without sufficient notice, they, and their families, do not have sufficient time to process the emotional aspects of the repatriation so it is all the more important that they receive assistance with the logistics of the school search and transition, as together both aspects are quite overwhelming.

Things that employers can provide are:

  • Accurate and easy to use information in the form of books, research, websites and web based tools;
  • Transition assistance so that families understand that the former school may no longer be the best school for a child given the wealth of experiences s/he has had overseas as well as the curricular differences;
  • Expert help in identifying and getting into schools that meet the unique needs of each child at this point in time;
  • Specialized assistance for children with special needs, gifted children, and those seeking schools in particularly competitive locations.

This is something that companies must think about if their goal is to develop policies that will serve them in good times as well as bad.  Benefits of good support when employees with children are recalled are rapid employee productivity, increased loyalty, talent retention, willingness to take future assignments, and improved morale, which includes encouraging other employees to undertake assignments when needed.