Thinking Outside Thinking Outside the Box

By Koko Wadeson

The phrase “thinking outside the box” has long been a source of consternation rather than inspiration for me. Why do we use a trope to describe thinking that is supposed to be unconventional? It just seems wrong. I get that clichés summarily, if unoriginally, convey complex ideas so when I hear them I generally grimace inwardly and look the other way. But this one seems strangely self-defeating.

I don’t remember being aware of “thinking outside the box” until the saying was suddenly everywhere. (Its use seems to have peaked, but clichés are notoriously tenacious.) Curious, I did a little research into its origins and discovered that “thinking outside the box” is worse than a mere example of the absence of the very creativity the phrase is ostensibly deployed to spark—or, incongruously, announce. The real crime is that it’s misleading: there is no box. We’re focused on thinking outside a box that doesn't even exist.

What the french fry? The phrase originated from a puzzle that challenges the solver to connect 9 dots arranged in a square pattern by drawing no more than 4 straight lines without lifting the pen (or pencil, whatever). The thing is, people tend to perceive the outer dots as a boundary—the infamous “box” that makes the task seem so much more difficult than it really is. The infiltration of the expression into our collective consciousness is attributed to the popularity of this age-old brainteaser among management consultants in the 1980s. They used the puzzle to encourage lateral problem solving, but the catchphrase “thinking outside the box” took on a life of its own, eventually hitting the groan-inducing low as an advertising slogan for a certain purveyor of fast food tacos that encouraged hungry stoners to “think outside the bun.”

And so here we are, spurring ourselves on to innovation by focusing on the limitations we impose on ourselves. You might feel boxed in, but you are not. You might feel stuck, but you are not. Yes, real barriers exist in life and in business. But they are often much more permeable than the metaphor of a box suggests. Go ahead and use strategies that help you see things from a different perspective, tactics that boost your output of ideas. But beware of platitudes that, like magic tricks, draw your attention to the wrong place.