I was a late bloomer. When I was young, questions about what I wanted to do when I grew up left me stumped.
Then I moved abroad, leaving my home in Poland to follow my now-husband to Canada, Germany, and now the Netherlands. As an expat, my path became clear: I would become a writer.
Cliché as it may sound, a lot of people can testify from personal experience that moving abroad helps you find yourself. Now a new study by Hajo Adam, an assistant professor of management at Rice University in Houston, Texas, explains why that is.
His meta-analysis looked at six studies that examined subjects’ “self-concept clarity”—a scale used to measure how well people know themselves. The scale includes a series of twelve statements, such as “my beliefs about myself often conflict with one another,” or “I spend a lot of time wondering about what kind of person I am.”
As Adam found, self-concept clarity was particularly high in people who were living abroad. Free of the restraints and expectations associated with their own cultures, expats had more opportunities to find out what is most important to them. For example, Adam, who is originally from Germany, discovered how much he valued being on time when he lived in France, where it’s customary to arrive at parties late. Sometimes it takes moving abroad to fully understand what’s important to you.
“Repeatedly going through these experiences forces you to contemplate your values,” he said.
I’ve found the same living in the Netherlands. The Dutch are considered a very direct people. I, on the other hand, use small talk to ease into conversations—an attribute that I might not have noticed if I wasn’t living abroad.
Adam’s study found that what makes the expat experience so clarifying is not the number of countries people live in, but how long they live there. “It’s better to live 10 years in one country than two years in five countries,” he said. That’s because when you’re new to a country, you’re more absorbed with practical considerations. “In the first weeks, you think where you are going to live, how to get a doctor, but once you settle, you have more time to focus on yourself,” Adam told me.
That was certainly the case for me. When my husband and I first moved to the Netherlands, I didn’t know what to do with myself. But while I was pregnant with my second child, I decided to start a blog—motivated equally by boredom, social isolation, and the need to exercise my brain again.
I called it “The European Mama,” and wrote about everything that came to my mind. I had no plans for the blog except to have a platform where I could share my stories and connect with other expat parents. But with time, I started thinking that I might be able to place my ideas elsewhere. I started freelancing, and within three years, I’d been published in places like the Washington Post, Quartz, the BBC, and The Guardian.
Another 2010 study conducted by Adam found that living abroad and interacting with many different cultures made people more creative. For my own part, in the Netherlands, I started seeing stories around me everywhere. For example, when I picked up a Dutch magazine at the supermarket and read an article about niksen—the Dutch trend of doing… nothing—I knew I had to write about that. I started developing an eye for stories that are quirky, such as American crayfish invading Delft, or people yelling at rice.
I’d never planned on becoming a writer. But it turned out that writing was what I loved doing most. I’m not sure I would have discovered that if I hadn’t moved abroad; it was only by immersing myself in unfamiliar territory that I was able to gain a clearer sense of who I was and what I valued. As Adam and his co-authors write, “going far from home can lead one closer to the self.”