How to think out of the box


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

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  1. Kent @ HR Uncovered
    Kent @ HR Uncovered says:

    Excellent post! You can’t “think outside the box” if you aren’t firmly aware of what is in the box. How do you know your idea is creative if you don’t have a firm grasp on what the collective is doing?

    I think the last line paragraph of this post is a remarkeable insight.

  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Hmmmm. It would be great for us out-of-the-box thinkers to find each other more easily so we’re not as lonely, distanced from the people we annoy. I wonder what that could look like?

  3. Lauren V
    Lauren V says:

    Thank you for this. I’m a professional musician, and this sums up what those hours in the practice room are all about. Learn as much as you possibly can about your craft/instrument before you can hope to create something truly compelling. It’s nice to be reminded of this from your perspective.

  4. Steven Pofcher
    Steven Pofcher says:

    Penelope –
    Nice post. I find that the people who most say to “think out of the box” are the non-creative, dull types. They don’t even know what the box looks like. I once had a Human Resources manager, fitting this description who always said to me, “think outside the four points.” I always questioned his meaning and he had a difficult time explaining.

    You are very spot-on that the box needs to be tightly defined, before you can think out the box. People complain that when rules are in place, they cannot be creative. This is so NOT true. The best advertising folks that I have dealt with always want a very tightly defined creative brief for developing advertising. This would allow them to provide the best targeted and creative work.

    I do disagree with your comment, “People who are truly weird spend lots of time trying to figure out how to fit in.” This is not always the case with creative or even R&D types, such as artists, musicians, engineers. Some of these folks may tend to indulge in their weirdness.

  5. Sally
    Sally says:

    This post is so timely. For the last few days, after a conference, I was feeling down about not fitting in with a certain group of colleagues (actually feeling quite freakish and sad), then I decided f-it, I should just figure out how I want to be in that world without being just like them, using what I know best (and they don’t.) Then along came your post to fuel my thoughts further. I do think that time is an essential part of the equation (your examples testify to that.) Penelope, you always inspire me to think just a little more about something, to take it a little deeper. Thank you.

  6. Treacle
    Treacle says:

    This article really resonated with me, not just because I have a former boss who constantly told me to “think outside the box” (while never offering a creative idea of her own) but because I really want to push myself to be more controversial, original, and creative on my own blog this year. It’s hard and it’s uncomfortable, but I hope it becomes easier with practice.

  7. Rick C.
    Rick C. says:

    Reminds me of a minor character from Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” a millionaire. He would study a field in business for years, and then when he started something, it would be a venture out of left field, operating in ways that made no sense to the market, as if he’d never studied it at all. Some of his startups were wildly successful and others failed miserably. He ran them all with incredible energy.

  8. QueenCeleste
    QueenCeleste says:

    I just discovered your site and I am loving it. So far, I’m in pretty much 100% agreement with all your posts. Thanks!

  9. Matthew
    Matthew says:

    When I click on the John Cage youtube link, I get the blog post redisplayed without the video link. Is there supposed to be a link to the John Cage recital or just a picture of him or nothing except a text reference.

    • pasha
      pasha says:

      Maybe it’s a parallel to Cage’s learning all about the music, and to the point where he knows he can annoy the audience with the silence translated into a blog with a link that doesn’t do so much? Just a thought.

      • pasha
        pasha says:

        Thanks, Helen! But I didn’t really do anything… I just said what I thought that Penelope did. Funny how that turned out. (Have been collecting ideas for what turns out to be original art — when I’ve seen something cool but it turns out that I saw it wrong and so it didn’t exist in the first place. Am surprised at how many times that’s happened to me. Like, it turns out, just now.)

