The reason telling someone to “think out of the box” is so stupid is because it really means “I hate all your ideas” or “I can't think out of the box myself, so I need you to.” In any case, it's lame to say.
But I read research from the University of Toronto and Harvard that people who are the really creative people, the ones who can think out of the box, usually have some sort of mental illness in their family history. So now I can stop feeling like I'm a big braggart when I say that I'm very creative. It's my payoff for a family full of mental problems.
But also, I think there are degrees of creativity, and knowing where you fall is really important, because then you know more about what you need to feel fulfilled.
We are all creative. The only thing we really have in this world is the ability to craft a life. One day your life will be over, and we are largely unsure what happens next, but during the time we're alive, we get to choose what we do. We create a life.
So I get annoyed when people talk like some people are creative and some aren't. It reminds me of poor white people who insult black people because they feel like they are too poor to pick on white people. If you feel bad about yourself, you pick on other people just to make yourself feel better.
It's useful to understand, though, that most people are comfortable thinking only in the box. We are social animals, we like to be accepted, we like to be liked. Thinking out of the box jostles everyone's world. And most people don't want to be jostled. So out-of-the-box thinkers are annoying, and largely lonely.
People who are truly weird spend lots of time trying to figure out how to fit in. Not fitting in is a luxury for in-the-box thinkers. (This is why, by the way, I think the popular kids in school do not make all the money after graduation. Generally, people get paid a lot because they're different, but high school popularity rewards people who are the same.)
The thing about thinking out of the box is you have to know where the box is. People think my talent is thinking out of the box. But that's not it—my talent is finding the box, defining it. I am great at studying the rules. I love rules. The rules are what the box is made of. So here's a rule: it's not out of the box if it's not in the vicinity of the box.
But most often, people waste their creativity thinking about stuff they know nothing about. So they have no idea if they are in the box or out of the box.
Here's a good example: I used to teach freshman writing at Boston University. I received way too many stories about the first time having sex or the first time masturbating. The writers thought they were being daring and original. In fact, they were writing in a long vein of this type of story (On the Road, Rubyfruit Jungle, The Pillow Book, even The Bible.) And the students were writing what was such a common story that graduate students would parody the stories in their free time.
If the freshmen had been reading literature in the genre where they were trying to write literature, they would have known.
Another thing. I get a request every day to write a guest post for this blog. I tell people you can write a guest post if you have a controversial opinion. People honestly have no idea what a controversial opinion is. They give me ideas for stuff that has been said a million times (for example, don't take a conventional career path).
It takes tremendous expertise in order to get out of the box. You have to have years thinking about the box, and watching people put things in, and then you have to have an idea that you recognize as fitting near the box but not in it. (Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, says this process takes 10,000 hours.)
Most composers, for example, learned to compose by following rules. John Cage has a composition I love, titled