International Relationships Encourage Creativity

Authored by:
Tracy Teare

You’ve sharpened your finance skills, studied startup legends like Blake Mycoskie and Joe Gebbia, and networked at every chance. But you may be overlooking one important way to grease the entrepreneurial skids – unleashing creativity by connecting with someone from another culture.

Why? Turns out a close friendship or romance with someone from a culture unlike your own can flip the switches in your brain, allowing you to think differently. That’s what researcher and MIT Sloan Assistant professor Jackson G. Lu and his colleagues found through a series of studies published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Lu and his team studied groups that included MBA students, people who had had relationships with partners from their own and another country, and J-1 Visa holders who had since left the States to go back to their home lands. In each of these groups, the people who dated someone while abroad or stayed in touch with friends they’d met during their time abroad showed more creativity, were more innovative, and tended be more entrepreneurial.

What is it about these relationships that unleashes creativity? “Intercultural relationships can provide the cultural learning that shapes both the content and the processes of creative cognition,” explains Lu. “In terms of the content of creative cognition, intercultural relationships provide opportunities for individuals to learn about disparate concepts and ideas from different cultures, which they can then draw upon to synthesize novel and useful insight. With regard to cognitive processes, the cultural learning enabled by intercultural relationships can enhance individuals’ cognitive flexibility and complexity.” 

Connections need to be deep for the magic to happen, note the authors. In other words, an occasional chat with the barista from Peru in your favorite coffee shop or a monthly virtual meeting with an international client won’t do the trick. So how can you meet and get to know people from other cultures?

  • Introduce yourself at meet-ups and conferences.
  • Stay in touch or reconnect with foreign friends you’ve met while working or studying abroad.
  • Look for an international roommate.
  • Be open-minded. If you’re invited to learn salsa dancing or attend an Argentinian birthday celebration with a colleague, go for it.
  • Learn a new language, so you have the tools to communicate when opportunities pop up.

Collaborating closely with peers from all over the world is part of every entrepreneurial program at eLab by CIEE. See how our crash courses in London and Berlin combine intercultural experiences and networking with the guidance you need to generate and grow your startup ideas.

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