Thinking Inside of the Box

Posted: September 24, 2008 in Disability Deliberations


By Mark E. Smith

We need to think outside of the box. If you’ve been around any sort of business environment – or, even pop-culture – you’ve surely heard that expression, one used by countless management coaches and motivational speakers for decades. Of course, what thinking outside of the box means is using creativity and originality to find new solutions, ones that others presumably haven’t found.

Interestingly, the term thinking outside of the box is said to have mainly originated through corporate coaching at Walt Disney Corporation in the late 1960s, based on the nine-dot puzzle, in which the goal is to connect nine dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines without lifting the pencil. The key is that the puzzle is only solved by connecting the dots and drawing a shape that voids the puzzle’s initial “box” shape – hence, thinking outside of the box.

Despite the catch-phrase appeal of thinking outside of the box, the way that most people view the motivational concept – arguably, including Walt Disney – is the completely wrong . Literally, the nine-dot puzzle requires us to think inside the box – that is, we’re given a specific situation, and to solve the puzzle, we must work with the constraints of what we have, exactly nine dots. Sure, we must unconventionally connect the dots to solve the puzzle, but we’re still only working with what we literally have, nine dots.

When we live with disability, thinking inside of the box is among our best strategies toward successful living, where we simply make the most of what we literally have. Indeed, some can think outside of the box, hoping for a cure, or wishing to turn back time. However, such thinking that’s outside of our realities – beyond our nine dots – is truly futile. After all, we can’t work with what we don’t have.

However, to the contrary, when we think inside of the box – that is, when we look at the “dots” that we actually have, and work with them to our fullest potentials – we can then create true progress, from solving puzzles to succeeding in every aspect of our lives. Quite simply, thinking inside of the box is when we recognize the literal resources that we have, and then we work them to their most fruitful, advantageous outcomes: I may have cerebral palsy, but within those limitations, I have the ability to excel in business, to write and communicate at an impacting level, to live as a role model for my daughter, and on and on. That is, thinking inside of the box allows us to focus on our true potentials, no matter framed by disability, and succeed with the inherent capacities that we have.

Countless times, I’ve sat talking with someone – someone with a lifelong disability, or a recent injury, or a progressive condition – and I’ve heard him or her thinking outside of the box, longing for a cure, wanting to change the way life has gone, wishing for the impossible. Meanwhile, inside the box – that is, within the person’s true daily life – there’s a wealth of potential and blessing, from a great intellect, to a supportive family, to some physical abilities. Yet, the person is so stuck on thinking outside of the box, that he or she has no capacity to value all that life has truly provided within its seeming limitations. In this way, thinking outside of the box simply stifles one’s potential for growth and joy in life, whereas, in contrast, thinking inside of the box allows us to realize our full potentials. The simple truth is this: Working with what we have, to our best abilities, is how we succeed – disability or otherwise.

I volunteer one night per week as a credit counselor, helping others get their financial lives back under control. What’s striking to me is that the vast majority of consumers I’ve worked with initially believed that their debt was due to not having enough money: If I only had more money, I wouldn’t be in debt, is often said. However, as we’ve listed their incomes and expenditures, it usually becomes clear that they make more than enough money to live comfortably, but that they’ve simply been spending more than they’ve made – or, as I like to say, their wants have been larger than their wallets. In this way, much of their financial woes aren’t based on income, but based on perspective, where their thinking outside of the box – charging big-screen TVs while truly having small-screen budgets! – has lead them directly into debt. However, what’s surprising to many is that in helping clients get their finances under control, there’s no magic or skill to it – as financial counselors, we simply show them how to live within their budgets, or how to think inside of the box. The fact is, financially-secure, successful people simply don’t spend more than they earn – that is, they think inside of the box. Again, there’s no question that simply using precisely what we have to its fullest potential works every time, in money, life, and disability.

When it comes to the success of thinking inside of the box that we call disability, I’m reminded of a friend of mine who lived for flying. In fact, he was an airline pilot with a major airline for 15 years, working his way up to captain. One night, while walking through London during a layover at Heathrow airport, he was robbed at gunpoint, and as he tried to get away from his attacker, he was was shot in the back, resulting in quadriplegia. By any account, his ability to captain airliners was over.

Yet, rather than giving up on the career that he loved, my friend found the value of looking inside of the box that he now had. No, he couldn’t professionally captain an airliner ever again – that was way too far out of the box. However, with all of his education, training, knowledge, and personality, he realized that he could pursue his passions for flying in a new way, working within his present abilities – inside of his box – and he became a ground instructor, teaching young pilots in the classroom.

If there’s one motto that we should live by, it’s to think inside of the box. No, not all of our boxes are equal, where some have nine dots in their boxes, while some of us have fewer. Yet, if we forgo any impossible wishful thinking or any stifling regret, and merely utilize the full potentials that we each truly have in our lives, opportunity becomes boundless. Let us think inside of the box, fully valuing all that we have, and make the most of our dots – our lives – each day.

Comments
  1. Thought-provoking as always, Mark. Wishing for things we can never have certainly does limit us from making the most of what we have. It took me a while to get my head around my new situation and see that I could still do a great deal with what I had. I’ve been happier since then.

  2. easystand says:

    Hi Mark, interesting blog on looking “inside” the box. So true and so many ways to apply to life. Keep up the great work. – Jackie

  3. Melissa Algreen says:

    This site is new to me but passed on through a friend. Hit by a car, I am re-gaining my balance and starting to walk. This notion of ‘thinking inside the box’ holds a lot of merit and definitely contributes to success in situations such as ours. However well it serves anyone to be successful, you want to be sure that ‘thinking inside the box’ does not serve a negative purpose and limit your possibilities in a life already filled with limitations. Anything, however, in moderation is healthy and should serve a positive purpose.

  4. Melody says:

    I am inspired!

  5. Amanda says:

    Very interesting. I think doing your best inside the box often leads to a bigger box.

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