I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “think outside the box.” It’s become a cliché among Americans today. We must remember, however, that clichés can be true, even if they’re overused. In this case, “think outside the box” contains a timeless truth that leaders must understand if they wish to remain effective in their organizations.
In short, boxes represent conventional thinking: they are assumptions that confine our creativity and ability to see new options. Of course, some assumptions are necessary. We can’t make it through a day without assuming the traffic light will turn green or that our desk chair will support us when we sit down. But when assumptions become rigid (or, like a box, closed), they can keep us from seeing new possibilities or perspectives.
Take some common assumptions for a moment. Did you know that more people are killed each year by hippos than bears, lions or sharks? It’s true, but we don’t think of hippos as deadly creatures like we do sharks. What’s more, coconuts kill more people each year than sharks. In fact, you are fifteen times more likely to be killed by falling coconuts than by sharks. So why don’t we fear coconuts as much as we fear sharks? Because we don’t view them as deadly. It’s an assumption. And in the same way, we’ve been paranoid about sharks ever since we saw the movie Jaws. (Thank you, Stephen Spielberg.)
So How Do We Break Out of Our Box?
Let me offer some simple suggestions you can employ today to stay out of the box:
- Find mentors outside of your industry.
From time to time, choose people to meet with and ask questions of who work completely outside of your world. They will enable you to see new angles, as they’re not confined by your boxes.
- Question everything.
Reflect on all the realities and routines you embrace everyday—and begin to question all of them. You may hold on to some, but by questioning why you do them, you may find better ideas.
- Read books outside your normal field of interest.
This one has helped me every year. I will pick up a book that I wouldn’t normally consume and power through it. If nothing else, it clears the cobwebs of my current thinking and can give me new perspectives.
- Learn something new everyday.
This enables you to stay open and teachable, to keep your mind soft and receptive to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Deliberately pursue educating yourself in some new topic or trend, and tell someone what you learned.
- Do something strange.
I realize this sounds crazy—but sometimes doing something out of the ordinary can get you out of the box. When Dr. Seuss got stuck while writing, he would go to a secret closet filled with hundreds of hats and wear them till words came.
- Learn to combine unrelated ideas.
Real creativity is usually about combining two existing ideas to make a new one. Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is simply connecting things.” Try this exercise: jot down two completely unrelated objects and discover what they could do together.
- Attempt a goal that’s big and different.
Winston Churchill said, “Change is as good as rest.” This simply means by changing what you’re doing, it’s like resting your mind. I have found if I assign myself a project or goal that is unique and gigantic, it pushes my mind in new ways.
When creating the Habitudes® series, I practiced this list. I had been teaching leadership for years but with limited success. Once I got out of my conventional box and combined my love of art, my love of principles, and my love of interactive learning, a whole new world opened up. When I tried utilizing images, conversations and experiences, something clicked. Today, Habitudes—Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes are being used in thousands of schools and organizations worldwide. All I had to do was climb out of my box.
Do you ever feel stuck “in the box”? How do you break out?