A few years before she died, my mother-in-law Rosalie was appalled by the birthday card her son Bill bought for my special day. When Rosalie did the choosing, the card usually depicted flowers and professed loving words.
Bill’s card, on the other hand, portrayed an office conference room. A cat’s litter box sat in the center of the long table with spilled litter all around. The “people” standing around the conference table were dressed in business attire but had cat heads instead of human ones. The card posed the question, “All right. Who’s been thinking outside the box again?”
Go ahead and laugh since I did then and still do when I remember it.
Surely everyone in the world has heard the phrase think outside the box. It has been used so often that it’s become a cliché. It’s intended to encourage us to discard our usual way of looking at problems and come up with new ideas, to disregard the obvious and look further for answers.
Like most things, there is some dispute about who “invented” the phrase.
One source says it developed from the publication Aviation Week & Space Technology, July 1975 when a writer said, “We must step back and see if the solutions to our problems lie outside the box.”
Some credit James Adams, emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, for making the phrase popular. His book (originally published in 1974) Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas is now in its fifth edition. In that book he presents a visual puzzle depicting nine dots, three dots in three rows lined up. The puzzle is to connect all nine dots with four straight lines (or fewer) without having the pencil leave the paper and without retracing your route.
If you’ve not seen this puzzle before, go ahead and try to solve it and then come back here. One standard solution and some others are noted in a link below. Yes, there are multiple correct answers!
Many fail at this because we make up a rule that was NOT in the original direction. The made-up rule is this: There is an imaginary box around the dots and we believe we cannot move beyond that square. It’s only in the disregard of that imaginary box that the puzzle can be solved.
And isn’t that just like real life? I know that I’ve not put to good use all of my talents because I’ve imposed an imaginary box around what I believe I can do. I’ve missed taking some important chances because I didn’t think I could dare step outside the confinement of what my belief system said about myself.
I like James Adams’ response to people who ask him just how does one think outside the box?
He simply asks them a question in response: “What box?”