How Living and Learning Abroad Makes You a Better Entrepreneur
Ansel Adams, renowned photographer and naturalist, once said that “in wisdom gathered over time, I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.” Adams timeless statement perfectly captures the reality that the best learning (and the most poignant wisdom) is honed through a lifetime of active engagement and experimentation.
Adams’ sentiment is still very much alive and well today, and is especially applicable to entrepreneurs in one particular way: go abroad to explore and, in the process, build your career (and yourself) overseas. Given that our world is an increasingly interconnected, globalized workplace, there’s no better time than now to challenge yourself abroad.
Let’s take a look at two benefits that you pick up from living in a foreign environment, as well as the one critical mindset that enables it all.
Working abroad improves your problem solving and creativity.
It’s well established that working and studying abroad can make you more creative, entrepreneurial and mentally agile. Essentially, working in a new country and culture provides a host of mental benefits, such as flexibility, problem solving, deep thinking and an improved ability to discern subtle underlying connections and associations.
There are many reasons for this, but the critical factor is novelty: as an evolutionary trait, humans crave new experiences. One study centered around a problem-solving game where adults could match and pick select pictures for cash prizes, had a surprising result: it found that participants often went for new options, even over tried-and-true choices that had yielded cash in previous rounds. Thanks to MRI scans, researchers soon discovered the reason behind this puzzling behavior: apparently, choosing new tiles were associated with spikes of brain activity in areas–suggesting that people are, after all, hardwired to seek out the unfamiliar.
A similar dynamic is at work when you go abroad, whether for travel, study or work. From living in an unfamiliar nation with a different culture, your brain will have to deal with a flood of unexpected, exciting stimuli, forcing it to form new neural connections in the process, and strengthening your overall mental capabilities.
Ultimately, it boils down to this: the more experience you have with different cultures, the faster you can generate creative ideas and link seemingly unrelated concepts. Experiencing diversity is clearly the best way to jumpstart your brain’s latent talents, pushing it (and hopefully your career) into overdrive.
Cultural experience can help your career.
Globalization and world trade have deepened ties between countries. In 2016, America imported $2.3 trillion worth of goods and exported $2.7 trillion of products overseas, mostly capital goods like aircraft and industrial machinery, along with industrial supplies and consumer goods.
Economies that are interdependent to a degree never seen before need skilled, culturally savvy individuals to navigate this complex business ecosystem. Those who have done business in foreign nations have a leg up on competitors who have never ventured abroad.
Consider this: if a company wants to break into the Japanese market to sell their new pharmaceutical product, who would they pick to spearhead this initiative? Someone who has lived in Japan, worked in the Japanese office of a major firm and understands the business environment and popular tastes? Or someone who has absolutely no knowledge of the target market, aside from what she read online?
Cultural awareness and adaptability are invaluable, especially when it comes to expanding into new nations and regions where you’ll undoubtedly have to make a good impression. In this case, you don't need to speak Japanese fluently, without an accent, or master its three writing systems (Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana). A little knowledge of local traditions and the willingness to experiment will carry you very far.
Success abroad requires engagement and adaptation.
Working abroad boosts your cultural understanding and sharpens your higher-order skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. For maximum effect, approach your time abroad with an open mind.
In a 2013 study of students in an international MBA program, researchers in France, Israel, Singapore and the United States concluded that ,ultimately, multicultural engagement is the key variable predicting later career success. Multicultural engagement nurtures versatility: those students who adapted to, learned about and immersed themselves in foreign cultures were much more likely to reap prestigious job offers from top firms. The researchers made clear that, even among individuals from similar backgrounds, those who actively engaged with their new situations received more (and better) job offers.
These findings were backed up by studies from Columbia Business School, which found that accepting ambiguity and diversity in the form of cultural differences helped people understand that there are various solutions for problems and an array of goals worth achieving.
Living and working abroad helped me.
On a more personal note, I lived in Asia for 10 years, eight of which I spent in Japan. My experience abroad proved to be fulfilling and enlightening, helping me hone and improve a number of hard and soft skills.
Foremost amongst these was patience. No one would have accused me of being a particularly patient person when I moved to Asia. I had the standard listening skills and patience of a typical type-A personality, which is a byproduct of working in the dynamic, fast-paced field of real estate investment.
But living abroad in a new land soon taught me the importance of forbearance, as well as the value of empathy -- a critical trait when cultural differences are at work. I learned that communication is particularly complex when multiple perspectives and customs are involved. I also realized that the best communicators and negotiators understood this complexity. Even when they didn’t agree with the other side they always took these variables into account. Such people are all the more successful for it.
Today, I’m not sure that I’m a “model citizen” in that regard, but I’m still far better than I was two decades ago. Living abroad was crucial for both my personal and professional development. At the very least, I came to understand and appreciate how diverse perspectives can really impact a project for the better, strengthening a team’s creativity and problem-solving skills.
Living and working abroad, done right, will yield some wonderful benefits for your career and personal development. Life begins outside your comfort zone, and there is no better way to leave your comfort zone than by leaping into a work or study opportunity in a foreign country.