Thinking Outside the Box with Agent J

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.


Duke Ape in the campagnaNow 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 clichรฉ 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.

Writing table in the campagnaBe 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?

39 Beans of Wisdom to “Thinking Outside the Box with Agent J”
  1. It’s sometimes hard for me to buy/find a book outside of my comfort levels (reading = comfort for me) so I often find myself turning first to the blog world. Find a good blog in a different genre, and if they’ve done their job right, they’ll have curated a bunch of great links & resources you can jump into without having to do all the groundwork yourself. ๐Ÿ™‚

    michelle Reply:

    *Excellent* tip, Sara; thanks!

  2. SW

    This is really a great post, Michelle! So much truth in it. And it’s exactly how I’ve always viewed life.

    Luckily for me, this is how most of my family sees things, too (must be a Calabrese thing!) so I’ve never been pressured into following a certain path – I’ve always been free to pursue my own interests, some of which *have* turned into passions.

    Again, really great post!

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks SW; I don’t know that I got this idea from the calabrese in my blood, actually, but I do think there’s something to be said for an immigrant spirit — in some families, I think the adventurous nature is passed down while in others, it kind of fizzles…glad to hear you’ve had support in your outside the box thinking ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. 01.09.2012

    I really like Sara’s idea of finding a blog in a different genre. One to try perhaps. Meanwhile I love this post. I am going to start a new exercise regime, so this angle of this post was great to me. I also tried to think outside the box when I did some ESL teaching last year in order to make the lessons more interesting for the students. I think some of them appreciated it…

    michelle Reply:

    Oh lesson planning and thinking outside the box are great partners — most students will appreciate your making that extra effort, and the ones that don’t, well, they wouldn’t have appreciated anything you’re doing anyway most likely (unfortunately). Buon 2012 Cathy!

  4. I just saw your comment on my blog and had to run over.

    I completely co-sign. It’s hard to get away from the linear thinking sometimes and not worry about how others will see/judge you.

    My internship is definitely outside my comfort zone. Just answering the phone (in Italian) makes me panic.

    michelle Reply:

    I think getting over that phone anxiety is one of the *hugest* humps in language learning, or at least it was for me. I don’t much like the phone anyway, but when I felt that anxiety melt away, I knew I was on to something ๐Ÿ˜‰ YES in 2012! Woohoo!

  5. 01.09.2012

    Interesting that this is the second post I’ve read about “thinking outside of the box” to help writing or anything. Is this a sign? But I’ve been doing and thinking alot about this subject.

    And it’s weird, but just today, my friend asked if I wanted to start Roller Derby. I was sold at ROL. It’s something I’ve thought about for awhile. So, that I guess is my doing a fitness activity that not many people will touch with a 10′ pole.

    michelle Reply:

    Oh that sounds *so* fun, Kristi — enjoy!

  6. First – I love your little ape! I smiled every time I saw those on my trip to Italy.

    I’m not a fan of the phrase “thinking outside the box”, but I do like the concept. And believe I’ve been doing that my whole life – which I think is the reason I used to get in trouble all the time as a child – I just didn’t (and still don’t) like to do something the way everyone else does it or because everyone else does it.

    I had forgotten that scene in Men In Black, but I would be sitting there thinking, “Why aren’t these idiots using the table??” and probably get up and do the same thing – drag it my way. I can hear my mother’s voice right now though, calling me “lazy” because of it, and why do I have to make such a scene. She’d say everyone else was doing just fine without a table. Really? Were they REALLY?

    Sometimes I get the feeling that when you do what interests you, makes you feel alive and simply makes you happy as you put it, people around you really seem to get annoyed….just like you said…telling you you’re crazy, etc. Mostly, I get the impression that they think you’re selfish. I feel that often, especially from family members.

    I still continue to do what I want. And to be honest, I kinda judge those who don’t. They act like they’re trapped – like they can’t get out of what they’ve created for themselves. The thing that puzzles me the most is the person who says “I don’t have time…” (to read a book, watch a movie, etc.) In fact, I know someone who says they don’t have time to read a magazine. Who doesn’t have time to read a magazine?? And how much does your life suck if you can’t read a magazine? It’s mostly pictures and blurbs of words.

