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. Sam Davidson
    Sam Davidson says:

    This is one of your best posts. I hate the phrase “think outside of the box” yet I agree that you first have to know where it is. I never would have thought of it, but you’re right: you have to first learn the rules so you can know which ones to break. Well done.

  2. Theresa Kennedy
    Theresa Kennedy says:

    We are all mimes sometime…in a box. Take off the white face, gloves and that little french hat…hehe

  3. Ashok
    Ashok says:

    This post is the best definition for thinking out of the box, I like the point one shud first get into the box and learn rules and become expert and then only he has the ability to make that niche into his own creativities.

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  5. MarieSaxton
    MarieSaxton says:

    What a lot of words to say absolutely nothing!  Congratulations on getting to the point where you can get paid for that!

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    peace, love, emphaty says:

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  7. Anna
    Anna says:

    looked to find this post someone commented it was their favorite of the year. i’m glad i did. i have long been lauded for being able to think outside the box, but it is the only way i know – i can’t think inside the box even if i try. which kinda sucks, too.

  8. Danie J
    Danie J says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It’s very rare that I share things like this with my family and friends but I did feel the need to pass this along. If anything it makes you pause and think. :)

  9. Peter
    Peter says:

    Well Thinking by the rules will of course teach you a lot about everything. But I think the main idea behind thinking out of box is to find something “YOURS” behind all those rules and ideas that others use. Just like John Cage, I think he might developed what he has because of putting little bit of himeself in to the work he done.

    anyways, I would love to share my girlfriend’s opinion on critical thinking or thinking out of box, let her some comments, she would love to get some replies on her opinion. Thank you

  10. tony
    tony says:

    “here’s a rule: it’s not out of the box if it’s not in the vicinity of the box.”

    while i enjoyed your article, im going to have to say this is not a rule; nor will it ever be necessarily true. most people who TOTB never really see the box you refer to. while others study and know the box so well they cannot think independently of the knowledge they have of it (hence your vicinity). It is quite possible that one can be thinking not only outside your proverbial box, but inside a previously unseen box nowhere in any relation to the lemming box example; with its own rules etc. this is where a paradigm shift can / does occur. your “rule” almost suggests paradigm shifts do not occur.

  11. Swissmissme
    Swissmissme says:

    I have been an Art Teacher. People make excuses when introducing me to other–teachers–“OH, She is our ART Teacher” In my mind I have always though Thank God I am not one of “Them”. I have also worked in Sales in the Business world and in Management.
    In Meeting people would say “Oh, Lets Think outside of the BOX.” This is really hysterical and sad –to me.
    In being an ART Teacher –or whatever other position I have held. One needs to realize that as an ARTISTIC person (not mentally ill-sorry HARVARD) I do not HAVE a Box. This is the purpose of an ART TEACHER to teach people to use their creativity –to try to think and create WITH NO BOX.

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