One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is the testing scene in Men in Black. To refresh your memory:
For those who don’t want to watch the first two minutes and fifty or so seconds of the video, let me sum it up:
Will Smith’s character (who later becomes Agent J) is in a room with other candidates so the Powers-That-Be can find “the best of the best of the best.” The candidates are all men from either military academies or the NYPD and squeezed into pod-like chairs that barely contain their bodies; they are each given an exam booklet and a pencil. As they scrunch up in their pods, twisting, wiggling, and crossing and uncrossing legs to find comfortable positions for holding the booklet and writing at the same time, Smith’s character stops, looks in front of him, and sees a table.
SCREEEEEEECH! The otherwise silent, sterile room is filled with a deafening squeal as Smith drags the heavy metal table across the floor toward him. The other candidates shoot him, as my mom would say, hairy eyeballs.
But Soon-To-Be-Agent J has already passed the test.
He thought outside the proverbial box and instead of following what everyone else was doing, he wasn’t afraid to literally make some noise and do something that got him to his goal.
Now if you’re rolling your eyes at the phrase “thinking outside the box,” I empathize. It has become trite and jargony, and in fact when I was in law school, it had an honored place on the cliché list, which includes but is not limited to (yes, there’s another!) “seeing the forest for the trees” and “learning to think like a lawyer.”
But stripped down to its core, “thinking outside the box” says in four words what I believe to be the key to success in just about any venture as well as general happiness in life. To me, thinking outside the box means not blindly following conventional wisdom and what has already been done as well as challenging assumptions about yourself, others, and the world around you.
When you think outside the box, you’re following your instincts as to what should be done, your own “right way,” and oftentimes, what you need to feel balanced and whole.
Then why do so many people encourage (or implore) you to color inside the lines, follow the rules, and stay inside the damn box? Well they’re either inside the box themselves and not sure how/afraid to get out, or even worse — they’re actually selling the box.
Look, I love plans of attack and guidelines and goals and milestones and all that stuff, and yes, in some areas of life there are definite paths that must be followed to reach a specific destination — you’re not going to become a doctor without going to college, taking the MCAT, going to med school, passing your boards, doing your residency, etc.
But overall, never underestimate the value of thinking outside the box, figuring out your own way to get from Point A to Point B, and trusting your instincts along the way. Heck, maybe you don’t even have a Point B in mind yet. No problem! Think of your current lack of a Point B as already being outside the box in this goal- and results-driven world. I’m not sure people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg ever knew there even was a box.
And look, while thinking outside the box can certainly be about sitting down to solve or approach specific problems, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, I like to think of it more as a way of life.
Keep your mind and heart open for opportunities that interest you, make you feel alive, and simply make you happy.
And that’s even if what arises isn’t something you’re “supposed to be” interested in or what everyone else is doing or reading or writing or whatever. Maybe you’re just looking at something from a new angle or perspective, figuratively or literally. Maybe it’s moving your writing desk from one end of the room to the other, or grabbing your notebook and a pen and heading out for a long walk.
Some more great, relatively easy ways to maneuver outside the box include the following:
Reading books outside your usual genres.
Taking a class in a subject outside your comfort zone.
Opening your mind to other religions and types of spirituality.
Starting up an exercise regime with an activity you’ve wanted to explore.
Gathering with at least two other people to brainstorm thoughts, ideas, solutions, etc.
Be forewarned, however: Sometimes when you operate outside the box, people look at you funny, make not-so-nice comments about you and your actions, and maybe even tell you you’re crazy for doing what you’re doing because, oh, I don’t know, you’re not making any money at it or you’ll never get anything out of it anyway or you’re too old or you’re too young or you’re not being serious enough to really achieve anything, so what’s the point?
Well that’s just the thing and the most beautiful part of living outside the box, even from time to time. Sometimes we don’t immediately know “the point” when we venture outside the box.
Sometimes a small spark of interest ends up turning into a passion and perhaps then into a career. Or maybe your life becomes enriched with a lifelong love of a new author, subject, or activity. Or maybe you develop amazing new friendships that remain long after that particular dalliance outside the box is over. Or maybe your time out of the box is special just because it was time out of the box, and there really is no point besides that.
That’s what’s so cool about thinking outside the box and doing your own thing — you just never know where it can lead.
And besides that, there’s nothing more stifling and frustrating than feeling boxed in, and that’s because we’re not honoring that part of ourselves that wants, that needs so desperately to get out. So what I’m really saying, I suppose, is this:
Live outside the box as much as possible. That’s where awesome happens.
Have you thought outside the box lately?
What are some other ways of getting out of your comfort zone to enhance personal and/or professional growth?