    I think what you’ve done and are doing in your life is not only fantastic, it’s inspiring. Even if someone can’t get up and move to another country, they need to realize that they CAN carve out fifteen minutes to read a magazine.

    I really loved this post.

    michelle Reply:

    Thx Salena, and thx for your great comment; I get a bit frustrated/annoyed when I hear people complaining about not having time to do things too. We all set our priorities, whether consciously or not — and quite a few of the people I know who “don’t have time” spend an awful lot of it watching TV. NOTHING wrong with watching TV as I have my favorites as well — but that’s just it. I make time for my favorites, and let the rest sit. You just have to be very “selfish” with your time is all…and yeah, if that’s how other people want to categorize it or name it, well, I’m OK with that, and I’m sure you are too. You know you’re a loving, giving person, and that doesn’t change just because you take some time for yourself to read magazines….. xx

  7. 01.10.2012

    Thanks for the belly laugh from that hilarious clip. And I’m always glad to be reminded to think and live outside the box. It’s so easy to get lost inside it, but the best experiences of my life have resulted from stepping out into the void.

    michelle Reply:

    I just love that scene — and yes, the void is sometimes the most interesting place to be ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks for coming by, Jann ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. 01.11.2012

    Lovely post as usual. I realised very young that living in the box was not how I wanted to be as an adult. I also left home, lived on different continents, always striving to write and to live as honestly as possible. Ultimately it is the most satisfying way to pass your time here. But I would make two points. Sometimes those who don’t have the courage or will to live outside the box will be hurt by your actions – I do think it is important to understand selfishness versus self-fulfilment and try not to injure those around us. Second, living outside the box means a whole life of non-conformity – not an adventurous youth and a late adulthood telling tales (and boring others to tears!) It means making serious life choices and following them through each day with every attitude and action.

    All the best Michelle, ciao cat

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Catherine; I think you’re right, that thinking/living outside the box is usually a lifetime commitment — though there are many different ways it can manifest itself; it’s not always through traveling to far-off places and cultures but can be keeping a rather conventional lifestyle to the casual observer, but maybe you’re kickboxing every night hahaha ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Catherine Reply:

    Yes! I agree. Domestic life with a twist!

    michelle Reply:

    Hee hee ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. 01.11.2012

    Carrying on with Ms. Rosso’s theme, I have a list of blogs I visit when I need to stretch my own vision. Jonathan Fields, Danny Brown, Gini Dietrich, Danny Ivy – all people who deal with the business / marketing side of the internet. I love to sit in my jammies and pin pretty pictures from Scandinavian blogs to my pinterest account all morning, but in reality, the things that DON’T come naturally to me – the nuts and bolts of moving ahead with the business of blogging – is where I need (want?) to be focused.


    michelle Reply:

    Another great tip, Diana; this is where something like a Google Reader or even just FB lists come in handy — that way you can group all of the “non comfort zones” one together for when you’re in the mood to jump ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Silvana

    Hey Michelle!

    It’s your Canadian Calibre counterpart…:). I concur as usual…and also related a lot with what Salena had to say. The box reference is a tired one but a valid concept. I see it as following your own authentic path without allowing popular opinion to dissuade you in any way from becoming your fabulous self. And boy does this piss people off! I applaud other people’s successes and celebrate not being trapped by other people’s limiting views.
    Finding the courage to listen to that wise inner voice is where it starts I think…and showing up for your life despite the fear that keeps people stuck “inside the box” is the journey to awesomeness. It’s not easy, but the only benefit of not doing it is that it was easy…but deeply unsatisfying.

