How to Really, Truly 'Think Outside the Box'

By Mike Elgan Print this article Print
Thinking Creatively

What is "the box"? And why would you want to think outside it? Here's why—and how.

In defending the coffee shop campers, I took readers outside this box to look at why coffee shops exist in the first place. I pointed out that today's coffee shops descend from English coffee houses that emerged as a cultural force in the mid-17th century. Their function was to serve as a meeting place for political conversation, journalism and conducting business.

Those coffee houses served a social function that was necessary for cultural movements like, say, the industrial revolution and the rise of democracy. Everyone knows of the insurance giant Lloyd's of London, but few know that Lloyd's was a coffee house, in which the tables were used as part of an office for the founders' business dealings.

Once I took readers outside the box, I made a shameless appeal to emotion by saying that within the consumer marketplace box, "We’re not supposed to be citizens, thinkers or makers. We’re supposed to be consumers." And of course, I'm implying to the reader: "Is that all you are? Just a consumer?"

Whether you agree with my opinion or not, the line of reasoning was based on understanding the box in which my opponents reside, and then taking my readers outside it.

How Magicians Think Outside the Box  

All slight-of-hand magic is an intense engagement with the box. It works by making the audience think they understand the box, and then the magic is performed with out-of-the-box actions that are kept secret from the audience.

The magic duo Penn and Teller do the cup-and-ball trick, in which balls of aluminum foil seem to magically appear where you don't expect them. For example, Teller picks up a cup to reveal that there's no foil under a specific cup, puts the cup down, and then instantly lifts it up again to show the ball.

The box in this case is the audience's understand of what's happening based on what they can see. The out-of-the-box part is that Penn and Teller are doing things the audience cannot see.

They then do the whole trick again with clear cups, revealing how the trick is done. They show the audience the box, their out-of-the-box actions and the point that the idea itself is out-of-the-box thinking for magicians.

How Comedians Think Outside the Box  

Some of the best comedy writing is about surprising the audience with out-of-the-box thinking. The comedian sets up a context to get everyone expecting a direction (a box), then suddenly reveals that the whole bit is going in a totally unexpected direction (outside the box). Another approach is to bring up a box that already exists in the culture and shatter it.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld does a bit about donut holes that takes the latter approach. The concept of a donut hole is a culturally familiar artifact that we've been conditioned to understand. But Seinfeld's routine is about thinking outside the box in regard to donut holes.

Seinfeld says that "a hole is the absence of whatever is surrounding it. If they were really donut holes, the bag would be empty. And the donuts that you got the holes from wouldn't have holes ... because you took 'em."

The master of this style of comedy was George Carlin, who spent his entire career shattering various boxes by taking a literalist approach to language.

How to Think Outside the Box

We can learn from opinion columnists, magicians and comedians what thinking outside the box really means, how to do it and why.

Thinking outside the box is the opposite of an undisciplined, scattershot contrivance of wild ideas that are merely different.

Quality out-of-the-box thinking is based on a deep understanding of the box itself: What's wrong with it, what's right about it and why it exists.

We should thoroughly examine the underlying assumptions that contribute to the box of conventional thinking. "Is our thinking based on the assumption that our future customers will behave just like our past customers, and, if so, is that a good assumption?" "Should we be targeting the customers we already have, or the customers we don't have yet?"

Ask what-if on as many points as possible. "What if we brought back the department we previously outsourced?" "What if we hired fewer interns, but paid them more?"

Above all, we should ask, "Why do we think the way we think?" Only when we truly understand the assumptions, knowledge, beliefs and overall sources of the conventional line of thinking can we think beyond it.

We can only think outside the box when we have a thorough understanding of the box itself.

This article was originally published on 2016-07-28

Mike Elgan, a Baseline contributor, is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger. http://elgan.com/

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