Ricardo Lopes


Avoiding the “think outside the box” trap

Disclaimer: This blog post was first published on the 25th of October of 2012. This means that most of its content might no longer be up-to-date. This was published in my previous blog, which has met an unfortunate end, and is being reposted now as an attempt to resurface some of the most popular posts that have been lost.

These days I’m getting sick and tired of all the “think outside the box” talk. In my area (technology and computers stuff) we have three kinds of young people: those who have yet to wake up for reality (mostly gamers that chose this area because it’s about those machines that can run videogames); those who want to play safe and spend their years being treated as slaves in a low-wage and unfulfilling job; and those that love to “think outside the box”. So what is that thoughtful activity anyway?

“Thinking outside the box” means trying unconventional ideas and questioning the status quo to get to new conclusions and possibilities. Imagine all you take for granted in this world and all your beliefs being put in a box. That means that whenever you’re solving a problem or looking for an answer, you’re thinking inside that box of yours. You’re in your comfort zone. You’re safe. But there is a full world of possibilities outside of that box to be explored, and sometimes the answer to a problem might just be hidden outside of those boundaries. So you have to step out of your comfort zone and explore new ideas and beliefs you you want to get your answers.

That is the theory. Now for reality.

At least among rather young people (18 to 30?) in the technology area, that expression is very popular. People use it to try to stand out from the crowd, although much of the crowd is using it already by now. Even though they might not notice it, they’re not really using it in its original meaning anymore: for the tech guys, “thinking outside the box” is avoiding the low-wage unfulfilling job and challenging the standard, usually by trying to live an entrepreneur’s adventure or simply by chatting about the latest innovations and what cool technological projects could be made out of them. In every meetup, in every talk, in every event, there it is: the dreaded “think outside the box” telling you to create the next Google or Facebook and live the startup entrepreneur’s dream (this is actually an oversimplification, but I hope you can still see my point here).

So, have you noticed something terribly wrong so far? If not, please read the description of the original meaning of that expression again. It seems that almost all the tech guys are pointing to the same direction when they talk about “thinking outside the box”. Not just to the same direction, but many times also to the very same spot! Now how’s that for challenging your beliefs, getting out of the comfort zone and exploring new ideas and possibilities? How come can you talk about shifting the way you question the world and then fall to the same exact spot as everybody else who tries to do the same?

Eager to stand out from the crowd and expand their ideas, people move their thoughts out of their box, just to let them fall in another one. This “second box”, as it might be called, is just a trap state where you can easily fall if you don’t see it. But hey, nobody said it’d be easy to truly get out of that hated box! The whole purpose was to do the near-impossible and change the status quo, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if there are some traps and pitfalls on the way.

So how can that trap be avoided so that we can truly achieve great paradigm shifts and new discoveries? Unfortunately, there is no right answer for it, at least that I’m aware of. If I new it, I’m sure I’d be a much better and happier person by now. However, I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to stop thinking so much about creating new startups and launching new technological products, and start trying to push creativity and imagination to come up with amazing new ideas. Not million-dollar business ideas (although those might also be welcome), but simply crazy ideas that at the end of the day will have an impact on you and on the world around you.

How many tech folks would consider travelling to a country not knowing a single word of their language just to help children with family problems? How many with the right skills would work with a young NGO to develop their website without asking anything in return? And how many would spend hours every week watching recorded lectures online from the world’s best universities and doing their exercises?

As every other guy will tell you, it’s still nice to look for entrepreneurship adventures, though (as I’ve also done and intend to keep doing). Just keep in mind that it’s just one pattern you can follow when you’re trying to think different and broaden your scope of the world, and that there is an endless list of other patterns, some of them better, others worse. Just don’t fall in the trap of immediately going for that “second box” if that wasn’t your initial goal.

If you dodge that trap, there is a whole world of new adventures waiting for you. A scary world, way different from your usual assumptions and mostly unknown And still, powerful enough to amaze you and to give you new insights and tools for critical thinking, problem solving and self-fulfilment.