  10. MH Williams
    MH Williams says:

    Penelope- So true.. I worked in the art gallery business for years. The artists and I mean all of them were all a little, sometimes a lot crazy. Or, just different really. The work was phenomenal. The ideas were breathtaking. The conversations were stimulating. Observing and listening to these highly creative people inspired and provoked me in ways that I still use today.
    You will never hear an art person say “just think out of the box” That would be an insult.:0

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I definitely agree with you about knowing the rules. I usually refer to them as ‘details’ rather than rules but I think it’s splitting hairs and a matter of semantics. Maybe not but I understand your meaning. The more I study a certain subject area, the more complex it becomes until I start getting the ah-ha moments and then am able to simplify what was previously complex to me. It becomes a joy to readily understand what was previously complex and be able to define the ‘box’ in terms that are readily and easily understandable to myself.
    I like this rule of yours – “So here's a rule: it's not out of the box if it's not in the vicinity of the box.” – because it made me think of rules and the preciseness of what it takes to be out of the ‘box’.
    It’s good to see an embedded video here. I’m betting you will be able to offer up some videos of your own in the future with your camera.
    Also, why is it always out of the ‘box’? How about outside of the circle, rectangle, polygon, or some other geometric shape.

  12. Dannielle Blumenthal
    Dannielle Blumenthal says:

    I am glad you wrote this though from my experience the route to achieving happy out-of-the-box-ness is different than what you outlined.

    Basically I don’t think you should waste time studying unoriginal thinking so you can tweak it. The way to be original and creative is to practice the skill of thinking and feeling independently without reference to others or needing a big high-five every time you utter a word.

    The reality is, creative people are lonely in their creativity due to the lack of constant affirmation. (Images of struggling unknown comedians come to mind.) So what also helps is joining online social networks where your particular brand of goofy is welcome. Surrounding yourself with people who know and love the real you. And feeding your brain with whatever you find stimulating.

    (I agree re studying 1) for the sake of understanding the conversation and 2) so you don’t sound like a doof when you proclaim originality and are not, but that’s it.)

    • Angela DuBois
      Angela DuBois says:

      Has to be SOME frame-of-reference, otherwise how do you k ow that you’re not just re-inventing the wheel?

  13. pasha
    pasha says:

    Penelope, this entry, along with others, makes me want to love you and have sex with you and everything. Your writing so often connects with something in my brain that makes me so crazy and unable to even try to communicate with you. Whew! Mikhail Mikhail….ski, or something (I just started calling him “Mike” because the name is too unwieldy) said you really had to know something deeply before you could have new ideas, a sentiment echoed above. I disagree with alla’y’all. I was playing chess in my late teens, my smart-ass sister walks by — hey! why don’t you play B-R5?! She didn’t know anything. I burned up a lot of clock time evaluating the suggestion. Outsiders can have worthwhile suggestions. It’s more special when insiders come up with new stuff, partly because it’s tougher for them to think up new stuff, and because they’ll make fewer ridiculous suggestions than outsiders. What about brainstorming? Everyone, including outsiders and generally ridiculous people are valuable there. It’s my bedtime.

  14. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    Wow, so many responses in my head!

    1. You’ll probably like this quote, if you haven’t seen it before: “Innovators and creators are persons who can to a higher degree than average accept the condition of aloneness. They are more willing to follow their own vision, even when it takes them far from the mainland of the human community. Unexplored places do not frighten them- or not, at any rate, as much as they frighten those around them. This is one of the secrets of their power. That which we call “genius” has a great deal to do with courage and daring, a great deal to do with nerve.” (Nathaniel Branden)

    2. The discussion of John Cage is very timely. I’ve been working this year on increasing how much time I spend each day working on my own creative writing – novel, short stories, poems. I recently wondered if maybe the most perfect poem would be one in which the poet wrote everything he felt, then removed all the superfluous words, finally leaving just a blank page with everything crossed out.

    3. “The thing about thinking out of the box is you have to know where the box is.” YES. Sometimes this is phrased as ‘you have to learn the rules in order to learn how to break the rules.’

  15. Cathy Reisenwitz
    Cathy Reisenwitz says:

    “(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.)”

    It looks like, from this study (, that the popular kids in high school do in fact go on to make all the money. Well, not all the money, but more money than the less popular.

