30 January 2010

January Challenge #30:
Outside the Box

This is my first blog post written outside my apartment. This would come as a surprise to some people. For instance, if asked, the barristas at my favorite cafe would say that I'm never anywhere else.

It's not that I needed out of my space today, but scheduling dictates that I haul my laptop and blog out on the town between stops. And it's a nice experience. The different surroundings draw my thoughts onto different paths than when I'm writing in my cave. I'm outside by box.

Thinking outside the box has me thinking of thinking outside the box. Everybody says "Think outside the box." But no one ever explains what that means. There's a (possibly reasonable) expectation that the listener intuitively understands or can at least derive from past experience the meaning of the phrase.

But from experience, I'd have to guess that some speakers don't really understand what it means. The most common misuse I've run into is covering for a lack of comprehension of the topic at hand. When confronted by a knowledgeable authority that their proposal demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the problem, the offender replies "Hey, just thinking outside the box."

So here's my first assertion on the topic. You have to know the dimensions and contents of the box before you can think outside it. Otherwise, you're fishing with a hand grenade. You may get some fish, but they'll be blown to crap and you'll probably hurt yourself.

This assertion is similar to the recommendation that you learn the rules before you break them, which in turn hearkens to the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. At the first two levels of the model, Novice and Advanced Beginner, it's more effective to follow the existing ruleset and modes of thinking than to challenge the paradigm and make it up as you go.

A friend once desribed himself as thinking so far outside the box, he'd lost the box. I got his meaning, but the metaphor is flawed. The box mustn't be allowed to constrain your thinking, but it should inform your thinking.

Thinking outside the box is partly about escaping constraints, realizing when a useful rule for novices is no longer an aid but a hindrance to you. It's important to understand why the rule was created in the first place, but also to understand that rules are inherently limited in usefulness.

Once a rule has been stated in a digestible form, it is immediately obsolete. Rules are not amenable to the answer "It depends" but that's the only answer that's right 100% of the time. Thus all rules are wrong in some cases. A good rule will be right in as many situations as feasible, but it's our responsibility as practitioners of whatever skill to know when it must be broken.

You've heard "Rules were made to be broken." Now you know what it means. It's not an excuse to act without regulation. It means that rules can never be explicitly stated in sufficient complexity to cover all contingencies, and that blindly applying them will eventually betray you.

Thinking outside the box is helpful in another way that all practitioners can benefit from, regardless of their current position on the Dreyfus model. Oddly, this might be easier for those lower on the model than higher, but more important for those higher.

It's very easy for humans as cognitive thinkers to fall into repetitive patterns of thinking. Our thoughts themselves are patterns of associations in the neural network jelly of our brains. These associations allow us to effortlessly remember how to add, spell, drive, and a bajillion other daily activities. But when it comes to creative endeavor, following the same associations is a block to creativity. If you always string words together in the same way, always paint with the same strokes and colors, always design with the same core components, your work risks becoming stale.

So thinking outside the box also entails purposefully inserting new elements into our established patterns to see what new associations emerge. Sitting here in my favorite cafe, the sights, sounds, and smells not normally present in my apartment nudge minutely at my train of thought and subsequently on my flow of words.

Once I had my topic in mind, but before sitting down to write, I wandered the attached bookstore, looking at titles, occasionally pulling out a volume to scan its backmatter and table of contents, all the while letting ideas for today's post simmer with the bits and pieces I was adding.

Another means to the same end is to purposefully alter your creative process. There are a ton of books and tool available for this purpose. In particular I recommend Roger Von Oech's Creative Whack Pack and its companion volume A Whack on the Side of the Head. Each card in the deck and exercise in the book challenges the reader to try something new in their creative process. And if you like these, there dozens of products just like them.

Watch out though. These techniques are inherently limited. Once you've used a trick a few times, it's in your box. It's no longer a whack in the head, a kick in pants, or any other metaphor for a new thinking pattern. It's no longer thinking outside the box.

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