We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them ~ Albert Einstein
This morning while I was walking to work, bundled up in my parka, toque and all things Canadian that are required to survive our polar vortex and the one week of winter that we enjoy here on the West Coast, I overheard someone on the phone while walking with purpose to her destination. I assume she was on her way to work. She looked corporate in her tights and skirt and boots, but I am making assumptions. I wasn’t particularly interested in her conversation and wasn’t really listening until we stopped at the crosswalk and I heard her say, “we need to think outside of the box on this one.” I think I internally groaned and eye-rolled, however there is a good chance I used my outside voice, I’m not entirely sure.
It’s such a cliche and one that makes me shiver. I’m all for quotes and affirmations and I often use terms and sayings that are intended to inspire and motivate, but this one for me is particularly cringe-worthy. I found myself thinking about thinking and also wondering what it even means to think outside of the box. Of course, as my computer was firing up and I was waiting for the ever slower and slower login process to complete, I used my phone to access Google and my first stop, Wikipedia. Think outside of the box is defined as a metaphor for thinking differently, unconventionally, from a different or new perspective, with creativity. It is most often used in the business world, but is widely used to refer to attempting a new perspective or approach that is “off the beaten path.”
The way I view the world and approach my own problem solving is based on how I think, it is heavily contextual and all about my perspective, of the world and of the problem at hand. Research into thinking and neuroplasticity (yep, that’s a thing) shows that it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of our own existing mindsets to find an alternative viewpoint or perspective, but it is possible to train the brain. The patterns and routines I have acquired over decades of thinking a certain way and of analysis, decision making and outcome evaluation creates a path in my brain and once that path is bush-whacked it’s much easier to take the path that’s already cleared, rather than beat back the bushes to form a new one. These pathways of thinking are what confines us to our proverbial “boxes”. However, if I continually go down the same path when attempting to problem-solve, will I not end up with the same strategies, the same direction and likely the same outcomes that are utilized every time? Is my thinking about how to get myself out of a problem the same as the thinking that got me into the situation in the first place?
Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes, including thinking. In this context, problem solving is defined as the mental process used to discover, analyze and solve problems. Researchers look at all the steps used to identify the problem and the move to solution, and everything in between. Two of the major obstacles and issues identified in the problem-solving process are known as “Functional Fixedness” or the tendency to view problems in the way I have viewed all the problems that have come before my current one, it prevents me from seeing all of the available options because I default to what is customary to me; and “Mental Set” or the tendency for me to only use the solutions that I have found to work in the past, experiential inflexibility. So how then can I “think outside the box” especially if I’ve thought the same way for the last forever?
One of the ways we can attempt to think differently is to get uncomfortable and stick with the problem longer. Sitting with a problem and not attempting to solve the problem quickly, allows time for looking at all the possibilities and to view the issue from various angles. I also can eliminate the need for a goal or desired outcome which constrains and directs my thinking in a decisive direction. I see more discomfort here as having an intended outcome or being goal-driven is what I know. However, focusing on outcomes instantly puts a constraint on my thinking in the direction of the goal or outcome. It is like driving a car, where you look is where you will go. Stop looking and allow for possibilities of direction, this is NOT recommended whilst actually driving. Perhaps the biggest one for me is to be aware of those pathways that my mind travels down. Awareness of the beaten path allows for me to go off-roading and perhaps in the wilderness a new mindset, perspective or strategy for thinking presents itself.
It is so easy to become decidedly stuck in our ways of thinking. We default to what we know, to where we’ve been before, to the comfort of the beaten path. But what if we go off-roading? What if we stick it in 4X4 and take the wild route? Is that any more crazy than believing the mindset we used to get ourselves into a situation will be able to pull us out?
I like to say it’s an attitude of not just thinking outside the box, but not even seeing the box ~ Safra A. Catz