You Need to See the Box Before You Can Think Outside It

by Ali on December 14, 2009


I’m not fond of the phrase “think outside the box”. It’s business jargon: it hints at a corporatisation of creativity – and very few of us are capable of being innovative on demand. It’s also become such a cliché that it’s lost meaning.

However, I think the concept of the box is useful. We’re often stuck in a cultural or social box that dictates how we behave, what we spend our money on, how happy we are, how we learn, and how we work. It’s hard to see your own boxes.

I’ll go through some of the boxes I’ve had – unnecessary limitations on what I’ve thought was possible or desirable. I’ll offer some suggestions for “unboxing” your thinking, for recognising everything that lies outside your box. You might decide you’ve got a great box already, thank-you-very-much – that’s fine. The point of this is to let you know that you do have choices; often choices which you’d never thought of before.

The Preconceptions Box

If you’d said the words “self development” to me six years ago, I’d probably have looked at you a bit funny and mentally clocked you as an overly-earnest new-agey-hippy-woo-woo type. I had a whole bunch of preconceptions about a vast area of study and practice that I really knew nothing about. My knee-jerk reaction was that’s not for me.

In my third year at university, aged twenty, I signed onto a “women’s self-development course” called Springboard. I’d known about it in the previous two years – I’d just dismissed it as not for me.

It was, in a quiet but significant way, life changing. Not just the content of the course and the people that I meant – and the introduction to books by my favourite personal development writers, Mark Forster – but because it made me realise how horribly inaccurate my preconceptions were.

Since then, I’ve realised just how much “personal development” covers – and plenty of it is stuff that I was already on the path to figuring out before I went on that course. Sure, there are plenty of woo-woo types out there – but they, too, have plenty of value to say.

Looking Outside Your Preconceptions

I’ve tackled this box first because it’s the easiest to see. Whenever you have a reaction to something which you know little or nothing about, ask yourself why you’re feeling that way. If possible:

  • Find out more about the topic or activity. Read about it, chat with people who are involved.
  • Have a go. Unless it’s something illegal or dangerous, there’s little to lose by giving it a go. Attend a lecture on something you know little about. Go along with your friend to her yoga class. It could be something as simple as trying out a new web browser.

The Society Box

I’ve written before about going for what you want rather than what society tells you. It’s a lot easier said than done. Here are a couple of times I’ve struggled:

Engagement Gift

My fiancé, Paul, bought me a very beautiful engagement ring last month. This isn’t just what society dictates as a suitable engagement gift, but also something I really love. Seriously, I grin every time I look at the ring. Now, in the eyes of society, an appropriate gift in response (should I chose to give one) would be a ring, or possibly a watch. While Paul doesn’t have anything against rings, he has nothing like the enthusiasm that I do for one. And he doesn’t wear a watch.

So I bought him an engagement computer.

This seemed like a weird thing to do, and while I’m no particular stranger to being considered a bit weird, it still caused me to pause. And then I thought “sod it” and bought the computer anyway.

It was completely the right thing to do: it was meaningful to both of us, it was a complete surprise to Paul, and it was something he wanted … rather than something that I’d felt I “should” buy him.


I hesitated to include this because it’s not something we’ve actually done, yet. I’ve been interested in the idea of homeschooling for years, and I’d love to homeschool our own kids (not planning on having any for a few years yet, mind…) Paul and I have talked plenty about the future and what we want from it. He’s slowly come round from seeing homeschooling as weird and impractical to seeing it as a positive idea.

Society says that education is done by sending kids to a school for seven hours a day, five days a week, to follow what is (in the UK) an increasingly restrictive national curriculum. However, the traditional view of school is just another box set by society. For some families, it’s the right box. For ours, I suspect it won’t be.

Looking Outside What Society Says

Since many of the friends I have online are American or Australian, I’m constantly surprised to find out that what seems completely “normal” to me – so normal that I’ve never really considered an alternative – is totally odd to them. And vice versa. So:

  • Talk to people from other societies and cultures. Realise that things don’t have to be done the way your society does them. Ditto for reading about periods of history.
  • When you feel that you should do some particular thing, question where the “should” comes from.

