Our natural environment is in peril; tensions between nations are escalating; and the world’s most powerful nation is led by a narcissist.
If we are to survive, we need to identify these new problems and seek new answers. Yesterday’s solutions will not suffice. We need innovators to come up with novel perspectives and angles. Where will these visionaries come from?
They will be migrants.
Across the world, migrants contribute to the labor force, pay taxes, enrich societies with cultural diversity, and humble us with their stories of persistence and triumph. But the most important contribution migrants make to the world is one that most of us overlook: they are innovators who possess an intangible ability to think outside the box.
In a piece titled “The creativity of immigrants,” the editorial board at Nature concluded, “New approaches often require an outsider perspective and levels of risk-taking incompatible with locally established conventions. Existing communities are stimulated to new thinking by exchange with incomers.”
Albert Einstein is an excellent example. Einstein was a migrant, who came of age in a situation of great hardship. Einstein was born in Germany, and spent five years of his life stateless. In 1901 he was granted Swiss citizenship. Then, in 1933, amidst the rise of Adolf Hitler, Einstein migrated to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1940.
The adversity that migrants like Einstein face encourages novel thinking.
According to venture capitalist and former Wall Street analyst Mary Meeker, immigrants and their children make up 27 percent of the United States’ population, but immigrants have founded more than 56 percent of the country’s tech companies. That’s an incredible overrepresentation of any population in any industry.
As a scholar of migration and international development, I can assure you such numbers do not emerge by mere chance. In my work, I sit down with migrants to get a sense of how their life experiences play into development outcomes. Over the years I’ve talked with hundreds of immigrants, and across all these conversations, one common thread stands out: migrants are risk takers.
Take Luis Alegría, for example. Luis is from Nicaragua but he worked in Brazil and Angola for nearly three years. I met up with Luis in Managua back in 2017 at the architectural firm that he opened with the money he saved while working abroad.
“Migrating is a huge risk,” Luis told me. “After you migrate, anything seems possible.”
Luis’ experience lines up with available research.
As David Lindstrom finds, migrants are typically young, single, and prone to taking risks. And risky behavior can have clear benefits.
According to Dagfinn Moe, a senior researcher at SINTEF Technology and Society in Norway, “Daring and risk-willingness activate and challenge the brain’s capacity and contribute toward learning, coping strategies and development.”
Migrants are typically young when they make their first move abroad. As Carnegie Mellon’s Sandra Kuhlman points out, that’s exactly the period when our brain is most rapidly developing. During our early years, our brain’s inhibitory cells are less active, which allows us to consider new ideas and perspectives with ease. This is largely why learning a new language is easier to do while we’re young. Obviously, adults can learn too, but mature brains have more active inhibitory cells, which slows down the process. This helps explain why researchers find that “risk-takers are smarter” than those who avoid adversity.
And while we do reduce the number of risks we take over time, risk-taking behavior sticks with us, which means that those of us who took more risks at a young age tend to take more risks later in life as well. In other words, risky behavior becomes part of who we are.
I believe there is an important and timely lesson buried in all of this.
Migrants are the solution, not the problem.
Due to the adversity migrants confront in their lives, they approach the world with an openness that others are unable to access. As risk-takers, migrants are more prone to innovative thinking, which is tightly linked with problem solving. In fact, given that humans have been migrating since the dawn of humanity, it’s quite likely that we have evolved to be at our best when on the move.
If anyone can come up with solutions to the problems our world faces, it’s migrants. And so, instead of closing borders to try and solve our social issues, leaders might consider the benefits of opening them.
Benjamin Waddell is Associate Professor of Sociology, Criminology, and Borderlands at Fort Lewis College. Until June, 2018, he served as the Academic Director of the School for International Training in Managua, Nicaragua.