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Why you shouldn’t think outside the box

Posted in the following categories: Creativity

No five words in the English language make me cringe as much as “Let’s think outside the box.”

Coming from someone who writes about contrarian thinking and non-conformity, that sentence might strike you as odd. After all, you redefine the status quo by stepping outside of it.

But here’s the problem. “Thinking outside the box” has become a massive cliche. And cliches, by definition, are unoriginal. They’re terrible at creating change. When we tell ourselves that we’re going to “think outside the box,” we rely on the same methods, the same brainstorming approaches, and consequently the same stale neural pathways. To come up with answers to this cliche, we look in the rear-view mirror and use the same worn-out methods or copy-the-competitor strategies. It’s no wonder that the resulting innovations aren’t innovations at all. They’re at best insignificant deviations from the status quo.

Conventional questions produce conventional results.

It’s only through unconventional questions—questions that others aren’t asking—that unconventional results can follow. Here are a few to get you started:

What if I did the reverse of what everyone else is doing?

What would a science-fiction solution look like?

How could we destroy our own company?

How do I turn this constraint into an advantage?

How can I take a 6-month project and finish it in a week?

With these questions, the goal isn’t to find the right answer—at least not initially. This isn’t your high-school chemistry class where the outcome of each experiment was predetermined, leaving no room for curiosity or unexpected insights. If you didn’t get the “right result,” you’d be stuck in the lab fiddling with test tubes and beakers, while your classmates trekked off to the movies.

Rather, the goal is to ignite a process of open-minded inquiry that can jolt you out of your autopilot mode.

Instead of letting the world shape your thoughts, you’ll let your thoughts shape the world.

Instead of being a passive observer of your reality, you’ll become an active intervener in it.

And instead of simply thinking outside the box, you’ll be able to bend the box to your will.

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