Interviews & Editorials / Expatriates and Creativity

Expatriates and Creativity

Expatriates and Creativity

9 February 2010 Interviews & Editorials 13

What do Pablo Picasso, Rudyard Kipling, Paul Gauguin, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and other artistas muy famosos in all genre of the arts have in common with us living, working and playing in the Yucatan?

As expats we are all well aware of the many attributes it takes to live in Merida, our adopted foreign home. Just to name a few: curiosity, a sense of adventure, compassion for others (and ourselves at frustrating times!), flexibility, the love of new languages (Spanish and Maya here)---but there is another attribute we may not be as well aware of, nor take credit for: Creativity!

Yes! It is no longer purely anecdotal: two psychologists have proven that there is a definite link between creativity in artists and writers and living in a foreign country.

William Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in Fountainebleau, France, and Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, Illinois, reported on their study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. One hundred and fifty-five Americans and fifty-five foreign business students studying in the United States


were given a test by the psychologists to measure creativity. Given only some matches, a candle and a box of thumbtacks they were asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall so that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. (Of course all you creative people knew the solution: use the box as a candle holder and attach it to the wall with the thumbtacks.) The results were that 60% of the students who were either living abroad or who had spent some time doing so, solved the problem, whereas only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did.

Then 72 of the Americans and 36 foreigners had their creative negotiating skills examined in a subsequent study. Students were paired off, one playing the role of the seller of a gas station, who then needed to find a job, and the other the role of the buyer who would then need to hire personnel to run their business. The two were likely to reach a stalemate as the buyer had been told he could not afford what the seller had been told was his lowest price. However, when both negotiators had lived abroad, 70% reached a deal in which the seller was offered a position in management at the gas station in return for a lower selling price. When neither of these negotiators had lived abroad, none of the pairs was able to reach a deal!

To make sure they had not merely discovered that creative people are simply more likely to choose to live overseas, the doctors identified and measured personality traits like openness to new experiences, which is known to be predictive of creativity. Even after using specific controls to filter, the statistical connection between living abroad and creativity endured, signifying that it is something specific to living in a foreign place that fosters creativity.

It is not enough to travel to foreign lands: packing your sunscreen and Speedo for Barcelona does not a Picasso make! It is the actual day-to-day living that makes the difference, as we well know! So grab your pencils and paints and passports, you aspiring artists and writers---move to another country, become an expatriate and let the creative adventure begin!


INSEAD School in France

Wikipedia on Creativity


  • Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado 12 years ago

    Wow Robin, great article!

    I believe that living abroad encourages creativity because when we are not in our familiar surroundings, we feel free. We do not have to conform to what our families and friends think we should do. We can cut a new path and often that swath dives right into the creative pursuits. As well, the unknown and the challenges of a new setting pique our curiosity (the mother of creativity) Often we see ourselves as "different" which primes us for performance on a new stage. It is fascinating. If more people knew the joy of living "far from the maddening crowd", I suspect we'd see even greater numbers flocking to our lovely Merida?

    Of course, at times, there is the temptation to search for solace in the tried and true. Maybe this is why some international residents try to recreate what they left behind? Curbing this is paramount... living here is such an opportunity to fly - go for it!

  • Terry Corder 13 years ago

    Are there any expats who read this that would like to contact my wife and I to answer questions we may think we have? We saw an article on Merida and are very intrigued by the information on this website and some others. Thank you ahead, Terry and Sherry.

  • Julie Hoover 13 years ago

    Well now you know, I'm one of those people who sometimes saves emails requiring thoughtful answers till I have time for a good answer. Then I become hysterical thinking that since I've waited so long to reply, I must give you a really brilliant response, so I delay longer.

    Anyway, forgive me. It was a very interesting piece I will use to recruit some of my artist friends to visit/relocate here.

    Agree with Beryl that the sample is preselected. People who opt for living abroad have to be a bit more adventuresome and creative.

    Great provocative piece.


  • Sen 13 years ago


    yes.solved the quiz about the candle and the thumb tacks....just when I thought my creativity is fading....

    would like to know about living in Merida or the coast vs. a city like puerto vallarta.
    any feedback is appreciated.

  • Susan Fox 13 years ago

    Hola Robin,
    What a thoughtful article! I suggest that creative genius is a gift we all inherit; expats are more inclined to use it, spend it, and re-gift it to others! Thank you for sharing yours with us.
    Missing the warmth of Merida and its souls.

  • Sera Young 13 years ago

    Nice contribution, mom! Happily, creativity is a handy skill to have the world over. And the more you use it, the greater the capacity.

  • HEATHER RATH 13 years ago

    Well done, Robin! I knew there was a reason we keep bumping into creative souls here.

  • Beryl G 13 years ago

    Great article. Thanks, Robin. But I'm still not convinced that creative people aren't preselected for moving abroad. Expats have a uniqueness, even a craziness about them (us), that separates them from people who don't move abroad. Although it is true that the need to be resourceful in a foreign environment does help you learn to think creatively.
    Also, how much does our creativity when living in foreign lands have to do with simply having more time? When you are in another country, by definition, most people no longer have cubicle-type jobs. Another thought - are expats the people who didn't have cubicle jobs to begin with? Are they people who even when they did have them, thought outside the box even then? People who weren't satisfied with the everyday and had always longed for something other than a comfy retirement in suburbia?
    I would like to see this explored further. It's a fascinating concept.

  • Nancy Walters 13 years ago

    Loved it Robin!

  • Barbara Bode 13 years ago

    Oh Robin, where were you when I was trying to convince my parents that hitchhiking through several European countries was an educationally creative -- and, therefore, intellectually productive -- plan? Their skepticism forced me to fall back on that old chestnut, "we didn't actually lie, we just didn't want to burden you with any unnecessary truth" Pretty embarrassing.

  • Le V. Bailey 13 years ago

    This is an excellent article! It clarified many things for me. Specifically, it helped clarify for me those significant periods while in Merida when i'm happiest and "what i was doing" - clearly "being creative"! This was a very important Lesson Learned for me. Now i have new goals to pursue .. :)

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