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The meaning and origin of the expression: Think outside the box

Think outside the box

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Think outside the box'?

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Think creatively, unimpeded by orthodox or conventional constraints.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Think outside the box'?

'Think outside the box' originated in the USA in the late 1960s/early 1970s. It has become something of a cliche, especially in the business world, where 'thinking outside the box' has become so hackeyed as to be rather meaningless.

Various authors from the world of management consultancy claim to have introduced the phrase. The earliest citation that I have found comes from the weekly magazine of the US aviation industry - Aviation Week & Space Technology, July 1975:

"We must step back and see if the solutions to our problems lie outside the box."

The 'box', with its implication of rigidity and squareness, symbolises constrained and unimaginative thinking. This is in contrast to the open and unrestricted 'out of the box' or 'blue-sky' thinking. This latter phrase dates from a little earlier, for example, this piece from the Iowa newspaper the Oelwein Daily Register, April 1945:

"Real thinking. Speculation. Pushing out in the blue. Finding out [the facts] was what put me onto the theory of blue-sky thinking."

The encouragement to look for solutions from outside our usual thinking patterns was championed in the UK by Edward De Bono, the psychologist and inventor, who coined the term Lateral Thinking in 1967 and went on to develop it as a method of structured creativity.

Nine eggs puzzleSo, what's this box? It turns out that, rather than being metaphorical, the reference was to a specific box - in the form of a two-dimensional square. Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums (With Answers), 1914, included a puzzle, known as the 'Nine Dots Puzzle', which was posed like this:

"Draw a continuous line through the center of all the eggs so as to mark them off in the fewest number of strokes."

Loyd was a little sloppy with the puzzle's rules and ought to have added that the lines must be straight, although he did supply an illustration that makes the meaning clear.

The 60/70s management gurus who exhorted trainees to 'think outside the box' made their point by resurrecting the old 'Nine Dots Puzzle' as a test. Those of you who are familiar with the puzzle's solution will see why. If you haven't yet solved it for yourself, just click on the nine-dot image below.

Nine eggs puzzle - think outside the box>
Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

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