  16. .Bryan
    .Bryan says:

    Dear Penelope,
    I’m very glad I found your blog. I subscribed because when I read you had aspergers (my ex had autism running thuout her family, her father, herself, and her daughter all of whom excel in some area) and I read how original your topics were I knew I might have an opportunity to read about something that might help me with my current situation. I wish you would write more about people finding appropriate work. I’m 57 and have never found my “thing”. I’ve always floated from one thing to another. First a degree in Psych, then Electrical Technology, then work in electronics then computers, then nursing. And now unemployed. None of these jobs satisfied those key areas you mention in your happiness on the job article. Would love to read more about how to achieve this and any resources that might shed some light on the subject. And i agree with mental illness yielding increased creativity (also intelligence). My mother suffered from mental illness/depression. But she was a very smart lady in her own way. I feel my own creativity, but at the same time can’t seem to tap into it in a way that it can keep me working and satisfied….I await anxiously for your next writings in hopes of getting additional insights….Thank you for your valuable service!

  17. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    @ Pasha – the name of that guy is “Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi”

    @ Everybody, a question: do people at work still say ‘think outside the box’, for real?
    I haven’t heard that expression since grad school.

    • Lindsay
      Lindsay says:

      No, I don’t think so. I hear ‘disruptive innovation’ or ‘disruptive technology’ more often. Also ‘creative problem-solving’ and similar terms.

    • Kate
      Kate says:

      yes, but the new word for ‘think out of the box’ is ‘innovation’ – same things apply – how can you be innovative if you don’t know where you are starting from?

  18. Karen Tiede
    Karen Tiede says:

    Good post!

    I’ve always hated seeing people quote only the first part of Einstein on imagination and knowledge, when the whole thing is, “"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

    Imagination alone, with the support of knowledge, gets some really boneheaded ideas. Furthermore, ideas on their own are often useless, and vastly less valuable than their thinkers sometimes expect. The glory (and the hard work) is in the implementation, not the idea.

  19. ROFLCatDown
    ROFLCatDown says:

    OK, the bigger question then becomes. “What is the box?”

    What are its dimensions, and what does it encompass. If you’re telling me to think outside of it, I need to know where the box starts and where it ends.

    I find that often “out of the box thinking” starts more with an end-point than a premise. “I want to do something cool” is not an end point. It’s a premise. It’s like saying you want to write a book. OK, great, a book… About what? Grilled Cheese Sandwiches.

    OK, so now you have a book about Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. What about it? Is this your personal idea of what the perfect grilled cheese sandwich is? It’s Zen? It’s applications for bringing about world peace?

    Or are you going to be a food geek? Are you going to go into the physics involved in making a grilled cheese sandwich. Which pieces of the process induce which flavor, which color, which texture… And how to enhance each as you see fit?

    Maybe you’re looking to deconstruct a grilled cheese sandwich. Maybe you’re toasting squares of bread to be dipped into a fondue mixture. or, creating some sort of Grilled Cheese Nachos?

    My best work has always been when my boss gives me a vague end-point and leaves me to interpret how his request fits into the business.

    “ROFL, we’re spending too much money on T1 lines for the call center. How can we reduce this without hurting service quality?”

    Well, OK, I know that we need X # of T1 lines, and that we need X service to back that up in case of failure, but looking at the contract with our carrier I see that they have agreed to allow me to drop a larger circuit at the carrier switch office, and they will mux their service onto the line. Which means that instead of $300 per T1 line on the SONET ring, I pay $750 for a DS3… And buy a $2500 MUX with a $2500 physical spare. I can fit 28 T1 lines on a DS3, so the cost difference is $4850 per full DS3 of service. In the second month of doing this the company has paid for the new MUXes, and since I only need to buy the physical spare once, each additional DS3 begins saving the company money in the first month of operation.

    Suddenly you’ve just shaved off $174K in operating expenses per year for 3 DS3s simply by applying a different approach than “how it has always been done”…

    You mock people who write about intimate events such as masturbation, or sex, or whatever. But you’re wrong for doing this. The reason you’re wrong is because you’re asking them to think outside of their box, not outside of yours. They don’t know what your box is, so they can’t manipulate that.

