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A new study revealed that people who live abroad for long periods of time have increased “self-concept clarity” - essentially, they understand themselves better than people who never live in a different country.
Much has been said about the profound impact travel can have on a person, in particular, its ability to change you. Songs have been sung, poems have been written, blog posts have been crafted (ahem), in an ode to the life-changing magic that you experience when you travel the world.
Now, research has confirmed it. A new study by Rice University, in conjunction with Columbia University and the University of North Carolina, revealed that people who live abroad for long periods of time have increased “self-concept clarity” - essentially, they understand themselves better than people who never live in a different country.
Tell us something we don’t know.
It’s no secret in the travel community that self-reflection comes hand in hand with interactions with local cultures and people with diverse backgrounds and individual beliefs. How does this person’s values align with or contradict my own? Do the beliefs I’ve held my entire life stand up to the unique experiences that I’ve been a part of during this time spent abroad?
In the face of discomfort and strangeness, we become either more sure of our opinions and values, or we question them and adopt new ways of seeing the world. We find out which of our beliefs are fundamental to who we are, and which we’ve simply absorbed from our own cultural upbringings.
The study that we mentioned earlier quoted German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling as a part of their research. Prepare yourself for this game-changing declaration: “The shortest path to oneself leads around the world.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Interestingly, the study showed that sense of self was not affected by the number of countries that a person has traveled to, but rather the length of time that they spent away from home. When travelers give themselves a chance to fully experience the culture of the city that they visit, they are more likely to experience a clearer self-concept.
These findings align with the lifestyle that work and travel programs support. Travel isn’t just a means to escape the demands of modern society through temporary solutions like taking a vacation. It can become a way of life through more holistic opportunities like work and travel programs.
While transitioning into a flexible work arrangement is a major benefit of joining a work and travel program, it’s clear from this study that there are personal growth benefits as well. Along with the daily excitement and curiosity that comes with living in a new environment, you’ll be repeatedly confronted with chances to re-evaluate your own values, preconceived notions, and long held opinions related to business and personal life. You will become familiar with the customs and cultures of the people whose country you are living and working in, and you will develop empathy toward others in a way that isn’t possible when you stay inside of your bubble.
“Traveling, long-term or not, helps cultivate empathy,” Olga Kraineva, a member of Remote Year Veritas, said. “After your very first trip outside of your native country, you begin to see that your way of living is not the only way to live. Different cultures have different values and customs which are equally important to them as your habits and customs are to you.”
“This, in turn, helps open your world view, improve compassion for others, and cultivate new ideas. One of the biggest changes for me coming back after continent-hopping and living abroad for 14+ months was realizing that I don't have to continue living exactly as I had before. I can adopt new practices, new philosophies or new habits based on what I've picked up on the road for an overall richer life. That translates into happiness.”
That kind of global perspective is an integral part of succeeding in today’s interconnected society. We are no longer confined to our hometowns, or even our home countries, when it comes to our professional pursuits. Companies are increasingly likely to hire prospective candidates with experience working with global communities, a skill that you’re bound to pick up on a work and travel program.
“Extended periods of time spent in a foreign country can yield numerous benefits that come with a clear sense of self, ranging from greater life satisfaction to decreased stress, improved job performance and - as the new research shows - enhanced clarity about the types of careers that best match an individual's strengths and values. Having a clear sense of self could thus become increasingly important in today's world with its unprecedented range of available career options,” the researchers said in the press released that followed their study.
So, yes, traveling does make you different. You’ll not only understand yourself better, you’ll understand other people better as well. Compared to those who stick around their home countries, you’ll have had more opportunities for personal and professional growth - and likely have an upper hand in life because of them. There are just some things that you can’t learn from a book, and the life experiences that you’ll gain from travel will teach you most - if not all - of them.