By Fred Nickols

We are regularly told to think outside the box. Try telling that to Jack. The problem with giving that advice to Jack is that he cannot get out of the box. I have—news for you—neither can you. Neither can I nor can anyone else for that matter. None of us can think outside the box, not really. All of our thinking is imprisoned inside the “box” formed by our beliefs, preconceptions, values, biases, knowledge, and perceptions, to name just some of the “sides” of our individual boxes. We cannot get outside the box because it is who we are. Even when we try to get outside the box our efforts to do so must take place inside the box. We are stuck with it and, like Jack, we are stuck in it.

Why do you want to get outside the box anyway? Are you looking for new ideas, new insights, or creative or innovative approaches to old problems or maybe to new ones? What is wrong with what is inside the box? Is it not up to the task at hand? How would you know if you did get outside the box? My answer is that you would not. You could not. All you can recognize is what your box will let you recognize. Getting outside the box is a doomed endeavor.

Have you ever seen an Ouroboros? It is a symbol of a snake or a dragon chewing on its own tail. There is one in the picture on the left. It would make a good logo for efforts aimed at getting outside the box. The box can only chew on itself.

What are we talking about? We’re talking about learning, growing, improving, changing, and being open to new ideas and ways of thinking. We are talking about your mind–and mine–and everyone else’s. But we cannot get outside our minds. To paraphrase Pogo, “They is us.”

However, we can do something about what goes on in there.

The best thing you can do is open the box. You see, the stuff in a closed box is fixed, static, unchanging, and, quite literally, in the dark. A closed box can do only what it already can do. But, if you open the box, you can let new stuff in and that new stuff will interact with the old stuff and create some more new stuff inside the box. You can, then, change what the box has in it and what it can do but you do not need to get out of the box to do that; you just need to let more stuff in. Indeed, as I have been hammering home, you cannot get outside the box anyway.

Another thing we can do is bring together a bunch of different boxes and let their interactions generate stuff that is not to be found inside any one of the boxes. Guess what? Once that is done, this new stuff is now inside the box. (Well, it makes its way inside the ones that were open. The closed ones do not change.) Anyway, there’s no escaping the box.

So, the next time someone starts blathering and babbling to you about the importance of thinking outside the box, smile and say, “That sounds like a really good idea. Just exactly how do you do that?”

If you get some good answers, let them inside your box and make use of them to the extent your box will let you. But do not take the advice literally. Remember: You cannot get outside the box.

Me? I am going to focus on keeping my box open and on letting more good stuff in there. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, my box will be happy with creating more good stuff inside and ignoring all that advice to think outside.

About the Author
Fred Nickols is the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. Fred is a retired Navy man, writer, consultant, and former executive with a deep and abiding interest in human behavior and performance in the workplace, including the learning that makes it possible and that leads to improvement. He has published more than 100 articles; paid blog posts; and book chapters in a wide variety of professional journals, books and magazines. They are available free on his articles’ website at Fred can be reached via email at