Facts So Romantic

The Case Against Thinking Outside of the Box

Social, cultural, economic, spiritual, psychological, emotional, intellectual: Everything is outside the box. And this new sheltered-in-place experience won’t fit into old containers.Photo Illustration by Africa Studio / Shutterstock

Many of us are stuck now, sheltered in our messy dwellings. A daily walk lets me appreciate the urban landscaping; but I can’t stop to smell anything because a blue cotton bandana shields my nostrils. Indoors, constant digital dispatches chirp to earn my attention. I click on memes, status updates, and headlines, but everything is more of the same. How many ways can we repackage fear and reframe optimism? I mop the wood-laminate floor of my apartment because I hope “ocean paradise” scented Fabuloso will make my home smell a little less confining. My thoughts waft toward the old cliché: Think outside the box. I’ve always hated when people say that.

To begin with, the directions are ineffectual. You can’t tell someone to think outside the box and expect them to do it. Creativity doesn’t happen on demand. Want proof? Just try to make yourself think a brilliant thought, something original, innovative, or unique. Go ahead. Do it. Right now. You can’t, no matter how hard you try. This is why ancient people believed that inspiration comes from outside. It’s external, bestowed on each of us like a revelation or prophecy—a gift from the Muses. Which means your genius does not belong to you. The word “genius” is the Latin equivalent of the ancient Greek “daemon” (δαίμονες)—like a totem animal, or a spirit companion. A genius walks beside us. It mediates between gods and mortals. It crosses over from one realm to the next. It whispers divine truth.

We are paralyzed by the prospect of chaos, uncertainty, and entropy.

In modern times, our mythology moves the daemons away from the heavens and into the human soul. We say, “Meditate and let your spirit guide you.” Now we think genius comes from someplace deep within. The mind? The brain? The heart? Nobody knows for sure. Yet, it seems clear to us that inspiration belongs to us; it’s tangibly contained within our corporeal boundaries. That’s why we celebrate famous artists, poets, physicists, economists, entrepreneurs, and inventors. We call them visionaries. We read their biographies. We do our best to emulate their behaviors. We study the five habits of highly successful people. We practice yoga. We exercise. We brainstorm, doodle, sign up for online personal development workshops. We do whatever we can to cultivate the fertile cognitive soil in which the springtime seeds of inspiration might sprout. But still, even though we believe that a genius is one’s own, we know that we cannot direct it. Therefore, no matter how many people tell me to think outside the box, I won’t do it. I can’t. 

Even if I could, I’m not sure thinking outside the box would be worthwhile. Consider the origins of the phrase. It started with an old brain teaser. Nine dots are presented in a perfect square, lined up three by three. Connect them all, using only four straight lines, without lifting your pencil from the paper. It’s the kind of puzzle you’d find on the back of a box of Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, frivolous but tricky. The solution involves letting the lines expand out onto the empty page, into the negative space. Don’t confine your markings to the dots themselves. You need to recognize, instead, that the field is wider than you’d assume. In other words, don’t interpret the dots as a square, don’t imagine that the space is constricted. Think outside the box! 


For years, pop-psychologists, productivity coaches, and business gurus have all used the nine-dot problem to illustrate the difference between “fixation” and “insight.” They say that we look at markings on a page and immediately try to find a pattern. We fixate on whatever meaning we can ascribe to the image. In this case, we assume that nine dots make a box. And we imagine we’re supposed to stay within its boundaries—contained and confined. We bring habitual assumptions with us even though we’re confronting a unique problem. Why? Because we are paralyzed by the prospect of chaos, uncertainty, and entropy. We cling to the most familiar ways of organizing things in order to mitigate the risk that new patterns might not emerge at all, the possibility that meaning itself could cease to exist. But this knee-jerk reaction limits our capacity for problem-solving. Our customary ways of knowing become like a strip of packing tape that’s accidentally affixed to itself—you can struggle to undo it, but it just tangles up even more. In other words, your loyalty to the easiest, most common interpretations is the sticky confirmation bias that prevents you from arriving at a truly insightful solution. 

At least that’s what the experts used to say. And we all liked to believe it. But our minds don’t really work that way. The box parable appeals because it reinforces our existing fantasies about an individual’s proclivity to innovate and disrupt by thinking in unexpected ways. It’s not true. 

Studies have found that solving the nine-dot problem has nothing to do with the box. Even when test subjects were told that the solution requires going outside the square’s boundaries, most of them still couldn’t solve it. There was an increase in successful attempts so tiny that it was considered statistically insignificant, proving that the ability to arrive at a solution to the nine-dot problem has nothing to do with fixation or insight. The puzzle is just difficult, no matter which side of the box you’re standing on.

Still, I bet my twelve-year-old son could solve it. Yesterday, we unpacked a set of oil paints, delivered by Amazon. He was admiring the brushes and canvases. He was thinking about his project, trying to be creative, searching for insight. “Think inside the outside of the box,” he said.  “What does that mean?” I pushed the branded, smiling A-to-Z packaging aside and I looked at him like he was crazy. “Like with cardboard, you know, with all the little holes inside.” 

He was talking about the corrugations, those ridges that are pasted between layers of fiberboard. They were originally formed on the same fluted irons used to make the ruffled collars of Elizabethan-era fashion. At first, single faced corrugated paper—smooth on one side, ridged on the other—was used to wrap fragile glass bottles. Then, around 1890, the double-faced corrugated fiberboard with which we’re familiar was developed. And it transformed the packing and shipping industries. The new paperboard boxes were sturdy enough to replace wooden crates. It doesn’t take an engineering degree to understand how it works: The flutes provide support; the empty space in between makes it lightweight. My son is right; it’s all about what’s inside the outside of the box.

