How To Think “Out Of The Box”

“We do not at present educate people to think but, rather, to have opinions, and that is something altogether different.” – Louis L’Amour (Education of a Wandering Man, 1989)

Much has been made of the importance of thinking “outside the box.” To solve difficult problems, it is said, you need the ability to do this. I agree. Completely. Because I’ve seen supposedly insurmountable problems solved by this kind of intelligent thinking many times.According to JW, the origin of the phrase “thinking out of the box” originated with an intelligence test called the Nine-Dot Box. You’ve probably seen it. Imagine three rows of three dots, each equally spaced some distance apart on a plain piece of paper. The challenge is to connect the dots by drawing a minimum number of lines. The only rules are that you must draw a line through every dot once and only once, all lines must be straight (no curves), and your pen/pencil cannot leave the paper.

If you’ve ever seen this done as a “bar trick,” you know that most people cannot figure out how to do it with fewer than five lines. Yet, it’s quite easy to do it with four. And it’s even possible to do it with fewer than four.

The trick to thinking outside the box is to ask yourself if you are making any unfounded assumptions about the problem. More specifically, ask yourself if you are limiting the possible solutions of the problem by some imagined and unspoken restrictions that don’t exist. If you discover that you are, all you have to do is think “beyond” them and an answer will usually come quickly.

In the case of the Nine-Dot Box, the hidden assumption is that there is an imaginary boundary surrounding and boxing in the perimeter dots. But there is no rule that says your line cannot extend beyond that perimeter. In fact, that boundary exists only in your mind. By thinking “outside the box,” you can connect all the dots with four lines.

In fact, JW says, “you can connect them all with a single line if you realize that there is no rule against rolling the paper into a cylinder and then torquing it so that the dots are at an angle to one other and all can be connected by one continuous straight line around the cylinder.”

I’ve just used outside-the-box thinking to resolve a stalemate between two friends and business partners. I won’t bother with the details, but the crux of the matter is that they were deadlocked on a contract that was working well for one but not the other. The former wanted the contract honored and was intransigent. The latter felt he was getting screwed and was prepared to litigate.

The unspoken assumption was that the contract itself was the basis of the relationship. I knew it was not. The basis was the deal itself: One party wanted something the other could provide and was willing to pay for it — but not on the contracted terms.

I was able to persuade them both that fighting over the contract would get them nowhere. Starting from ground zero, they were able to write a new contract that made both of them happy without either of them feeling cheated.

Next time you run into a difficult problem, think about the hidden assumptions that might restrict the way you approach a solution — and ignore them. You’ll be surprised by how easily and often this works. Before long, you’ll be known as a creative problem solver.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]