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Thinking Outside the Box

Ready to start thinking more creatively? You hear the expression "thinking outside the box" often enough, but what is the box, and how do you get outside of it with your thinking? Start with the following technique.

The Metaphorical Box

To play with the metaphor a little, imagine that you are actually in a box. Written on the cardboard walls around you is a description of the world outside. This may be a very detailed and accurate description in some ways, giving you a good idea what the world is like. You may even use this knowledge to come up with some ideas that could be useful in the outside world.

Of course the world is larger and more complex than any description can capture - no matter how detailed. Obviously, as long as you stay inside this box, your thinking will be very limited. If you want to really know the world, and if you want your thinking about it to be more productive, you need to be outside the box.

Getting Outside the Box

All of us are "in the box" at times. The "box" consists of our habitual and limiting ways of thinking and solving problems. This is easiest to understand with a simple example.

Suppose Mary hates her boss. He has been unfair and rude. Her first approach to this problem was to go above his head and complain, in the hope that he would be fired. It didn't work. She thought about transferring to another department, or perhaps even quitting. That just made her angry. Why should she quit, when he is the one that causes the trouble? Then she started to think about revenge. The idea made her smile, but she knew it would only mean bigger problems.

Mary decided that her thinking wasn't very productive, and she needed to start thinking outside the box. How did she go about this? First, she identified some key elements about her approach - some assumptions she was making - and she challenged them.

She realized that she was assuming that her boss was the problem. You could say that this was part of the description written on the inside of her box. It may have been accurate, but it wasn't helping, so she asked the question, "What if I was the problem?" What was she doing that she could do differently? Now she was looking outside the box.

Right away she saw that she was dwelling on his rude behavior and unfair decisions. If she could ignore those, she realized, she actually still liked her job. She stopped focusing on his behavior and found that things improved for her at work.

Also, she was making herself a target, she realized. Her visibly getting upset seemed to make her boss act even worse. She started answering his rudeness by smiling like she knew some secret. He seemed confused, and he stopped making as many rude comments.

Then, she realized that in her box, this situation was painted as a battle between him and her. Did it have to be a battle, she asked, challenging her approach. What if instead she tried to help him? She laughed, and mumbled to herself, "Yeah, help him find another job." Suddenly, this seemed like a good idea. She found his resume and secretly sent it to a corporate headhunter. A month later he had a job offer and he left for good. She was even promoted to his position.

There are a lot of ways to start thinking more unconventionally, but one of the first to try is to challenge your assumptions.

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Outside the Box