    Baci da Toronto!


    michelle Reply:

    Agreed, Silvana; the courage to follow your inner voice is so important — I think it comes more naturally to some than others, but it’s always a choice. Baci dalla Calabria xx

  11. amy

    good post Michelle! I have spent most of my life out of the box which can is very tiring and often wonder what it would be like to be inside..not sure how much of a success it’s been but its been quite alot of fun…

    michelle Reply:

    Hahaha…in my book “quite a lot of fun” is pretty much the definition of success ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. 01.13.2012

    Growing up with my grandparents basically a generation behind my peers, in a house where gender roles were very tightly defined and I was expected not to do or partake in anything unladylike, much less get dirty, put me very much outside my box when last year I went back to my rural roots and began with animals and livestock. Despite growing up in the country with an uncle who raised dairy cows, “girls” and “ladies” weren’t the ones shovelling the manure or wrestling the animals. We stayed in and baked, cooked and prepared coffee and food for the “men folk” who “worked hard all day” while trying to maintain an air of daintiness. When we got our chickens, ducks, geese, sheep and goats last year, despite being well read and researched, I had to overcome an ingrained fear and self doubt that “girls just can’t do these things”—or at least shouldn’t. I still do all the baking and cooking, but I no longer fear the prospect of shearing my own sheep, trimming hooves, giving vaccines or correcting an errant rooster. Granted my hands and nails rival Scarlett O’hara’s (AFTER the war), and I’m sure I’d get a few looks (okay so the girl at the make-up counter might faint) if I walked through Macy’s in my poop covered boots and dusty bright orange barn coat, with my wiry, unruly gray hairs waving at everyone as I walked by, but I feel a whole lot better about myself. ๐Ÿ™‚

    michelle Reply:

    Love this, June; you not only think outside the box you were put in, you live there full-time…and love it!

  13. 01.18.2012

    I appreciate this post. You are right. We don’t always know ‘the point,’ and that’s what the point is. Creativity declines when we focus on a defined and finite end. Sitting with people and talking about ideas and thoughts, while being free from an agenda, is enlightening and inspiring.

    Thank you for this post.


    michelle Reply:

    Thx for commenting, Zack — “free from agenda” is a liberating concept indeed ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Kelly

    Hi Michelle, I absolutely love reading your blog, with a cup of espresso of course! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ve always been chasing a goal and had a plan how to achieve it. I’m still just as driven, but not as fixed as to *how* my goals will happen. In fact, I have no idea how I’ll get to my point B–yet—but that’s okay because that’s when the magic happens. As always, thanks for the inspiration!

    michelle Reply:

    Thx so much, Kelly; glad to hear you’re still chasing ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. I had wanted to leave this with my comment the other day, but I couldn’t find where I had written it down – thought it was on the computer, turns out it was in my journal (written in long hand, which is rare for me these days! LOL) I copied it from the book “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin.

    โ€œMake a list of competitors who are not trying to be everything to everyone. Are they out-performing you? If you could pick one underserviced niche to target (and to dominate), what would it be? Why not launch a product to compete with your own โ€“ a product that does nothing but appeal to this market?

    The Cow (Purple Cow) is so rare because people are afraid. If youโ€™re remarkable, itโ€™s likely that some people wonโ€™t like you. Thatโ€™s part of the definition of remarkable. Nobody gets unanimous praise โ€“ ever. The best the timid can hope for is to be unnoticed. Criticism comes to those who stand out.

    Where did you learn to fail? If youโ€™re like most Americans, you learned in first grade. Thatโ€™s when you started figuring out that the safest thing to do was fit in. The safe thing to do was to color inside the lines, donโ€™t ask too many questions in class, and whatever you do, be sure your homework assignment fits on the supplied piece of card stock.

    We run our schools like factories. We line kids up in straight rows, put them in batches (called grades), and work very hard to make sure there are no defective parts. Nobody standing out, falling behind, running ahead, making a ruckus.

    Playing it safe. Following the rules. Those seem like the best ways to avoid failure. And in school, they may very well be. Alas, these rules set a pattern for most people (like your boss?), and that pattern is awfully dangerous. These are the rules that ultimately lead to failure.โ€

    The part that got me was the idea that staying inside the lines part – do what you can to “fit in”. What if you don’t want to fit in? What if you see your life OUTSIDE of the lines? The unconventional. What you’re doing. What I’m doing.

