the harrison review
thinking inside the box
July 19, 2020
thinking 'inside the box'
I’ve been through grade school, I’ve had some jobs, and one time I set my shirt ablaze in high school Chemistry. And in two of those three life experiences, I was regularly advised to solve questions or problems by thinking ‘outside the box’. (I don’t know...maybe I missed a real chance to use that strategy in Chemistry.) And while that advice is all well and good, over time I’ve found that thinking outside the box, as a life strategy, hasn’t had much staying power for me. Instead, I’ve become a true believer (a fanatic, even) in thinking inside the box.
~~~outside the box~~~
Now, I mean this less as a campaign *against* thinking ‘outside the box’ and much more as a sales pitch for making a home ‘inside the box’. But first, I do want to pick up this outside-the-box concept for a minute or two and prod it with a stick.
I think I get the point. We’re supposed to think outside the box because we don’t want to restrict ourselves *only* to what others have done before. That makes sense. I wouldn’t deny that certain problems will never be solved until someone tries some brave, new approach, and to that end, I’m on board. Hey, I like human progress as much as the next modernist. So, the basic message of thinking outside the box: “Try something new.”
But for the purpose of solving problems and getting real work done, creativity or taking a unique approach are wildly overrated most of the time. I’ve just not seen a strong relationship between being creative, or different, and achieving actual results. Our culture, however, puts quite the premium on being different. But to the extent that as a society we champion expressions of creativity, this effort seems to grow out of a concern for being different *for the sake* of being different, not because of creativity’s proven effectiveness as a problem-solving strategy. And to the extent that uniqueness--or even...diversity [whisper it, then wince]-- is of value per se, then that's just fine. As a strategy for solving problems, though, it isn't a top pick (or a second pick). But enough prodding for now, let’s leave this 'outside the box' business on a more conciliatory note.
To the extent that there is any value in ‘outside the box’ thinking,--and I do think there is some value there--my guess is that it lies in something like ‘testing assumptions’. False assumptions (or even just ‘not quite correct’ ones) are absolutely the root cause of a vast host of errors in planning and problem solving. Half of the time these little boogers hide in plain sight in just the formulation of the question itself. It can make all the difference to invest deeply in those earliest stages of planning or problem solving: test assumptions, define goals, define success. This is where the magic happens. So if thinking outside the box means setting you on this path, then three cheers for that.
~~~inside the box~~~
So...inside the box. What does it mean? To me, thinking inside the box just means careful thinking, playing by the rules. (Some rules, after all, are *good* rules.) Thinking inside the box, for me, is what is at the very core of philosophy, but not what I thought philosophy was before I actually studied philosophy (and perhaps what you also think philosophy is). I used to see (and deride) philosophy as the place where all the kids got together to share with the world their greatest insights into religion and ethics and politics (often expounded under the influence of some controlled substance). And while there’s undoubtedly plenty of that kind of thing going on, such exercises decidedly do not constitute philosophy. Philosophy, rather, concerns itself less with what one thinks, and more with how one thinks. It dares to tuck one’s personal beliefs away in a drawer (if only for a time) and to shine the spotlight instead on reasons and argument. Philosophy, when done correctly, is so much closer akin to ‘math’ than ‘art’ (though I immediately confess my false implications about art here).
What’s life like inside the box? Well, admittedly it’s not particularly flashy. There aren’t a lot of parties, though the cool kids show up more often than you might guess. It’s less the CNN/Fox News commentary (after all, what’s the difference other than the flavor of bias?), and more the round table on PBS’s Washington Week; fewer slogans, more paragraphs. People take their time; they listen patiently; they talk about words and definitions; they use few exclamation points but a multitude of dashes and dependent clauses. You see passion and intensity alongside discipline and control. One learns the discipline of examining one thing at a time rather than two things at a time, and sometimes there are astonishing discoveries (you live for these moments), such as finding that that one thing is actually made up of three things. And by a patient, rigorous, careful approach, you come to find that you’ve gained control of some topic that otherwise, absent this methodical approach, would have eluded you. The truth is a slippery little thing if one doesn’t keep a close eye.
We seem to live in an age in short supply of very many grown-ups left in the room. Maybe they were right; maybe we all really did watch too much television growing up. I don’t know. It’s too late for that now. The pendulum swings, we trend from one extreme to another, and we wait for correctives to be injected into the social dynamic. I don't take 'inside the box' thinking to be a magic bullet, but I do see in it the seeds of serving as one such helpful corrective. So, give it a try. And you may come to the conclusion that some of the best outside-the-box thinking actually happens inside the box. ■