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Pack Your Suitcase for Some Time Away. A new place could inspire a novel idea.

Expert opinion by David Schonthal, director of entrepreneurship, Kellogg School of Management.

Here’s good news for entrepreneurs, innovators, and anyone else seeking to get their creative juices flowing: Japan and Korea just announced the availability of digital nomad visas for those seeking a months’ long change of scenery.

On the surface, entrepreneurship and time out of one’s home area may not seem connected. But there are many benefits to spending time in a new setting — and, ideally, culture — when the goal is to innovate.

First, consider some of the forces making it easier to relocate for a meaningful period, and why that’s beneficial to individuals and broader society alike. For one, the pandemic showed us that remote work is not only feasible but carries multiple advantages, including those related to flexibility and productivity, and there’s no shortage of digital tools to facilitate creative work, from Zoom to Slack.

Moreover, many of us remain eager to get away in post-pandemic times, having seen how quickly we lost that ability in 2020. Beyond the freedom to travel, I suspect we missed the cognitive stimulation that goes with it in many cases, as I’ll discuss.

Finally, it’s meaningful that multiple countries are inviting outsiders in, and arrangements like the nomad visas can be win-wins because the host country gets tourism revenue and the traveler can enjoy a high “creative ROI” by returning with inspiration and actionable ideas — if they set their intention and approach the trip the right way.

Why it works

One of the hardest things about entrepreneurship is coming up with a novel idea — typically a product or service that will solve a meaningful problem in a new way for target groups. Research shows a strong link between the physical environment and multiple dimensions of creativity.

That’s why innovators of all stripes are encouraged to step out of their home environment for inspiration — this is a common practice among novelists and screenwriters, for example, to help them beat writer’s block. It’s no surprise that some famous startup origin stories have a travel component.

Take the case of Uber, which was inspired by the founders’ inability to find a taxi in Paris one snowy evening. That narrative illustrates one reason travel sparks inspiration: You might observe unmet needs abroad that you don’t notice or face in your home environment. The founders presumably had cars back home and/or could easily access public transportation. Not so in the City of Lights, leading to a history-making brainchild.

A related travel benefit for entrepreneurs is analogous inspiration, or the “Why don’t we have that?” effect. Simply put, you see an established business or process in another country, wonder why you don’t have it at home, and decide to do something about it. GrabTaxi (now just Grab), EasyTaxi, and other overseas ridesharing services were presumably inspired by Uber; the Kiva peer-to-peer lending platform was inspired by microlending services in East Africa.

Growing awareness of the link between travel and creativity has led to programs like Kellogg’s Levy Inspiration Grants, which support master’s of business administration students seeking inspiration from outside their backyard. But there’s one item everyone needs to “pack” to make the most of such opportunities.

Mindset matters

The mechanisms above rely on assuming a different mindset when out of your element — one that makes you more of a learner or beginner. Some of that will happen automatically when you’re faced with solving new problems away from home — accessing transportation, buying groceries, and the like, while navigating language and cultural barriers.

But it goes beyond all that. I’m talking about trying to cultivate a sense of empathy and even vulnerability. Doing so will help you see practices you might miss. For example, if you’re coming from a setting characterized by abundance like the U.S., you’d be more tuned to notice how scarcity catalyzes innovation in India, and the resourcefulness reflected in doing more with less to “hack” your way to success.

The right mindset will also force you to ask “Why?” and “Why not?” more often than you do at home, again catalyzing innovation and creativity. Importantly, that mindset and relying on yourself to negotiate new geographic and cultural terrain will also build your sense of confidence — not only to take care of yourself while away but to take the risk to build something new when you return, in a human-centered way.

There’s strong science and research behind the ideas here. For example, there’s the concept of “lateral thinking,” or being able to look at problems from new angles to challenge core assumptions and generate innovative solutions like some of the most successful entrepreneurs have, such as those behind Stitch Fix and Cirque du Soleil.

Researchers like my former Kellogg colleague Adam Galinsky have shown how being in a different context opens up our brains to new ways of thinking. There’s a physiological basis for this cognitive flexibility: neuroplasticity, or how our brain forms new connections in a new physical environment. So the butterflies you may feel in your stomach as you negotiate a new setting is a symptom of personal growth — both the psychological and physiological varieties.

Do it right

The ideas above imply some practical tips for getting inspiration through travel, but I spell a few out below.

  • Immersion over visitation. Don’t think you have to hop on the longest-haul flight you can find. While it can be helpful to go far from home, it’s more about immersing yourself wherever you go, whether across the ocean or the state line. That will increase the odds of opening you to new ideas and inspirations.
  • Mind your mindset. Relatedly, just plunking yourself down somewhere new isn’t enough. You have to actively open yourself to seeing things from fresh angles, seeking not just to observe but to understand, question, and make connections. Step out of tourist mode and into a creator mindset.
  • Don’t go in blind. While a beginner’s mindset is key, prepare yourself for the trip by studying cultural practices and norms. Finding the right “river guide” — an alumnus from your school who lives in your destination country, maybe — will set you up for an inspiring, informative, and safe journey.

I guess that leaves just one last thing to say: Bon voyage!

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