    It seems like so many people spend the majority of their lives doing what’s expected of them, fitting in, not standing out, “staying inside the lines” and then they get to an age where they give themselves “permission” to do what they’ve wanted to do all along. To pursue their passions. And I just think, “boy, you sure wasted a lot of time doing what others wanted you to do.”

    I was the kid in class who asked too many questions, who didn’t want to color like everyone else, who “caused a ruckus” by rebelling against the way we were SUPPOSED to do something. I think I let go of some of that and got a little lost along the way trying to find something that would be an “acceptable” job or life plan…I think I wasted some time doing that. Now I feel like I am getting back to causing a little ruckus.

    Anyway…just wanted to pop back over because I actually found my notes and wanted to share this with you.

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks for taking the time to look that up. I was often simultaneously the teacher’s pet and the smart ass — the former because I did really well and the latter because I asked too many “hard” questions ๐Ÿ˜‰

  16. Beverly

    Wow! I couldn’t have read this blog and Salena’s comment at a better time. My husband and I are focusing our energy on moving to Italy after we retire in 4 years. I’ve been diligently researching his father’s ancestry in order to pursue dual citizenship for him. Anyway, lately, I’ve been wondering if we’re crazy for wanting to do this. Are we biting off more than we can chew? What if it doesn’t work out? Fill in any and all ideas that can continue to promote doubting our decision so we can hurry up and get back to some kind of “safe” retirement plan. Reading this blog and Salena’s response pushes us to stick to our dream and not allow us to talk ourselves out of it! Thanks, ladies! I guess there’s a reason I named my own blog “Escaping Our Comfort Zone.” I need to give more attention to it!

    michelle Reply:

    Oh that is so wonderful, Beverly — and I *love* the title of your blog ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s natural that when we move outside our comfort zone, think outside the box, whatever you want to call it, we have some doubts along the way. The real challenge is staying focused on what you know deep inside of you is the right course. Best of luck with everything ๐Ÿ™‚

    Beverly Reply:

    Aahh.. Thanks for the insight, Michelle. I appreciate your reassurance that the doubt is normal and we just need to stay the course. And, that is exactly what we’ll do! In the event I get nervous all over again, I’ll just come back and re-read these words of wisdom from you and Salena! I’ll also keep you posted on our progress.

    michelle Reply:

    Please do!

    Salena of The Daily Rant Reply:


    Michelle just passed along your comment to me (I have now checked the “notify me of follow-up comments” box), and I’m glad it helped a little. Michelle’s blog is quite an inspiration – she is doing (successfully) what so many only wish to do. And the thing about her is (turn around Michelle, this is supposed to be said behind your back)….she willingly, joyfully, graciously, selflessly (and all the other “ly” words) helps others – whether it’s their quest to be a freelance writer, to move to Italy, to figure out the dual-citizenship, have a law-related question or need a recipe – I know, because I’ve asked her just about all of those things and more.

    She’s clearly busy with her several websites, her many freelance assignments, her book reviews, etc. yet she carves out time to respond to people who comment or email her. I love that.

    Most of all, I think she shows it can be done. And through her, you can also find links to others who have done it – this living in Italy thing. And she’s totally right (again) when she says “stay focused on what you know deep inside of you is the right course”. Sometimes, that’s the hard part. But coming here shows just what can happen when you stay the course.

    So thanks for the comment regarding my comment and keep on reading Michelle – it’s good stuff. And I’d love to read your blog also – stop by my blog and leave me a comment with the link. Best of luck!

    Beverly Reply:

    Salena, thanks so much for the response! I’m glad to know Michelle is such a great resource! You both sound like fabulous women! Thanks for the encouragement and support.

    michelle Reply:

    Un bacione Salena xx



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Pasta with snails alla calabrese
Onion, Oregano, and Thyme Focaccia
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