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Thinking "Outside the Box"

Transform Yourself Through Thinking

In the Preface to his book, A Kick In the Seat Of the Pants, von Oech says that "we're all born with the ability to think about things in original ways, but as we grow up we develop attitudes that undermine this creativity. They include: "to err is wrong," "don't be foolish," "that's not my area," "be practical," and "follow the rules"" (viii). Innovative thinking, or thinking "outside the box," is an essential part of critical and effective thinking. If you let yourself be hemmed in by all your and other's assumptions your thinking will remain mediocre at best.


"Jack's mind felt like a head of wilted lettuce. He'd just returned from a meeting with his boss, and had found out that he wouldn't be getting the promotion he'd been hoping for. As he thought about his situation, Jack realized that he hadn't been performing very well lately. He had missed deadlines on several crucial projects. And his once perceptive mind was producing trite solutions to important problems.

"He tried to put some pizzazz back into this thinking, but nothing worked. Finally, he went to an idea doctor for help. "I just don't seem to have it anymore," Jack explained.

""All right, I'll ask you a few questions so I can figure out what your problem is," the idea doctor responded. "First, have you stuck your neck out and taken any risks lately?"

""Not that I can remember," Jack answered.

""Have you been asking "what if?" to stretch your imagination?"

""I've been too busy."

""Have you kept an open mind when evaluating new ideas?"

""I know what works and what doesn't."

"The questioning went on like this for a while. Finally Jack asked, "What's the diagnosis?"

""No doubt about it, you're stuck in a rut," the idea doctor proclaimed. "At first I thought it was just a casse of plaque-on-the-brain. Then all I'd have to do is prescribe some mental floss. But your situation is more serious."

""That bad, huh?" Jack shrugged.

""Yes. You've got your ends reversed."


""You see, the human body has two ends on it -- one to create with and one to sit on. As long as you actively pursue new ideas, your creative end stays in good shape. But if you sit around doing the same old things, your brain descends into your rear. The result is that your ends get reversed."

"Jack knew that the idea doctor was right. "What causes this?" Jack wanted to know.

"The idea doctor replied, "To avoid trying new things, some people develop attitudes about creative thinking that keep them safely stuck where they are. These attitudes are:

It's not important.

I don't have time.

I already have the answer.

I'm not creative.

""They're dangerous because they can cause you to miss some important things. For example, if you're indifferent to creative thinking, then you've failed to see that generating and implementing new ideas are crucial survival skills in a rapidly changing world.

""If you spend your time like a fireman -- fighting fires, tending routines, and letting your business manag you rather than the other way around -- then you haven't realized that your job might be easier if you engaged in some creative fire prevention.

""If you arrogantly believe that you've already got the right answer, strategy, or approach, you won't find out that there may be a better way to do what you're doing -- perhaps until it's too late.

""And if your self-esteem is low, you haven't realized that whether or not you become the next.. Einstein.. you were born with the ability to probe the world in unique ways, and your challenge is to realize this potential."

"Jack listened to this explanation and then he said, "What you've told me makes a lot of sense. I think all these attitudes have influenced my thinking at one time or another during the past year." He then paused for a moment and asked, "Is there any hope? Is there any way to wake up my creative power?"

""Yes," said the idea doctor. "As a matter of fact, this remedy has been around for centuries."

""Let me have it," Jack said.

"At this point, the idea doctor walked up to Jack and gave him a kick in the seat of the pants. Jack was stunned for an instant, but then he jumped up and exclaimed, "I'm going to go out and get some new ideas. I'm going to make something happen." The kick had been just the jolt he needed to get his ends realigned.

""You see, Jack, sometimes nothing short of a kick in the seat of the pants will get people off their duffs to create something new. I'm glad it worked for you."

""Thanks for everything," Jack said as he left" (von Oech 6-9).


One aspect of creative thinking is being what von Oech calls an EXPLORER. An explorer, he says, adopts an outlook of insight, knows what his objective is, looks in other fields to get ideas, looks for LOTS of ideas, allows things to lead to very different places, shifts his focus, doesn't overlook the obvious, pays attention to the small things and details, looks at the big picture, has fun, writes things down before he forgets them, and slays dragons...


"Where are the places you're afraid to look for ideas?

"Centuries ago, when map makers ran out of known world before they ran out of parchment, they would sketch a dragon at the edge of the scroll. This was a sign to the explorer that he would be entering unknown territory at his own risk. Unfortunately, some explorers took this symbol literally and were afraid to push on to new worlds. Other more adventuresome explorers saw the dragons as a sign of opportunity, a door to virgin territory.

"Each of us has a mental map of the world in our heads that contains the information we use to guide ourselves in our day-to-day encounters. Like the maps of long ago, our mental maps also have dragons on them. These represent things that, for whatever reason, we don't want to do or push beyond. It could be a fear of public speaking. It could be a fear of going to a party where you don't know any of the people. It could be a desire not to participate in a particular sport. Sometimes these dragons are valid. Sometimes, however, they prevent your explorer [side] from discovering new information" (von Oech 39).


One way to break out of the rut you are in is to change your routine, try different things. von Oech gives the example of a swimming team which has to break up while their pool is repaired. Each member had to go somewhere else to practice. "When we were re-united a month later, there was a great outpouring of new workout ideas. One person had been with a team that had low rest-interval workouts, and she shared those. Another person came back with a heartbeat interval workout. Another discovered a new type of ankle pull-buoy. All of these ideas were discovered because we were forced to break our routine" (40). von Oech recommends even the smallest changes to trigger a change in your thinking. Try interrupting your routines. Take a different route to work. Listen to a different radio channel. Make new friends.

The search for a meaningful life

Life tends to take on meaning and excitement and satisfaction when you do two things:
Helping others is outside the subject area of this class, but every religion and psychological theory supports reaching out beyond yourself as a way of feeling better about yourself.

Improving yourself brings a sense of satisfaction and excitement. To improve, however, you must change what you are doing. To change your actions, you must change your thinking. You must move outside your thinking habits... get outside the box.

Why people don't think

Thinking is hard work. Changing the WAY you think is even harder... and uncomfortable at the least. Most people do not move beyond the level of thinking that they were taught as children. They have "canned" opinions on things and they don't want to go to the trouble or deal with the discomfort in order to reassess their views.

Improving your thinking abilities

Your mind--your thinking ability--is like a muscle. The more you use it the stronger it becomes. Try to think outside the box at least once a day. Take up activities that will help you get outside the box, like learning a new language, learning a new skill, trying something you have never done before.

Become a critical thinker

Review the readings on critical thinking. Become familiar with the common thinking errors. The more you are conscious of the rules of critical thinking, the better thinker you will become.

Success is a Habit

The more you think and live outside the box the better you will become. Review the 7 Levels of Change reading. This should provide you with goals for ever improving levels of thinking and success.


von Oech, Roger. A Kick In the Seat of the Pants: Using Your Explorer, Artist, Judge, and Warrior To Be More Creative. NY: Harper Collins, 1986.

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Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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