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Re-Location Is an Entrepreneurial Act

Out of necessity, old habits die easily for migrants.
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(Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Why are immigrants more entrepreneurial than native-born adults? Migrants act as agents of knowledge transfer. But that quality explains the diffusion of innovation, not the likelihood of starting up a business. Perhaps the re-location experience itself fosters the proper mindset. A psychologist helping employers understand the stress associated with re-location:

When people relocate to a new city for a job, none of their routines work in any facet of their lives. Walking around the house, commuting to work, and navigating the office all require new habits. All of that happens at about the same time.

Each moment of each day requires a newcomer to innovate on the fly. Nothing comes easy. To use Daniel Kahneman's construct, old habits represent a System 2 approach (thinking fast). New habits require System 1 thinking (slow), which is hard work. The migrant takes nothing for granted, deeply analyzing what used to be routine. She sees the world anew.

Such fresh eyes can see the possibility of place that locals overlook out of habit. Which is to say, one needn't migrate to switch from System 2 (fast) to System 1 (slow) thinking. Another feature of re-location anxiety:

Human beings are a deeply social species. We are not that impressive as individuals, but in groups we thrive. Relocating breaks a lot of people’s social connections both in their personal life and in their professional life.

Reverse engineering the above malady, breaking one's social networks approximates the re-location experience. Social networks with strong ties provide fertile ground for System 2 thinking, the structure of routine. We "thrive" in groups because those tribal relationships allow our minds to be lazy. We don't have to be on all the time, which is exhausting. Ask anyone who has studied abroad how exhausting it is. But if one were to study abroad at home, such as quitting your job and moving to the other side of town, it might spark an entrepreneurial fire.

Breaking out of a routine isn't easy for a tenured resident. Old networks will aid in the search for a new job and a new neighborhood. What looks like white flight is really inbreeding homophily. Even in re-location, migrants seek the comforts of System 2. We go where we know people.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.