  20. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I think “thinking outside the box” is something Babyboomers say at the beginning of “strategy sessions” for “creating synergy.” But I’m also someone who was forced to read Who Moved My Cheese? early in my career and just kept thinking, “why not just go to where the damn cheese is?”

    I think the tough thing about being a creative, or unique, or whatever you want to call it thinker, is that on your way up the career ladder you need to climb over all the people in their boxes and you’re only in your 20s and they tell you the reason you don’t see things their way is that you’re too young. Then you get older, continue with your “crazy” ideas, and all the sudden you’re a creative thinker. And then you are rewarded for it.

    • NetWriterM
      NetWriterM says:

      Oh definitely relate to this. I used to project back onto myself negatively. I thought maybe I was dumb or missing something. Maybe it was my age.

      Turns out I assimilate the box very rapidly and then origami it into something else entirely before everyone else even realizes there is a box.

      With time, not age, but time I had enough credibility via my work performance that people realized I was worth listening to.


  21. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m always on the lookout for those who help to de-stigmatize mental illness and mental health related issues. The reality is that all of us have people in our ancestries who experienced some kind of what we call “mental illness or mental health issue,” in addition to our own — named or unnamed. As a seasoned psychotherapist, I see again and again how de-humanizing our culture’s biases are toward these experiences. Your post inspires people to be seen as people, not an illness. Thanks again.

  22. James M
    James M says:

    Douglas Rushkoff wrote a great book called “Get Back in the Box” about how companies need to focus more on improving what they are good at rather than trying to become something they are not (ie Apple took a dip when they tried to be more like Microsoft and have their operating system on other PCs, or how a lot of companies are trying to create their own iPod/iPhone). I like your idea of how people need to learn all the rules for their field, and then they can discover themselves and break them. I always found that if I stuck to the rules, I would find out what didn’t work out properly and be able to change them for the better.

    Lots of great ideas in here, and I love John Cage’s compositions, too.

  23. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    This is so true. Most of the time I feel like I’m totally floundering. And it’s because I have no idea what I’m doing or what I’m talking about. I try to tell myself it’s ok as long as I’m learning all the time but I feel like I don’t know as much as I should. Maybe it’s not whether to think in or out of the box but which box to start thinking about? And there’s plenty of mental illness in my family (which includes a suspected murderess) so maybe I have all sorts of untapped creativity…

  24. NetWriterM
    NetWriterM says:

    I am an outside-the-box thinker and like you, I also like to know all the rules first. It’s hard to be outside the box because I found I was always several steps ahead of everyone else and had a stronger grasp on issues; I had to wait for people to catch up. Which was boring and my ideas made me controversial at times as well.

    So the key for me, at least, in hindsight, is knowing how to bring people outside the box with you.


  25. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Yes. In case I wasn’t clear, yes. Which makes getting older not so bad as it could be. What is often called the wisdom of the aged is exactly this box thing you’re talking about.

  26. Lucy G.
    Lucy G. says:

    Absolutely, 100% spot on. Be very very afraid of people who tell you to think outside the box. Puh-leeze. I’ve had an amazing career (made a ton of money doing something that I never dreamed I could do,) switched gears and have started a 2nd mid-life career that is turning out to be a crazy, wild ride. I’ve never considered a box to think outside of before. If you find yourself in a situation where someone feels the need to tell you to think outside of a box, run like hell. You’re in the wrong place to begin with. Only do what you love with people who can inspire you. Only you can put yourself inside the box…

  27. Michael Martine
    Michael Martine says:

    The reason telling someone to "think out of the box" is so stupid is because it really means "I hate all your ideas"


    Yes, I read the whole post, but really, that first sentence was worth all the rest.

  28. Tom
    Tom says:

    I agree with your conclusions Penelope, and I love the approach of the mental problems being a positive.

    When thinking out of your box I believe the opposite.


  29. Paul Basile
    Paul Basile says:

    This post is good and thought-provoking as usual. One point though: just being outside the box is, in my view (no research here, for a change) no big deal. The big deal is to do something good, something worthy, outside the box. The undeniable fact about creativity is that most of it is lousy, poor quality, badly conceived. Almost everyone who does great, creative things has a much, much larger collection of crap. So, think outside the box, sure. That’s not enough, it never has been and never will be.

