What’s in the box?

Much of our life exists within a box. Does anyone want our “outside the box” ideas? Unfortunately, no, it’s mostly rhetoric. The box is king. What can we do about it?

For better or worse, our lives exist within a tightly regulated box. The government and large corporations crafted a box of what they think its citizens, employees, and customers should look and act like. In our hierarchical, top-down society, thinking outside the box (e.g., going against the norm, working or thinking differently) is not how to advance. And the box is much bigger than we think.

How big is the box?

Every daily decision we make exists within a norm, within the box. Why do we wake up at a certain hour? Offices are open from 8-5. Why do we eat a breakfast that consists mostly of carbs, sugar, and caffeine? Because that’s what everyone else does, and what we’ve been told to do our entire lives.

Further, the box is bigger than our daily routine. Do you own a pet? Do you call your mom regularly? Did you read national news today? More simply, do you use a computer for work? Own a cellphone? Other people carefully craft our lives. Many of the decisions we make are normative, and that’s okay. There is nothing wrong with the box; the box makes everything work. What’s wrong is not being aware that the box exists or how much influence others have over our daily decisions.

What is outside the box?

Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden while he squatted on someone else’s land. He worked six weeks a year for three years, surviving on the bare minimum. He made his own food, bartered for clothes, built his own shack, and genuinely existed outside the box. One of my favorite quotes from Walden is

a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.

Thoreau lived outside of the box, isolated, surviving on his own. He was “rich” because he could afford to let all of the niceties of modern society alone. He didn’t need anything outside of what he was surviving. We all just want things; rarely do we need anything extra.

While this is an extreme example of outside the box living, it’s illustrative to what is necessary to exist outside the box. How much time and energy do we devote to micro-decisions that drain our brains but don’t positively impact us?

What to wear today? Should I take out the trash? Is it time to buy more paper towels? What route should I take to work (to save 5 minutes)? What should I listen to on my app? Should I call a loved one? What should I have for dinner?

Each one of these questions could be answered in advance, planned, and automated. Schedule out all repetitive tasks so you don’t have to think about them. When you don’t have to think about these mundane items, you really can start thinking outside the box.

Thinking different(ly)

Apple very famously used “think different” as its slogan over think differently, which caused a lot of debate in the grammarian community. Steve Jobs and company did this intentionally, showing the type of thinking that Apple undertakes when creating and designing products. Underlying think different is to think outside the box.

In our daily lives, most of what we do revolves around basic logic. A goes to B, which goes to C, then D. Most tasks follow a linear path. From accounting to zoo-keeping, learning the how is relatively straightforward. It’s only when we think outside the box that we can ever innovate or revolutionize anything (and this might mean creating a new box).

The problem

Unfortunately, as soon as we think outside the box, bad things happen. Rarely can an average, run-of-the-mill, middle-management employee start thinking outside the box without getting reprimanded or fired. Oh, you want to start doing a process differently, without showing us that it’s going to increase revenue, blah? Sorry, not here.

How many times has someone told us that thinking outside the box is important, only to deny our outside the box thinking because there’s not enough time, money, energy, etc? Pretty much all the time. That’s because, while outside the box thinking is useful, it is also scary and dangerous. The majority of managers don’t know how to manage someone who thinks outside the box, because that sort of thinking threatens managers’ very existence.

Existing outside the norms

Truly creative thinkers are not bound by norms. They toss out all assumptions and approach problems in novel ways. Not necessarily novel as in new, but novel as in cross-functional or cross-domain. Elon Musk sees energy broadly, applying principles of energy to solar, cars, rockets, and batteries. Because he doesn’t think of an electric car as a small, slow car with an electric engine, he created an electric car that has the power of a gasoline engine and is as durable as a pick-up truck.

Tolerating ambiguity and creating remote associations are other ways to think outside the box. In the classic nine-dot box example, the answer is in the question. Only when we throw out the assumptions of planes, boxes, and geometry does any novel solution arise. So, in our boxy society, how can we exist outside, or better yet, on the fringes of the norms?

Living on the edge

Do something differently. Something that goes against the grain. I try to do this often. I’m on a path to automate everything that’s repetitive and doesn’t significantly impact my life. For example, no longer will I own clothes outside of a few, cross-matching colors, or decide what to wear outside of once a month planning . I turned off notifications on my phone. I only check email twice a day. No more multitasking! Now, I focus my energies on creativity.

Taking back brainpower, I’m able to navigate a lot more “stuff” (hopefully good stuff) than I ever have because I stopped worrying about the trivial and mundane. While this makes it more difficult to get hired in any traditional organization (and yes, startups count), it makes it less difficult to have time, energy, and focus for family, friends, and other activities that make us happy.

Give it a shot! I would also love feedback on the box. I’m very curious if anyone else feels the same.