It was 1986, or 87, when I first heard it. We were called into a meeting with the new VP of the division. It was just a small group of us in our department. The new guy was doing little pow wows with his teams one by one. During our get-to-know session, he told us how he was looking for us to think outside the box. It’s one of those times that a phrase strikes you. It’s only been about 25 years since, and I heard someone mention the phrase two days ago. And a thousand times in between.
When I first heard it, I struggled to grasp the full implication. It was obvious that it meant to think non-conventional. But the box was my head, I thought. Therefore, my head was wholly in the box. If I’ve got to think outside it, how do I get out there? Where is that capacity if not in my boxed head? Convention was boxed in. Was unconventional not boxed in?
Thinking outside the box was a cliche developed to help us get past conundrums. But the phrase itself was a conundrum. How am I going to think so that it’s out of my head thinking? Convention is in there, but perhaps along with lots of other stuff; crap, emptiness, thickness, and unrecognizable creative material.
The new VP mentioned the phrase several times during that first meeting. I gathered he was looking for creative thinkers. He wanted people on his team who looked to solving problems by thinking unconventionally. Then I thought, ‘he just doesn’t want a bunch of dummies working for him.’ I could understand that. If I was in his position, I would want some lateral thinkers. I thought, ‘I’d better take off my dummy hat and get out of this box. I’ve got to find a way out of my head.’ I didn’t want to be one of his dummies. I thought I was using my whole head. But maybe I wasn’t.
After I was infected with the box complex, it seemed that paradigm shifting was all the rage. What? You are thinking normally? You’ve got to shift your paradigm. You’d better keep a few extra paradigms in your closet. Maybe not only shift it, but change it altogether. Don’t just think like a normal numb nut, put on a new shift. See the world differently. Change those internal eye balls. Or at least shift them.
Don’t worry, this post is not about how smart or creative I am or how I achieved non-dummy status or the breadth of my paradigm closet. Quite the contrary. I’ve been told often enough how thick-headed I am, which tells me I’m firmly planted in the box. Since I first heard the think outside the box phrase, I’m still trying to figure out how to venture outside. That MBA degree from the mid-80’s was all inside-the-box stuff. Clearly, that did nothing to help me out of my head.
Some cultures, societies, environments, families, promote construction of different box sizes and types. Some are large and spacious, pliable, complete with ventilation. Others are stuffy, rigid, almost unbreakable. Some construct boxes that make sense to them, while others like their boxes conforming to those they admire.
But I guess the whole point of those cliches is, not just to be open, but to forcibly move your mind to another place. Getting or thinking outside the box is just thinking differently. It’s like mental stretching. The more we stretch the more flexible we are, the less stiff and achy we become?
So lately I’ve found I’ve been coaching myself again to “think different.” Not that I’m not content with current thought, or that I’m not happy. None of that. It’s all about stretching. If getting out of my head won’t work, then how might I make it more efficient? If I can’t get out of the box, then the box has got to work well. How can I cut up and compartmentalize things (emotion, pleasure, reaction, and garbage thought) so creativity is center front. The out-of-box solutions are really in the box.
There are hundreds of suggestions for thinking outside the box. I’ve tried a variety of them, some by accident. Basically, we are looking to alter perspective. One exercise, they say, is invoking the non-dominate hemisphere.
When I was a kid and my mother was teaching me table manners, one of the many rules was that people eat with their right hands. Being a left-hander, it was awkward to eat with the right. So I had to force myself, until it became natural. I still prefer eating with the left. Chopsticks with my right hand is work. They work fine in the left.
Years ago as I was shaving with my left hand, I decided to start shaving with my right. It was weird. But I forced myself. Now each hand impatiently waits its turn to work the razor. Back when I was learning to golf, I had to learn right-handed. There were no left-handed clubs. We routinely put our pants on with the same leg first, usually the dominate leg. We fall into mechanical routines. Box routines.
Trying to change things up keeps life from getting boring. If I’m in a routine at the gym and I’m feeling a little unmotivated, but not enough to change the routine completely, I can do it backwards. If we walk one way to work, we can purposely take another way home. It’s as safe and healthy to have routines as it is safe and healthy to break them. Nothing is preventing me from running backwards. I saw a guy doing that just the other day. Running backwards doesn’t mean going backwards.
Has any of the forced invoking of the non-dominate or consistently breaking routines worked? Who knows. I do know that after all these years since first hearing the cute cliche, I’m still trying to give the box a different shape. I wonder at times if I’m still trying to graduate from dummy school. But I’ll get there one day.
Maybe just rounding off the corners will do the trick. Get rid of the angles. Think outside the box? What box? I’m in a sphere.
Now if only the lymph fluid in the left side of my neck would do its own paradigm shift. That thick left neck is doing nothing for relieving the thickness in the box above it. But some day I’ll find a way out. In the meantime all I ask is, just don’t box me in.