The Invisible Box

And finally, there are the boxes which we really can’t see. In my experience, these are often related to technological, cultural or scientific advances. It’s not just that our society “doesn’t do it that way” – it’s that no society has ever done it that way…

Let me give you another example. Five years ago, when I had my first (embarrassingly “dear diary” style) blog, it never occurred to me that blogs could ever be used to make money – from advertising, affiliate payments and so on. And two scant years ago, I had no idea that lots of mid-sized blogs pay writers, just like magazines do.

Now I make my living from blogs – both by writing paid posts as a staff blogger, and by some advertising and affiliate revenue (most of it’s not from Aliventures, in case you’re wondering!) On the back of my blogging, I published a self-study e-course on Staff Blogging, aiming to help others step outside this particular invisible box.

Looking Outside the Invisible Walls

I’m not actually too sure how to get your head around things which simply didn’t exist a few years ago (and I know that, this Christmas, I’m yet again going to struggle to explain to assorted relatives what I actually do for a living…) Here are some thoughts:

  • Talk to people. Especially people who seem to have jobs, hobbies or lifestyles which look impossible to you. Find out how they do it.
  • Read plenty – and not just in your field. Pick up books and magazines from different areas. Ideas spark that way…
  • If you’re technologically-inclined, keep an eye on new developments that become big. You don’t need to download every new browser, or join every new social media site – but being aware of, say, RSS and Twitter can keep you ahead of the game.

Perhaps the only way out of an invisible box is to be an innovator yourself – or to accept a hand-up from people who can see the world outside the box.

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Reflection Questions – The Most Important Questions You’ll Answer This Year
December 30, 2009 at 4:38 pm

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Nate December 14, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Ali -

Great advice here!! I too hate the term ‘think outside the box,’ but it can certainly be useful in the personal development arena. I think all of the above can almost fall into the ‘preconceived notions’ category. It took me awhile to get out of my boxes…and I’m still working on a few :)

Specifically, fear was the major box holding me back. Fear that I couldn’t do something different with my life. Fear that I might be rejected or not good at what it is I want to do if I try it. Fear of failure and fear of what other people think. I’m slowly getting over this and really listening to my gut more. I’m trying less and less to worry about what other people think and to even question my own opinions and assumptions. I specifically love your advice on questioning yourself if you find yourself not liking something, or thinking that you don’t like it. I’ve done this a lot lately and it’s helped quite a bit.

Thanks for sharing.
.-= Nate´s last blog ..Review: The Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself =-.


Dave Doolin December 14, 2009 at 9:09 pm

The hardest boxes to see, and to crack, are the boxes our emotions lock us into.

I run an intermittent blog called “There Is No Box.” Not posting there at the moment, I’ll return to it at some point.
.-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..Blog World Recap: How to Attract a Large and Loyal Audience =-.


Miche - Serenity Hacker December 15, 2009 at 1:03 am

Hi Ali, I love the part on the “society box”. When we go up against conventional, cultural ideas (rings, schools, etc.) we can feel a little guilty, and inevitably some people ARE going to think we’re weird, too. But doing what fits for you and your loved ones is so important, and what’s been passed on to us culturally isn’t always the best way.

I agree with you on the traditional school system, too. I wrote a post a while back on “Thinking Outside the Box”, the “box” being our own conditioned way of thinking through problems. My solution was to “To Think Like a Kid”. People really liked it, and the post ended up bringing up a lot about kids, how much we can learn about ourselves from children, and what’s lacking in today’s education system.
( Here’s the link if you’re interested )

Love your blog, by the way, and the title.

:) Miche
.-= Miche – Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..Is Passion Necessary for a Meaningful Life? =-.


