Box(ed) Thinking

By my calculation I’ve used the phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ 963 times. I’m not alone. Thinking outside the box has become synonymous with the creativity required to solve society’s tough challenges.

For the number of us thinking outside the box you’d think there would be nobody left inside.

And that would be a shame.

Because our messes, vulnerabilities and challenges are inside the box. So are our creative solutions. Necessity is also in the box and necessity is the mother of invention.

Being boxed in, trapped or cornered focuses the mind and yields more creativity than thinking outside the box ever did. Or will. The optimal condition for a breakthrough is having no choice but to think outside your comfort zone, inside the box. Read, for example Donna Thomson’s The Four Walls of My Freedom, a riveting reflection on the ingenuity and love required to enable her son Nick to become a contributing member of society.

Speaking of walls, when he first became a monk Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain described his small cell as representing the four walls of his new freedom.

Need more convincing?

Here’s Einstein: “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”

And Annie Dillard: “You need a room with no view so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

Boundaries are discipline – discipline is creativity.

Don’t take my word take Charlie Parker’s: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

Or Orson Welles: “The greatest enemy of art is the absence of limitation.”

Proficiency starts by falling in love with your challenge inside the box. Staying committed. Embracing its corners and boundaries. Then like all artists and innovators you will find the gates to your creativity and you can begin to wail.


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But losing my freedom in Somalia taught me a lot about how to get it back. Every day, I make the choice to move forward and to remember that true power is derived from kindness. In the end, Ali Omar Ader’s fate has nothing to do with mine.

     from Amanda Lindhout’s book A House in The Sky

For your listening pleasure here is Joni Mitchell’s, Come in From the Cold. Listen and watch here.

The world held promise
For a slave to liberty
Freely I slaved away for something better
And I was bought and sold
And all I ever wanted
Was to come in from the cold.


Songs in the Key of Change (2)

Songs in the Key of Change (1)

Compulsive Novelty Hyperactivity Disorder

The Art of Disruption


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  1. Susan Szpakowski

    Meditation puts your mind in a box, so you can deal with its complexity in a more aware and intentional way. Good design and process puts the complexity of a challenge in a box for the same reason. If the container is good, no manipulation is needed. You can trust the intelligence within people and within chaos. My Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa coined the term (and book title) The Myth of Freedom. Without good containers, it’s difficult to be truly free. One of his students started the Nova Scotia Sea School, inviting teenagers to spend a week or more together in a tiny open boat at sea to find out about the power of container. The Sea School has been active since 1994, with generations of seafaring teenagers testifying to the life-changing experiences they had in their small boat. Here’s an essay by the founder, Crane Stookey, who now does leadership coaching using the same principles. Thanks for the post and reminder.

  2. Al Etmanski

    Thanks Susan – this is very helpful. And creates much more depth than my original post

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