Now I can’t stop saying it to myself, “Think inside the outside of the box.” It’s a perfect little metaphor. In a way, it even sums up the primary cognitive skill I acquired in graduate school. One could argue that a PhD just means you’ve been trained to think inside the outside of boxes. What do I mean by that? Consider how corrugation gives cardboard it’s structural integrity. The empty space—what’s not there—makes it strong and light enough that it’s a useful and efficient way to carry objects. Similarly, it’s the intellectual frameworks that make our interpretations and analyses of the world hold up. An idea can’t stand on its own; it needs a structure and a foundation. It needs a box. It requires a frame. And by looking at how those frames are assembled, by seeing how they carry a concept through to communication, we’re able to do our best thinking. We look at the empty spaces—the invisible, or tacit assumptions—which lurk within the fluted folds of every intellectual construction. We recognize that our conscious understanding of lived experience is corrugated just like cardboard. 

The famous sociologist Erving Goffman said as much in 1974 when he published his essay on “Frame Analysis.” He encouraged his readers to identify the principles of organization which govern our perceptions. This work went on to inspire countless political consultants, pundits, publicists, advertisers, researchers, and marketers. It’s why we now talk often about the ways in which folks “frame the conversation.” But I doubt my son has read Goffman. He just stumbled on a beautifully succinct way to frame the concept of critical thinking. Maybe he was inspired by Dr. Seuss. 

When my kids were little, they asked for the same story every night, “Read Sneetches Daddy!” I could practically recite the whole thing from memory: “Now, the Star-belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-belly Sneetches had none upon thars.” It’s an us-versus-them story, a fable about the way a consumption economy encourages people to compete for status, and to alienate the “other.” If you think inside the outside of the box, it’s also a scathing criticism of a culture that’s obsessed with personal and professional transformation—always reinventing and rebranding. 

One day, Sylvester McMonkey McBean shows up on the Sneetches’ beaches with a peculiar box-shaped fix-it-up machine. Sneetches go in with plain-bellies and they come out with stars. Now, anyone can be anything, for a fee. McBean charges them a fortune; he exploits the Sneetches’ insecurities. He builds an urgent market demand for transformational products. He preys on their most familiar—and therefore, cozy and comforting—norms of character assessment. He disrupts their identity politics, makes it so that there’s no clear way to tell who rightfully belongs with which group. And as a result, chaos ensues. Why? Because the Sneetches discover that longstanding divisive labels and pejorative categories no longer provide a meaningful way to organize their immediate experiences. They’ve lost their frames, the structural integrity of their worldview. They feel unhinged, destabilized, unboxed, and confused.

Social, cultural, economic, spiritual, psychological, emotional, intellectual: Everything is outside the box.

It should sound familiar. After all, we’ve been living through an era in history that’s just like the Sneetches’. The patterns and categories we heretofore used to define self and other are being challenged every day—sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. How can we know who belongs where in a digital diaspora, a virtual panacea, where anyone can find “my tribe”? What do identity, allegiance, heredity, and loyalty even mean now that these ideas can be detached from biology and birthplace? Nobody knows for sure. And that’s just the beginning: We’ve got Sylvester-McMonkey-McBean-style disruption everywhere we look. Connected technologies have transformed the ways in which we make sense of our relationships, how we communicate with one another, our definitions of intimacy. 

Even before the novel coronavirus, a new global paradigm forced us to live and work in a world that’s organized according to a geopolitical model we can barely comprehend. Sure, the familiar boundaries of statehood sometimes prohibited migrant foot traffic—but information, microbes, and financial assets still moved swiftly across borders, unimpeded. Similarly, cross-national supply-chains rearranged the rules of the marketplace. High-speed transportation disrupted how we perceive the limits of time and space. Automation upset the criteria through which we understand meritocracy and self-worth. Algorithms and artificial intelligence changed the way we think about labor, employment, and productivity. Data and privacy issues blurred the boundaries of personal sovereignty. And advances in bioengineering shook up the very notion of human nature.

Our boxes were already bursting. And now, cloistered at home in the midst of a pandemic, our most mundane work-a-day routines are dissolved, making it feel like our core values and deeply-held beliefs are about to tumble out all over the place. We can already envision the mess that is to come—in fact, we’re watching it unfurl in slow motion. Soon, the world will look like the intellectual, emotional, and economic equivalent of my 14-year-old’s bedroom. Dirty laundry is strewn across the floor, empty candy wrappers linger on dresser-tops, mud-caked sneakers are tossed in the corner, and the faint yet unmistakable stench of prepubescent body odor is ubiquitous. Nothing is copasetic. Nothing is in its place. Instead, everything is outside the box. 

It’s not creative, inspiring, or insightful. No, it’s disorienting and anxiety-provoking. I want to tidy it up as quickly as possible. I want to put things back in their familiar places. I want to restore order and eliminate chaos. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t do it, because the old boxes are ripped and torn. Their bottoms have fallen out. Now, they’re useless. Social, cultural, economic, spiritual, psychological, emotional, intellectual: Everything is outside the box. And this new sheltered-in-place experience won’t fit into old containers.

Jordan Shapiro, Ph.D., is a senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and Nonresident Fellow in the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. He teaches at Temple University, and wrote a column for Forbes on global education and digital play from 2012 to 2017. His book, The New Childhood, was released by Little, Brown Spark in December 2018.

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