Helen Calder December 15, 2009 at 4:13 am

Hi Ali,
I love your thoughts about how we need to see the box before we can think outside it. Challenging boxes that are limiting you vocationally is one thing–challenging boxes that you are attached to culturally, socially, emotionally, is quite another.
Thanks for the food for thought…and congratulations on your engagement!
.-= Helen Calder´s last blog ..Your Prophetic and Christian Ministry in 2010 Will Be Impacted By This Choice =-.


Ali December 15, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Thanks all!

Nate, great point about fear … that’s definitely something which keeps me stuck in boxes. I’ve found that I’m inevitably scared about trying new things (especially ones involving *people*), and the only way to get over that is to just go on ahead anyway. It’s always, always less scary the second time, and a doddle by the tenth.

Dave, what a great name for a blog! I think our emotions are useful signposts (I’m learning to trust my heart more and recognise that if I’m feeling upset/angry/etc it’s for a reason), but emotions aren’t our masters.

Miche, thanks for the link to your post — what a fantastic way to look at creativity, innovation and play! I was a rather serious kid, but I can see the roots of various aspects of my life today in my childhood — I loved telling stories and playing with dollshouse figures for hours on end … I’m sure this was the novelist in me at work ;-)

Helen, thanks for the congrats! Glad you enjoyed the piece.


Natasha December 15, 2009 at 7:11 pm

I’m an American college student, and I was home schooled until my second year of high school. It was great in a lot of ways; I got to read as much as I wanted, I was able to really cultivate my interests, and I got plenty of “socialization.” However, parents do have to be careful; your home is a box and you have to expose your kids to other ideas, which my parents failed to do adequately. Fortunately, I’ve adjusted. If you have any questions about home schooling, feel free to e-mail me.

Some of the best advice I’ve heard about limitations was from Martha Beck’s book Steering by Starlight. She’s a life coach and she tells her clients not to think in terms of “I have to,” “I can’t” or other absolutes. Instead, put it in terms of “This is what is expected of me, and this is why I feel I should behave this way.” Once you recognize the expectation, you can start to examine whether it’s valid or not.


Michael Fletcher December 15, 2009 at 9:57 pm

:) Perhaps one day I’ll find someone willing to buy me the engagement netbook I’ve been dreaming of since I was a lad!!
Great points in your post, a quick look around the net and it’s clear that there is a “out of the box” thinker hiding behind every corner. There is a place for innovaters. People willing to change their action to change their results. You however right, we need to forget about the box for real results. Only when we are able to let go of preconceived ideas do we let go of preconceived limitations and open the door for true invention.
.-= Michael Fletcher´s last blog ..Enjoy 60 Good Seconds with me – Beginner meditation in 60 seconds =-.


Andrew December 16, 2009 at 7:00 am

I’m trying to get out of the Procrastination Box! Definitely agree with what you’ve said about sometimes having to accept a hand from other people who are already outside of the box.

P.S. Congrats on your news! (A bit late I know)
.-= Andrew´s last blog ..On the Third Day of Christmas – US Options Trading Part 1 =-.


Ali December 16, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Good luck with that netbook, Michael! ;-)

Thanks Andrew, and best of luck escaping that procrastination box. I find that it’s one that often (though not invariably) melts away once I start taking action…


lara December 16, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Spending most of my career in corporate America, at first I cringed at your title but love what you did in this post! I think the society box tends to be the hardest one to deal with, but I think the tools you offered in your article are critical for almost anything you do in life: find out more, give it a go, read (a lot), talk to lots of different people. I’d amend your “read plenty” advice with read blogs in addition to those books and magazines – and don’t stay stuck in reading the same bloggers every day. There are so many great people out there writing about a subject or from a view point that you’ve never considered before. Read what these diverse voices have to say and you’ll expand your mind in ways you never imagined.


Ali December 17, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Yeah, I wondered if the title was a bit over the top…

Great addition there with blogs: yes, definitely! I’ve found some brilliant ones over the past few years (see the blogroll in the sidebar for my absolute favs). And you’re right that mixing it up and reading different bloggers is a great thing … I know I tend to get too set in the particular blogs in my RSS readers, and need to be nudged into finding new voices once in a while.


