Are Immigrants More Creative?

A provocative claim: in any country, immigrants are statistically more likely to generate exceptionally creative works. There’s a long list of immigrant geniuses: Victor Hugo, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. But single cases don’t make a scientific argument. Do we have any statistical data on this?

Eric Weiner gives us some numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal:

An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., where foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.

Those are some pretty convincing numbers, somewhere between a 12 and 20 percent increase in creativity among immigrants.

Creativity research has the explanation: Psychologists have shown that bigger creative insights result from distant associations–when your mind has many different types of knowledge, a diverse range of experiences. Associations between similar conceptual material also often lead to creative insights, but those are more likely to be ordinary, incremental, everyday sorts of creativity. It’s the distant associations that lead to radical, breakthrough innovation. Weiner makes a similar argument from recent research; studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.

Weiner says that it’s marginality  that results in greater creativity. I wouldn’t say it that way; you can be marginal to a culture and yet not be a part of your own separate culture. The silent introvert who lives in a shack up in the mountains is marginal, but that person doesn’t bring together distinct bodies of experiences and knowledge. In fact, we know that lone individuals are less  likely to be creative.

The lesson for everyone is: If you seek greater creativity, then go out and learn something new. Meet people very different from you. Travel to a really different place. Read magazines that you’ve never looked at before. Fill your mind with a broad range of really different stuff. You don’t have to be an immigrant; but we can learn from this example to help enhance our own creativity.

Inventology: a new book by Pagan Kennedy

Creativity researchers have shown that serendipity plays a big role in creativity, and that serendipity is more likely to happen when you seek out new experiences and become more aware of what’s going on around you.  My 2013 book ZIG ZAG  is filled with creativity advice based on this research. One of my chapters is called “LOOK: How to be aware of the answers all around you.” I start the chapter with several examples of serendipity: how Velcro was invented after George De Mestral became curious about why burrs got stuck in his dog’s fur; how Hasbro got the idea for a toothbrush that played a two-minute song, to make sure that a child would brush for at least two minutes.

Inventology coverThe book Inventology  builds on this research, and Pagan Kennedy emphasizes the same theme as my book chapter: Serendipity is critical to creativity. (See the excerpt in today’s New York Times.) I love her examples of inventions that are inspired by LOOK’s awareness: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, and X-ray imaging. Kennedy’s main point is that you can spot these surprising connections systematically.

My 22 techniques for serendipity* are grouped into three practices:

  • Use Fresh Eyes: based on research about mindfulness and about how people systematically become more lucky.
  • Grab New Sights and Cool Sounds: with exercises about how to consistently experience new things that help you spot unexpected connections.
  • Render It Visible: exercises that help you translate what you see into creative action.

The techniques are each based on creativity research. For example, I describe the fascinating research by Richard Wiseman on what lucky people do that’s different from unlucky people.

Kennedy ends her article by calling for a new field of “serendipity studies.” Fortunately, scientists already have a great start on understanding luck and serendipity; creativity researchers and cognitive psychologists have been studying this for many years. They don’t call it “serendipity”; they use more technical terms like analogical reasoning, distant connections, and remote associations. (If you want to delve deeper into this research, there’s a pretty extensive review in my book Explaining Creativity.) After reading the NYTimes excerpt  today, I look forward to reading Kennedy’s book. She’s hit on one of the most important findings to emerge from creativity research: If you systematically seek out new experiences, sights, people, and places, you’ll be more likely to have surprising new creative insights.

*Two of the techniques in ZIG ZAG  that foster serendipity:

  1. Flip through strange magazines. Buy a magazine that you’d normally never read (hunting, hot rods, tattoos, musical instruments…) As you flip through it, look carefully and you’ll be drawn to a few photos or stories. Think about how you can apply what you see there to your own problem.
  2. Cultivate your senses. Put yourself in an experience that you don’t know much about. Visit an art museum, attend a wine tasting, watch a children’s cartoon, try a new fast-food restaurant. Make an effort to figure out what’s going on, how everything works to create a complete experience.