Stepping Outside, Part 2 - How Spending Time Abroad Makes You a Better Problem Solver

Paris metro
Paris metro

In my last post, I said these two words alone can change your life: stepping outside. Whether it's across the street to a neighbor from a different culture or across the ocean, separating oneself from one's home subculture is a vital step in the maturing process. Whether studying abroad, volunteering with a charity or mission organization, or taking your work with you, living in a foreign culture will expand your horizons like very little else. It will also make you a better problem solver.

When Becky and I conduct the World to the Wise cultural tours, we don't hire a tour bus driver, but take public transportation whenever and wherever possible. We teach our participants how to navigate the different subway and occasionally bus systems, and by the end of our stay in a given city they are generally able to find their own way around the city. Just the process of figuring out how to use the transportation system in a foreign country is a significant step in problem solving. It's like each person has his or her own Amazing Race.

Let's be honest, though -- we are there for just a few days and are there as tourists. The real rubber meets the road when you are placed in a foreign culture for an extended period of time. A radical change of environment forces you to adapt. You quickly learn that each day is no longer business as usual, and as a result your senses are sharpened. In the words of my erudite oldest son, who spent a semester studying Arabic in Morocco and part of a summer in Uganda, you experience the "beauty and richness of discomfort". When you shop for groceries you learn a whole new system. When you are responsible for paying for goods and services, you learn how business is done. You sometimes have to work hard to communicate with your neighbors. Even in a country where your own language is spoken, you become aware of sometimes subtle, sometimes radical differences in outlook and lifestyle.

The result? Sure, a little culture shock in the short term. But in the long term? You become more capable of looking at situations from multiple angles, of viewing life from others' perspective -- and after all, isn't that the very definition of maturity?

How has spending time abroad made you a better problem solver?

If you would like to connect with David on this topic or invite him to speak on it, contact him here.