There is much anecdotal evidence that living abroad is a significant factor for an artist to be successful. In fact, it's often considered a necessity. Many aspiring artists each year leave everything they have behind to experience life in a totally new country and culture.
- Haruki Murakami, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami wrote this book while he was living in the U.S. and he credits the experience for creating the feeling of alienation in the book.
"If I wrote it in Japan, it might have become a very different book. My strangeness while living in the U.S. differed from the strangeness I feel while in Japan. It was more obvious and direct in the U.S., and that gave me a much clearer recognition of myself."
- Isabel Allende, author of The House of the Spirits. Allende wrote this book while in exile in Venezuela and she says in an interview this book (her first) started as a letter for her dying grandfather who she could not visit because of her exile.
- C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia. This book was written when Lewis became a devout Christian after he moved from his native Ireland to England.
The examples are too many to list, not just for authors like Ernest Hemingway and his book The Sun Also Rises; or Vladimir Nabokov with Lolita, but even more so for painters like Gaugin, Kandinsky, Picasso, or composers like Handel and Stravinsky.
Many multicultural metropolitan cities like New York or Paris throughout their history have become magnets and hubs for artists to live and express themselves.
The science behind cultural diversity
To study the inherent assumption that living abroad increases creative insight, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky did a study that showed it was not that creative people spend more time traveling and living in different cultures, but indeed it was the diverse experience of living abroad that enhanced the creative process.
The study included 205 full-time MBA students and found a robust relationship between living in or moving to foreign countries and creativity. The results showed the longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to come up with creative solutions to problems (specifically, the Duncker Candle problem). They found the more students adapted themselves to the foreign cultures when they lived abroad, the more likely they were to solve the creative problem they were given.
"This shows us that there is some sort of psychological transformation that needs to occur when people are living in a foreign country in order to enhance creativity. This may happen when people work to adapt themselves to a new culture," Galinsky wrote in his report.
In a follow-up study, the students that were subject to 'priming' by remembering their foreign living experience and writing about their experience versus writing about generic experiences like going to the supermarket, were found to be more creative at the end of their writing assignments.
Not just for artists
I believe this goes beyond the arts and applies to entrepreneurs, as well. Consider that more immigrant entrepreneurs in the US are starting businesses than ever. According to statistics released by the US Small Business Administration, 30% of the 1.8 million small businesses started in the US in the past 20 years were founded by immigrants.
And that is true not just for small businesses, but many of the larger and well-known brands. In 2010, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants (90 companies) or children of immigrants (114 companies) despite the fact that they often lack financing and resources. Some of the top companies started by either immigrants or children of immigrants are: eBay, Google, Yahoo, Intel, P&G and DuPont. And since 2006, one-third of all IPOs in the United States were for companies that were founded by entrepreneurs that were born in a foreign country.
To me, that's a clear indication that cultural diversity is an advantage in entrepreneurship and that's why I recommend any aspiring entrepreneurs out there to try and spend some time living abroad. Obviously, this is easiest for younger people who haven't settled down and started a family or settled into a career yet, but it would do aspiring entrepreneurs of any age good.
Young people can get this multicultural experience in high school through an exchange program, like a Rotary Exchange, or they can save up some money and take a gap year between high school and college or between college and stepping into the job market.
Although I strongly recommend they try living in a completely different culture than what they grew up in, they can still learn some valuable skills if they opt to try a culture that is only slightly different (an American living in Australia, for example), particularly if they can get a working travel visa.
If you're a parent and you want to give your child an entrepreneurial edge in the world, there's nothing better you can do than help them spend some time in a different country. It will help them become more creative problem solvers and build their confidence and leadership skills.