You Can’t Think Outside The Box

The Nine Dots ProblemIf there is one phrase I’d like to disentangle from the English language it is “think outside the box.”

This empty phrase is often used in an attempt to motivate people to be more creative, to think of something better, to come up with the next big idea. I believe it has absolutely no meaning, and includes no practical advice on how to improve your eurekas. It does the precise opposite of its intent: it demoralizes, it demotivates. It says you haven’t thought hard enough or long enough. It is condescending in its assumption that you can’t go farther without prodding. It’s an utterly meaningless phrase that is regurgitated when someone wants your work to be different but lacks the capacity to articulate how.

The phrase think outside the box is an allusion to a well-known puzzle where one has to connect nine dots, arranged in a square grid, with four straight lines drawn continuously without pen leaving paper. The only solution to this puzzle is one where some of the lines extend beyond the border of the grid (or box). This puzzle was a popular gimmick among management consultants in the 1970s and 80s as a demonstration of the need to discard unwarranted assumptions (like the assumption that the lines must remain within the grid). (source:

9 Dots Solved!Discard unwarranted assumptions. That’s what think outside the box really means. In other words, think laterally. Or, to quote the famous Apple ads of the 90s, Think Different.

Let’s ask a few questions before solving this puzzle: Why only 4 lines? Why are we connecting these dots? Why STRAIGHT lines? Why do ALL the dots have have to be connected? Do the dots have to represent a box? Why? Does the line have to represent thinking? Why? And who is this for, anyway? THAT’s lateral thinking for you.

Aligator PieI remember a small Grade School assignment to write a poem emulating the children’s author Dennis Lee. The verses to Lee’s famous poem, Aligator Pie, always started the same way: “Aligator Pie, Aligator Pie, if I don’t get some I think I’m gonna die.” My assignment was to essentially copy Lee, but use a different type of food, and then a word that rhymes with that food. For instance, if you were in Grade 2 and wanted to be really really funny to other seven year olds, you might use soup in this manner: Alligator Soup, Alligator Soup, if I don’t get some I think I’m gonna poop.” Very funny to be sure. I had no problem coming up with different food types, and I certainly could think of funny words to rhyme with it. My problem was spelling. I was a terrible speller, and needed to make sure my pencil printing was perfect before handing in my masterpiece.

So I went to talk to the librarian. He was an older man– short, stout, and balding– who took it upon himself to censor all library material to protect children from any mention of sex or sexuality. Sometimes entire articles would be missing from Reader’s Digest, or National Geographic. Needless to say, he wasn’t the most imaginative man, but his slight resemblance to Mr. Hooper, the friendly grocer on Sesame Street in the 70s, made him more approchable. His demeanor was anything but friendly, however. I asked him how to spell ‘gonna’, because there were other kids working on the same assignment and I’d already returned the book. Therefore I couldn’t look it up myself.

“There’s no such word,” he replied.

“I know, but I have to use it in a poem for class,” I protested, “and need to know how to spell it!”
“There’s no such word,” he said again. “I can’t tell you how to spell a word that’s not in the dictionary.” Then he turned around and ended our conversation.

I was crushed. But knew that he was wrong. Even though ‘gonna’ wasn’t in the dictionary, he was wrong. It was a great lesson to learn, that adults can get so stuck in their own rules that there is no more room for creativity. I promised myself that I would never be like that. If my son asks me how to spell a word that doesn’t exist, we will figure it out together. What I won’t do is look him in the eye and say, “Son, you have to learn how to spell outside the dictionary.”

The Professor and the MadmanI’ve read The Professor and the Madman, a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED was riddled with flaws and mistakes. It was a gargantuan undertaking that had to earn credibility and people eventually had to agree to its authority, even though a large portion of its content was written by an asylum inmate who cut his own pecker off. Dictionaries don’t apply when you are making up your own words, and that’s what creativity is all about– making things up, thinking of things in new ways. Using one bloody metaphor over and over again, about connecting nine dots with four lines, is not going to improve anyone’s ability to come up with better ideas.

You’re going to have to come to terms with it.

There is no box.


4 Responses

  1. outstanding. thanks. can I type outside the reply box?

  2. @ a. lowe: you can type anywhere you please, but the results may not be as expected. 😉

  3. fantastic post Jted.

    First Time I read it – off a tweet.

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