Dave Doolin December 17, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Ali, that’s right. I tell people all the time: “You are not your emotion.”

If only I were listening…
.-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..Dynamic Content Generation – How WordPress is Like a Sushi Restaurant =-.


Omar December 18, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I was the same way Ali. I never considered personal development till I did a google search. I began reading so many articles. It inspired and helped change me into a better person. Ali what web hosting sites do you recommend?
.-= Omar´s last blog ..Fear Not =-.


Ali December 18, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Omar, I use Dreamhost and I’ve been very happy with them — I’ve reviewed them here: …. give that a look and see if you think they’ll suit you! Good luck!


Omar December 19, 2009 at 7:10 am

Thanks Ali. I’ll check it out.
.-= Omar´s last blog ..Fear Not =-.


Endy Daniyanto December 23, 2009 at 4:50 am

“It was, in a quiet but significant way, life changing.”

I like that sentence. During my college years, I too went through a self development program that was life changing, but it was only so through a long period of time, making the drama and romance out of it practically non-existent. But it’s still worth going through, when I see the person that I’ve become because I chose to go through it.

On a side note, I’ve always been an open minded person, and I make a point to be as eclectic as possible. One way to exercise thinking outside the box, especially for me, might be to try listening to the genres of music you’ve never heard before (e.g listening to jazz if you mostly are a hard rock fan).

Cheers for the article Ali.
.-= Endy Daniyanto´s last blog ..The Premium Price of Privacy =-.


Ali December 23, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Thanks, Endy! I think there are a lot of things which are, in a real and literal sense, life-changing – but which aren’t dramatic, loud, sudden moments. Maybe “catalyst” is a good word. I’m glad that your experience bore good fruit.

“Eclectic” is one of my favourite words (simply as a word, alas, rather than as a concept!) My taste in music is pretty non-existent: I’ll get passionate about a few things but they don’t necessarily bear much relation to one another – my top three bands at the moment are Blackmore’s Night, Metallica, and Franz Ferdinand…

I’ve always been a fairly wide-ranging (some would say undiscriminating!) reader, and I think that’s fed productively into my writing. I imagine music might play a similar role for you?


Endy Daniyanto December 25, 2009 at 4:19 am

Yes, catalyst might be a better word for it.

(Dude, Metallica? Really? I hear their new album sounds “squashed”) My top three musicians at the moment are: John Mayer, Colbie Caillat, and Jason Mraz. The singer-songwriter genre is definitely my most favorite kind of music, but I make it an effort to listen to other genres, specifically ones I’ve never tried or rarely hear before.

Of course listening to new music in an “undiscriminating” way plays a similar role to me as reading does to you. I like it when I realize certain production techniques that may escape the attention of the average listener, and then apply those techniques to my own compositions. I suppose you experience the same too Ali, when you realize a certain method of writing that ignites the interest of the reader, but you can understand why it’s interesting and apply it in your own writing.

Cheers, and happy holidays. Look forward to a blasting 2010.
.-= Endy Daniyanto´s last blog ..Re-Incarnation: Why We Need to Re-Learn and Re-Discover =-.


Ali December 28, 2009 at 11:24 am

I can’t claim to have musical taste … my brother and fiance, who do, are NOT metallica fans!

I’d never even heard of singer-songwriter as a genre before; have now Googled it and get the idea! I like that concept of an individual creator making the lyrics and the music (that’s probably how I’d like to create music if I learnt the skills).

Yes, I love to take apart other people’s pieces of writing to see what makes it work. Copyblogger’s great for that! Some people think that would diminish reading pleasure, but actually I find that being able to analyse a piece of writing helps me to appreciate it with greater depth — I’m sure you find the same with music.

(My fiance and my brother, both of whom have considerably more musical taste than me, have no particular liking for Metallica either… though my fiance bought me a Metallica t-shirt, amongst other things, for Christmas :-))


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