  30. QuinnCreative
    QuinnCreative says:

    The best way, then, to think outside the box, is to have lived within the box for years with the lid nailed shut. It makes you appreciate the blinding light and fresh air when you finally pry a piece of the lid open. Then, when you finally squeeze and tear your way out, you no longer think of it as a safe place.

  31. Maria Killam
    Maria Killam says:

    Such a great article. I am saying what a lot of people are in that you have such a fascinating way of distinguishing and breaking down what something like ‘thinking out of the box’ really means. Love it!
    Great post as usual!

  32. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I would always use a joke when one person would say that another person “really thinks outside the box”…If I didn’t agree I would always come back with “Their box is so small they can’t help but think outside of it”. It just came out one day but I started to realize that it had more merit than I thought.

    This is similar to knowing history so you don’t repeat it – realize the boundaries you are working in so you don’t repeat the the repetitive.

  33. Maureen Sharib
    Maureen Sharib says:

    We had an interesting discussion on LinkedIn a spell back about thinking inside the box – some of you might enjoy it:

    The artist corollary really struck me.
    Have you ever tried to duplicate an artists work?
    You know, that, “Ha! I could paint that with my left hand,” kind of thinking…try it. It helps to explain genius.

  34. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Love the post, but you’re wrong about Cage’s 4’33.

    The point was not to “annoy” the audience with silence, but to allow them to notice the chance sounds which arise when there is no music played, and to develop a quiet contemplative mind. The annoyed (Western) audience was an unintended consequence.

    • JV
      JV says:

      The intended “music” was the sound of the audience itself. The uncomfortable silences, the squeaking of the seats, the sighs, the impatience, the sneezes and coughs. The point he was trying to make is that there is music in every aspect of our lives, whether those sounds were intentional or not, and whether they were intended for an audience or not.

      Just another interpretation..

  35. JV
    JV says:

    Great post. I loved the part about your experiences teaching the freshman writing course. I have taught some writing workshops myself and I’ve always felt that many writers simply ignore their own intuitions. But, perhaps the problem is not “thinking outside the box,” but rather, it’s the difficulty of showing the writer that the box does not exist.

    • Michael Fontaine
      Michael Fontaine says:

      As a writing coach and editor, I find that writers who want to improve struggle with both avoiding the cliches of their chosen genre and developing their own voice. I can forgive them using a cliche if they are writing in something close to an interesting, unique voice. Everyone has a voice, and finding it can make even cliches tolerable. Unique story ideas are all gone–everyone copies their plots–but everyone does have a unique voice if they work hard to develop it.

  36. Ash
    Ash says:

    Hmm, another great article as always. But I’m still a bit worried about your relationship with the farmer, hope things are going well.

  37. colette Boeker
    colette Boeker says:

    I appreciate the discussion on creativity but fear our columnist does not know what she does not know. I strongly recommend the book, The Black Swan.
    On another note, the argument regarding poor white people was very weak, and lacked compassion and understanding at a time when 14% of the U.S. is below the poverty level. It condescends…dear author, is it possible that they might be creative in some ways too.

  38. Angela
    Angela says:

    I was going to comment on the freshman comp examples and realized I would have just repeated several other comments. I need to find some scissors to open this box fast!

  39. Dustin Newman
    Dustin Newman says:

    To be original and relevant – you have to know what the box is. If you are coming up with ideas with no reference, your ideas become expensive and not useful – and people have no respect for you or your idea. It is only knowing your craft extremely well that you can see the biggest flaws and improve them…and create something truly valuable that others will connect with. Empathy is part of this – you must understand others problems with the current box (usually not what they say their issues are with the box, but the deeper issues), be knowledgeable about the various solutions and combine specific solutions to create value – outside of the box.

  40. Sociologist Tina
    Sociologist Tina says:

    Most of my life I HAVE been thinking outside the box. My problem has been that I didn’t even know it!

    BOY, has that been a problem!

    But now I’m starting to figure it out…

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