Personal experience: why immigrants have more chances of success in the USA than Americans
Olga Khazan grew up in the USA, she has Russian-Jewish roots. Since childhood, she stood out for its unusualness compared to other children. In his article in the publication The Atlantic Olga told why being strange is not so bad for life.
Next - from the first person.
In most cases, childhood was rather strange. I am an immigrant of Russian-Jewish descent, I grew up in Midland (Texas), in a region where the biggest claim to fame is the former home of President George W. Bush. In preschool age I had problems due to the fact that I did not pray before meals and did not know what the “Super Bowl” is about, which everyone spoke about. I felt hopelessly different from everyone in our city.
Even after we moved to a suburb of Dallas (Texas), I never met a single Russian immigrant like me. I rode the bus alone; spent almost every evening alone. Then she started talking to herself - a habit, which, unfortunately, remained. Once, someone threw toilet paper at our house, and I had to explain to my parents that American children do this to losers. Not embarrassed, my dad readily scooped up toilet paper in a trash bag and put it in the bathroom for future use. “Free toilet paper!” He said happily at dinner.
All I wanted was to be normal. I wanted to be as American as my classmates. I wanted a normal past so that when I told people something, they would not ask all the time: “Why?” But over time, she realized what it means to be different from others. In fact, case studies show that by being an eccentric or socially rejected one can become a very creative person.
Sharon Kim, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University Business School, told me that she has always noticed that some people associate their creative successes with being single or rebel. Kim wondered if the socially outcasts were more creative, so she decided to test the theory by inviting a few volunteers to her lab to do a few exercises.
Kim asked participants to complete these exercises on paper. In one of them, they should have determined what unites a series of seemingly unconnected words (for example, fish, mine and jerk). In another, they were asked to draw an alien from a planet very different from ours.
It turned out that those whom society did not accept were better at both exercises. For an alien quest, ordinary participants drew standard cartoon martians. But those rejected by society depicted aliens that looked completely different: all of their limbs were sticking out on one side of the body or their eyes were under their nose. According to three independent judges, the rogue drawings were more creative.
So strangeness and creativity are interconnected, Kim decided. But with a reservation. The advantage was visible only among the participants with "independent self-esteem" - that is, they already understood that they were not like everyone else, and were not ashamed of it. It seemed that there was something that eccentricity could open your mind and allow new original ideas to be generated.
For many, this effect begins in childhood. When Arnold M. Ludwig, an associate professor of psychiatry at Brown University, for his book The Price of Greatness, examined the lives of more than 1000 prominent people, in particular Frida Kahlo, Jean-Paul Sartre and John Lennon, he found that creative people (for example, artists or writers) were more likely than, say, businessmen, to be considered “strange” in childhood, and more often than government officials or soldiers, “different” when they matured.
In his 1962 study of architects, psychologist Donald McKinnon also found that families of more creative architects traveled extensively when they were children, which seemed to "often lead to some family alienation from their immediate neighbors." Not surprisingly, many of the more creative architects said they felt isolated from society as children.
Unusual childhood is not the only thing that can make you more creative. What you consider “strange” in your culture can also increase creativity, which is called “integrative complexity”. People who are strong in integrative complexity tend to cope well with uncertainty and succeed in reconciling conflicting information. They can often see problems from different perspectives.
Chris Crandall, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, told me that people on the periphery of society tend to be more free to innovate and change social norms. “Fashionable standards come from the bottom up,” he said. Outsiders are less concerned with what the crowd thinks of them, so they have more room for experimentation.
In fact, people do not fit into a specific group, each time they find that they are able to think outside the box. Foreigners are also often considered strange. But the fact that you feel not at ease has its own psychological advantages. Say, children speak several languages, perhaps because, like me, they grew up in a country far from the one where they were born, and they better understand the point of view of an adult. In the future, such children can become successful communicators.
In one experiment, people who lived abroad were especially good at finding hidden solutions to verbal and conceptual problems. This may help explain why Pablo Picasso began experimenting with cubism in Paris, and George Friedrich Handel composed his Messiah while living in England.
Fortunately for those who have never lived abroad, this increase in creativity can also happen to people who live in an unusual mood, rather than in exotic places. In a small study by Rodica Damian, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, her colleagues forced college students to participate in an exercise in virtual reality in which the laws of physics were not applied. Compared to the other group performing the exercise, where the laws of physics functioned normally, the participants in the first experiment came up with more creative answers to the question “what does sound”.
Damian has a theory that she explores: all sorts of unusual experiences can increase creativity. For example, people often report breakouts after magical trips or extreme adventures. “The idea is that as soon as you experience things that violate norms, rules and expectations, you become more open,” Damian told me. “You understand that the world should not work according to your rules, so you can violate these rules.”
Of course, many oddities are not always good. If something too harsh happens to you, simply handling it can use up all your mental abilities. Say it's strange that a grizzly bear invades your yard and destroys your car. But instead of catching a creative wave, you will most likely call your insurance company.
On the subject: Enriching our speech: 45 English analogues of Russian proverbs
In any case, an attempt to think of one’s strangeness in a positive way is a process called reassessment of cognitive abilities. It can help you deal with the troubles that often arise because you stand out. Rethinking what makes you strange, like what gives you strength, can ultimately make you happier.
Unusual perspectives can also increase decision-making ability in the larger group of which you are a part. The famous experiments of Solomon Ashe in the 1950s showed a random absurdity of correspondence. When the participants in the experiment were asked to compare one line with the other three and choose the same line as the first (the other two were clearly different in length), they chose the wrong option in a third of cases only because the other participants in the experiment actually collaborated with the researcher and deliberately misled the participant by giving incorrect answers.
The experiment became a classic example of how willingly people follow the crowd. When later one of the participants was asked why he behaved this way, he replied that he was worried that he would be considered “strange”. That is, he did not want to be considered strange.
But less well-known is the experiment in which Ash introduced another variable - this time one of the like-minded people gave the correct answer, while the others tried to mislead the participant. Having only one person who went against the majority reduced the response rate by about 80 percent. Perhaps the participants felt that they and the dissent, at least, could be strange together. Interestingly, they were less likely to obey, even if the dissenter did not agree with the others, but was still wrong. It seems that the dissent gave the participants consent to disagree.
The liberating effect of dissenting points of view has been reproduced in other studies, and this underlines the value of having many people around. According to studies, the views of the minority are so strong that people tend to study them more carefully.
When we hear a dissenting opinion, we are more critical of what is being said, which encourages consideration of various aspects of the problem. Meanwhile, the majority encourages us to think only about data that supports the majority point of view. As Charlan Nemeth and Jack Gonzalo note in the book “Rebels in Groups”, “The minority stimulates more originality, and the majority stimulates more conventional thinking.”
Unfortunately, when people cease to be “weird,” these benefits disappear. When those who were once in the minority become the majority, studies show that they tend to become more closed. Strangeness has its advantages, but nothing is strange forever.
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