“Think outside the box.” It’s basically the mantra of creativity, drilled into the minds of schoolchildren and executives alike.
As a writer under pressure to come up with creative, original content and ideas, I’ve even repeated it to myself — something I’m sure many writers and entrepreneurs can relate to. We’re always striving to stand out from the crowd, and we’ve been told that thinking outside the box is the way to do that.
“Think outside the box” has permeated our approach to creativity and defined the way that we evaluate ideas. But what does it actually mean — and does it really help us with creating original content?
The phrase is commonly associated with a puzzle known as the nine-dot problem. Though this brainteaser is first seen in the 1914 puzzle book Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums, it was popularized in the 1970s by psychologist JP Guilford and has been used by creativity consultants ever since.
The puzzle consists of a square of nine dots, the goal being to connect them all with no more than four straight lines without lifting the pencil off the paper. Go ahead, try it:
If you’ve given up on figuring out how to do it in four lines, you’re far from alone.
In a study conducted by Guilford, less than 20 percent of the participants were able to find the solution. The researchers assumed that the reason so many people struggled with the nine-dot puzzle is that the answer involves lines that extend beyond the confines of the square, which tends to be unintuitive. This unorthodox answer is where the “outside the box” portion of the creativity catchphrase comes from.
Creativity consultants in the 70s and 80s were fond of giving their clients this puzzle, and when the client failed to complete it, telling them that it was because they were not thinking outside the box and therefore needed their services. This puzzle has also been used in Fortune 500 companies to encourage creativity and vet potential hires (surely one of the most nightmarish interview scenarios possible).
A lot of faith has been placed in the nine-dot box and the phrase that goes with it, but how much credibility does this idea really deserve?
A study done by Clarke A. Burnham and Kenneth G. Davis sought to discover just that. They hypothesized that thinking outside the box (in this case, literally) wouldn’t make the participants more likely to solve the puzzle. As it turns out, they were right.
They found that telling the participants that the solution must have lines outside of the square only made them five percent more likely to find it, and that improvement can be chalked up to sampling error — meaning we don’t have to pay attention to the difference at all.
Instead, solving the nine-dot puzzle requires lateral thinking, a term coined by Dr. Edward de Bono.
Lateral thinking, which is closely associated with creativity, is distinct from logical thinking in that it is not interested in the most efficient or relevant thought patterns.
The reason that creativity is so elusive is that our minds are usually conditioned to gather information quickly, and only what data is relevant. A lateral thinker collects all sorts of information and uses it to generate new ideas and thought patterns.
Lateral thinking is useful when solving problems such as the nine-dot puzzle because it does not exclude unlikely-seeming ideas right off the bat. Unlike traditional (also known as vertical) thinking, lateral thinking is generative rather than selective, which means that it is good for coming up with ideas, while vertical thinking is better for developing them.
For example, lateral thinking can be used to come up with a unique business idea, whereas the sequential, analytical nature of vertical thinking is more useful for working out the practical method of making your idea a reality.
While lateral thinking and outside-the-box thinking are at times considered one and the same, the truth is that what is seen as outside-the-box thinking is usually a result of lateral thinking. If you’re going to try to think outside of the box, you need to try thinking laterally first.
The fact that lateral thinking can be taught and practiced shows us that the unstructured creativity associated with outside-the-box thinking is actually a myth. Methodical creativity may seem like an oxymoron, but it is more likely to work for you than simply telling yourself to think outside the box.
So what does this all mean for us as writers and entrepreneurs? Well, there are a few practices that we can take away from the nine-dot studies.
“What box?” should be your first response whenever someone quotes my least favorite phrase at you. The best way to come up with original ideas is to make the box disappear completely.
Learning to let go of our mental blocks to find creativity is more than just getting beyond them — it’s kicking them to the curb, and that means forgetting that the idea of a box even existed.
Think about it — in order to think outside of a box, we must first define what that box is (which is an exercise in arbitrariness if I ever saw one). There is no objective means of deciding where the box begins and ends, making the phrase an essentially useless piece of advice.
Who’s to say what is or isn’t outside of a box when no one can agree on what the box even is? The box, quite simply, does not exist. You can (and should) just forget all about it.
I know, easier said than done. But if you start by recognizing the phrase as useless and exploring other ways of encouraging and evaluating your creativity (like lateral thinking), you’ll be well on your way.
I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that since we now know that striving for outside-the-box ideas doesn’t actually make you more likely to find any, you can stop beating yourself up about your lack of them.
The bad news is that we are so used to thinking of creativity as a mysterious, unstructured force that it could take a total revamp of your brainstorming style before you are free of that “outside the box” pressure.
Trying to think outside the box is useless when it comes to solving actual problems or coming up with original content or business ideas. Being shown what an outside-the-box idea looks like (or even just really, really wanting to come up with one) simply does not make us more likely to do so.
Right now, you might treat brainstorming as an exercise to come up with wild ideas. But instead of throwing out ideas that you don’t deem as being sufficiently “out there,” try exploring each idea, no matter how mundane-seeming it is.
What works, and what doesn’t? Turn it upside-down or make a substitution; play with it. Use lateral thinking to generate variations on your idea, and see where that takes you.
Using lateral thinking in your creativity means that many of the ideas that you’ll come up with may not be what would typically be considered groundbreaking, and that’s okay. Some of the best ideas are mere tweaks on existing ones.
An idea doesn’t have to be a total game-changer to be effective and influential.
Take, for example, Dollar Shave Club’s viral ad, “Our Blades Are F**king Great”. The idea behind this campaign is simple: a video that the target audience will find funny that explains the product. The addition of profanity in the title is a small tweak on a common ad style, but it worked. The video went viral, and they gained 12,000 new customers in the first 48 hours after the ad was released.
Lateral thinking can also help you to recognize when you have come up with something extraordinary. The key is to let your creativity flow without judging how “outside the box” your ideas are and evaluating them after your brainstorming session based on their application, not their unorthodoxy.
The pressure to think outside the box will disappear once you realize that the value of an idea lies more in its effect than its originality.
Now we know that reaching for an imaginary world outside the box isn’t likely to yield results anytime soon. What will, however, is good old elbow grease. After all, to quote Thomas Edison, “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.”
This phrase is a cliche classic for a reason – it’s spot-on. If you’re relying exclusively on inspirational bolts of lightning, you’ll be getting nowhere fast. The path to creativity involves purposeful application of thinking techniques and hard work, not just inspiration.
Practice lateral thinking by:
De Bono’s book is full of lateral thinking exercises like these and is an excellent place to start learning how to cultivate this technique and apply it to your work.
Now that you know that creativity can be learned, it’s only a matter of time and practice before you’re an unstoppable source of brilliant ideas.
Unlearning the outside-the-box approach to creativity is a potentially daunting but worthwhile endeavor. Techniques such as learning to think laterally are the ticket to producing creative, original ideas (like the solution to the nine-dot puzzle) and could be the key to elevating your business or writing. You might just surprise yourself with your own creativity.
Ditch that outside-the-box pressure, actively practice being creative, and most of all, remember – there is no box.
As someone whose childhood was spent having books pried away from her at the dinner table, a future working with words was almost inevitable. Giselle studies English at the University of Calgary, and has worked as a writer/copyeditor for a newspaper, freelance proofreader/editor, and piano teacher. She hopes to one day relocate to Central America, but for now is making the most of snowy Calgary by getting out to the Rocky Mountains as much as she can, and spending cozy nights in learning how to play new instruments. Giselle is a content manager for Craft Your Content.