The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

First, Think Inside The Box

“Think outside the box” is so inside the box!

Nine-Dot Puzzle

I use as many clichés as anyone, but there are a few that I will not trot out because I have come to dislike them immensely. "Think outside the box*" is one of these expressions. Indeed, it is so inside the box! I just did a google search for the exact phrase and found 1,200,000 hits.

I have no problem with what the expression tries to convey - the importance of looking at things in a new way. That is, after all, one of the defining features of a creative act and a creative person. But increasingly, I hear the expression used as if it were the only defining feature of creativity, which it is not.

Most who think seriously about creativity agree that it entails not only novelty (that outside the box stuff) but also utility, and in order to be useful, it has to go above-and-beyond what is already known (that inside the box stuff).

Whenever I hear people say that they "think outside the box" I cringe, because I have rarely heard folks who are genuinely creative so describe themselves. I also am suspicious because I hear these people saying - and here I may be unfair in some cases - that one need not know what is well-accepted.

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As a teacher, I want my students to know what is inside the box. This is not because I am a defender of the academic or intellectual status quo. It is because knowing what is inside the box is the only way to get outside the box in a useful way once the basics are mastered.

Psychologists who study prodigious accomplishments, in science, music, or art, speak about the 10,000-hour rule, meaning that in order to do something notable in some field, one must devote 10,000+ hours to mastering the discipline in question. Practice, practice, and practice, weedhopper, and appreciate that much of this practice needs to be done inside the box.

If you never venture outside the box, you will probably not be creative. But if you never get inside the box, you will certainly be stupid.

 

* The origin of the phrase is not clear, but it became popular because of the nine-dot puzzle, now a management consultancy staple that poses a problem: how to connect nine dots with four straight lives drawn by never lifting one's pencil? The temptation is to draw a box, which does not solve the problem. Rather, one must draw lines outside the confines of the box shape suggested by the arrangement of the nine dots.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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