Thinking Outside the Box

Image Credits: Freepik

Think outside the box is an interesting cliché. It is often described as the ability to be creative and imagine new solutions. But that’s not it. The catchphrase might mean all those things, as advertisers would like you to believe, but that’s just scraping the surface*. Its initial popularity grows out of its association with the Nine Dots Puzzle – and that’s what we’ll stick with.

*[I could have used “tip of the iceberg” here but my proverbial iceberg has melted due to Global Warming.]

Apart from advertising, this phrase is often heard near “management-type” interviewers. They’ll either ask you to describe a situation where you showed the ability to think outside the box. Or, you might be given the Nine Dots Puzzle.

Neither of these tasks establishes the said ability.

In the first scenario, it mostly serves as an indication of a desire - to be validated as an idea-creator by the listener. You’ll always mutter a predictable answer: Yes. That’s just human nature. Don’t believe me? Ask your friends if they can think outside the box. Act like an interviewer and give him weird looks while they think.

They’ll either not know what the phrase means (good for them), or they will respond with an unsure yes (like you would). After all, why would someone proclaim to not have this mythical ability!

Who would be such a fool? Well, I could be one. I could take pride in my ability to stay inside the box. It might have a detrimental impact, though - particularly with the human resource folk. They might lack an ability to appreciate out of the box thinking - such as my proclamation to think inside the box (hah).

The other situation, that with the Nine Dots Puzzle is also problematic. The Nine Dots Puzzle is a question used by the “management-types” to test reasoning ability. The trouble is, it is more of a brain teaser than a fair logical question. You either know the solution or you don’t. It is rare to see someone crack the puzzle without a hint. (I failed the first time too – back in school)

What has the Nine Dots Puzzle got to do with “thinking outside the box”? - Well, it’s the hint to the solution. The phrase “think outside the box” is all you need to find a solution. Rather, “think… you can move your lines…outside the box”.

The puzzle comes from a class of topological puzzles that attempt to illustrate the assumptions we put on ourselves while trying to solve a problem. It is a powerful metaphor, no doubt.

The trouble is, anyone can simply cram the solution. I did too. I even crammed a solution that requires a single line. That takes a bit of math which I funnily knew – despite not having learning anything in college.

Fun-fact: The Nine Dots Puzzle is a staple interview question because The Walt Disney Company willed it.

Both the abovementioned situations cloud the phrase’s true meaning. Lip service or crammed recalling can never be a substitute for testing problem solving ability. And many people know it. Joel Spolsky, the co-founder of StackOverflow once advised interviewers to avoid brain teaser questions on his blog.

“Most of these are “Aha!” questions—the kind of question where either you know the answer or you don’t. With these questions knowing the answer just means you heard that brain teaser before. So, as an interviewer, you don’t get any information about “smart/get things done” by figuring out if they happen to make a particular mental leap.” - Joel Spolsky

The true purpose of the Nine Dots Puzzle – and the phrase by association – is to illustrate how our minds assume boundaries when there aren’t any. Taken away from the puzzle, it’s important to ask, “…the boundaries of what?”

Side-note: Ze Frank explores the confusion of another cliché: Be Yourself


Clichés are phrases that have generated a fair amount of hatred due to their overuse. It is not the language’s peculiarities that lead to a creation of a cliché but the fault of the masses: you and me.

This also means that one may rid a phrase out of its hatred by simply being careful with its use. When enough people do it, it loses the label of a cliché. It may be re-claimed as a powerful metaphor.

Thinking outside the box can be called an ability. Like all abilities, it requires context. It requires “the box”. A box can be a situation. For example, your team could be confronted with a complex problem. Your current understanding of the situation could be “the box”. Eventually, someone in your team might show a remarkable ability to drag your team out of the situation. That solution might have been found after recognizing the lack of boundaries which were previously assumed. That’s an ability, don’t you think?

A box may be a whole field. One may also be able to display this ability in wide ranging situations of a field with an unmistakable ratio of success. For example, a growth hacker could think outside the box when it comes to scaling companies fast: using resources that others assumed where beyond the limitations of small companies. And she might even be able to extrapolate her ability in related fields.

However, it is wrong to claim that this makes her ability a general truth that transcends context. Ask her to think beyond the established framework when it comes to a field say Chemistry and she may have trouble thinking even conventional solutions. A box is hardly ever “everything in this world”.

The metaphorical box makes sense only when described in relation to a context and this activates the power of the phrase. The phrase requires you to have a strong conceptual understanding of the field or situation you are in. It is only when you understand clearly where the supposed walls are that you can find out ways to push the envelope.

The phrase (and the puzzle) is (are) a powerful way to analyze the framework with which we view the world. Thinking can be hard work and these phrases serve as a guide to prevent us from falling into traps. They help us occasionally shake things up. It’s a powerful tool to use in your work.

The point is: Clichés can often be stereotypes or truisms. But they can sometimes also carry a powerful idea – one that is hidden below the conventional linguistic usage. To understand its context is to celebrate its hidden meaning. And that’s what I’m going to do with our current phrase of attention.

In case you wound up in front of an interviewer and suppose they end up asking THE question. There’s only one thing you should say, “What fucking box?”