177. Think Outside The Cliche
Are you familiar with the Nine Dot Puzzle? You probably are. Then again, maybe you’re not. It became popular in the 1970s and 80s, back when most of the free world was watching Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Not that those shows have anything to do with the Nine Dot Puzzle. They don’t. I just was feeling nostalgic for the times when Tuesday night TV meant something important.
OK, OK, where was I? Oh yeah, the Nine Dot puzzle. It’s a popular mind-bender, this puzzle. It starts off with 9 dots placed in a box-like pattern, just like this:
The object is to connect all nine dots using no more than four straight lines without lifting your pen off the paper (proverbially, of course). Each dot can only be touched once.
If you don’t know the answer, give it a shot with the puzzle above before you scroll down any further.
Did you try it? C’mon now, go back up and try it. Don’t be scared.
Ok, here’s how to solve it:
There’s a reason I bring up the Nine Dot Puzzle. Isn’t there always a reason?
I’m sure you know the saying “think outside the box”, right?
Well, as it turns out, that saying originated from the Nine Dot Puzzle. That’s where it came from.
Betcha didn’t know that, eh?
What If The Box Has No Outside
As it turns out, we can understand a little more about the “think outside the box” saying now that we understand its origin.
These days, when somebody says to “think outside the box”, the common understanding is to take everything you’ve done before, the whole box of concepts you’ve been working on, and throw them away like 2-week old chicken. To think outside the box means to develop entirely new concepts, separate from anything that’s been done before.
But that’s not the original meaning of the phrase. In fact, that’s not even how the human brain works.
According to neuroscientific research, as we get older it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of our existing mindsets. The human body - driven by its neural, biological, and chemical systems, is designed to make us creatures of habit. According to the Hebbian theory, circuits of neurons maintain our habits, and our habits strengthen those neuronal circuits.
Simply put, the human brain is not designed to think outside the box.
Want an example? Here’s one: infinite space
The human brain structures everything into boxes of time and space. Everything we know has a beginning and an end. The concept of infinite space - of space extending on and on and on and never ever ending - we can understand the words, but how can we truly understand the concept? We are simply not designed to comprehend infinite.
Heck, most of us can’t even really comprehend large distances. Which leads me to another example.
The distance across our universe is 93 billion light-years. That’s an insane distance. Let me rephrase that in a metric that makes sense.
The diameter of the universe is 546,757,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles. (Keep in mind, you represent 72 inches of that, give or take a foot.)
The number is so ridiculously big, most of us don’t even know what to call it*, much less have the ability to comprehend it. Try if you will to wrap your brain around that distance. I dare you.
*546 sextillion, 757 quintillion miles
Think Next To The Box
Take a look again at the solution to the Nine Dot Puzzle. Here, let me make it easier:
The solution starts firmly inside the box. In fact, most of the solution remains clearly inside the box. There are only two elements that are outside that box. Here is what is actually outside the box:
It’s not much that that lives outside the box. However, those outside-the-box elements are hugely important. In fact, those two elements have made all the difference in this scenario.
I’ve been in many brainstorms where the instruction has been to “forget everything you know about ______ “ - or “forget all the ways you normally do _______”.
But that’s not how out-of-the-box thinking works. Just like the Nine Dot Puzzle, the goal is not to change everything, the goal is to just change enough to give the box new meaning.
There are very few truly original ideas in the world. Most every idea comes to fruition simply as a result being inspired by somebody else’s concept.
Effectively thinking outside the box requires an understanding of what is working. It requires a knowledge of all the thinking that went into the box in the first place. Great ideas don’t throw history away - they simply extend it. They take the dots and stretch it just a little further.
Remember this next time somebody tells you to think outside the box. Don’t go too far outside. Like the Nine Dot Puzzle, try to extend the current processes in a slightly different direction. Some thinking right next to the box can end up making all the difference in the world.
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“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
- Albert Einstein
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