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:
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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