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Who Am I? You May Find the Answer Abroad.

New research finds living abroad helps people discern their true natures from culturally imposed traits and values.
People walk in front of the Garnier Opera House in Paris, France, on March 21st, 2018.

People walk in front of the Garnier Opera House in Paris, France, on March 21st, 2018.

What are my core beliefs? What do I want to do with my life? These are among the most important questions young people can ask themselves as they decide on a career path.

Knowing whether you are truly following your heart, as opposed to reflexively following some societal script, can be the difference between a fulfilled life and a frustrating one.

New research identifies a way they can get some welcome clarity: Spend time living abroad.

"The German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling wrote in the epigraph to his 1919 book The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, 'The shortest path to oneself leads around the world,'" writes a research team led by Hajo Adam of Rice University. "Almost 100 years later, our research provides empirical evidence in support of this idea."

Spending significant time overseas has been linked to a variety of positive outcomes, including increased creativity. In the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Adam and his colleagues report one of them is a clearer sense of self.

"As people grow up in their home culture, they learn what is consensually believed, which in turn influences how they think and behave," they write. "Thus when people only stay in their home country, they have few opportunities to question and ascertain if the beliefs that drive their thoughts and behaviors are consistent with their own core values.... In contrast, when living abroad, such opportunities for self-examination abound."

The first of the researchers' six studies featured 296 Americans recruited online, half of whom had lived abroad. They filled out a survey in which they expressed their level of agreement with statements such as "I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am" and "I seldom experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality."

"Participants who lived abroad reported greater self-concept clarity," the researchers report. This remained true after taking such factors as age and gender into account.

The second study, which featured 263 Americans—136 of whom had lived abroad—replicated those results. It also found those who had lived overseas were more likely to engage in "self-discerning reflections," suggesting the experience prompted them to examine their assumptions.

Another study tested whether this perceived increase in self-awareness was merely an illusion. A group of 551 first-year MBA students rated themselves on 10 important dimensions, including decision-making, managing conflict, working in teams, listening, and communicating. They then asked four or more fellow classmates, and four or more people they had worked with outside of school, to rate them on the same scales.

The result: Participants' own views of their strengths and weaknesses better matched the observations of others if they had lived abroad. Like the other studies, this one found the amount of time spent overseas, as opposed to the number of countries visited, was key.

A final study uncovered a practical benefit to this self-awareness. MBA students who had lived abroad were more clear about their plans after finishing their education.

So, to quote another piece of century-old advice, go West, young man (or woman). Or East, if you prefer. Just get out of the country for a while. Along with other joys and benefits, the experience can provide invaluable internal clarity.