There Is No Box - [Yet (Not) Another Guide To Creativity]

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[ Table of contents ]

Introduction — Tattoos & the Ensuing of Creativity


  1. Your Reference Points Are Showing

    1. What are reference points?

    2. Why we rebel against change.

    3. Can the loss of reference points be good? (A nod to comedy)

    4. London Subways

    5. The Playground

  2. Get Your Head Out of Your Box

    1. The phrase to stop using.

    2. Where boxes come from (and why they might be helpful).

    3. Why are boxes limiting?

    4. The danger of boxes via ancient walls and dependence.

    5. Bounded set versus centered set.

    6. Telos (part 1).

    7. The difference between creativity and change.

    8. What is creativity?

    9. Why are kids more creative than adults?

    10. Why does suffering produce creativity?

    11. The wave & asking “What now?”

The Creative Process & Two Types of Thinking

  1. Self Maximizing Systems, Rivers, & Edward de Bono

    1. Rivers

    2. Brain Physiology

    3. The Path of Dependence

    4. How Self Maximizing Systems can be good.

    5. The goal of independence from boxes and rivers.

  2. Linear Thinking

    1. The metaphor of holes.

    2. The metaphor of horses and buggies.

  3. Lateral Thinking

    1. The benefits of Lateral Thinking.

    2. Creativity is not rebellion.

    3. Creativity is seeing.

    4. Telos (part 2).

    5. A cultural critique of Linear Thinking.

Avoiding Linear & Practicing Lateral

  1. 6 Guides From Which Creativity Will Ensue

    1. Name the Boxes — see them for what they are.

    2. Challenge Assumptions — ask why and question everything.

    3. Generate Alternatives — see what else is possible and break the rules.

    4. Suspend Judgment — brainstorming.

    5. Random Stimulation — curiosity & cultivating imagination.

    6. Start From Somewhere Else — perpetual set, subverting defaults, arbitrary constraints, & The Koln Concert

    7. Creativity as automatic imagination (and a warning on why you might not want to).

  2. A Note On Roots & Rules

    1. Arnold Schoenberg & Atonality

    2. Understanding a box in order to break it.

    3. How is this different from “thinking outside the box?”

  3. Containers Versus Contents

    1. Development of an essence into a container.

    2. Apple Pickers — practicing Lateral Thinking

    3. Confusing a container with its contents.

Conclusion — A Final Image For Having No Box

Introduction — Tattoos & The Ensuing of Creativity

Let’s begin with the longstanding, culturally hip & significant question that everyone seems to have an answer to:

What is creativity?

In a society defined by and determined to capture creation, production, & success, we have turned towards loosening the strings on the abstract force of creativity as our silver bullet to achievement. If we could just figure out how creativity works and how to be people of creativity, we would have a much easier go at the successful version of life. Interesting note, most people we consider as embodying the genius of creativity don’t consider themselves to be creative. Another note, those of history who were possibly the most creative certainly weren’t the most successful. Also, just a disclaimer, nothing about creativity resembles a silver bullet — it is a perspective and a process and a posture that accumulates over time.

But seriously, what is creativity and how do I harness its benefits as a creative person? It is a destination that has been explored and vetted in philosophy, psychology, science, and art to extremes that have left us with a plethora of answers often at odds with each other and occasionally disconcerting. From the mentally-ill genius stereotype to the well clarified charts based on neurological activity, there are lots of answers. I do not intend to give any of them. My intention in this amicable escapade of an essay is more ill defined than that and is more interested in a posture of how you live rather than an easy answer to an abstract mystery. I consider a life lived in a particular way that naturally produces what we call ‘creativity’ to be of more value than a defined pronouncement on how to use this tool to garner whatever success you might be looking for. Save yourself some time and just google or look up in Webster’s the definition of ‘creativity’ if that is what you are seeking. Because it might just be that creativity is not the cause — creativity is the effect. Creativity can’t be pursued, it can only ensue. That’s my perspective and, therefore, that’s what I hope to offer in this writing.

While the question, “How do I be creative?” is on my mind, other questions ought to be coercing their way into this conversation:

What is in the way of progress and innovation?

What makes something creative and other things un-creative?

Why is comedy funny?

What is not creativity?

Why do children seem to be the most creative?

And who wasted money on that terrible tattoo?

The answer to that question is quite easy — that would be me. Because tattoos, at least according to my opinion, are ways to offer a tangible mark of someone’s identity. When an idea or a moment or an image becomes so powerful that it begins to define the reality of your existence, when an internal movement develops with such vigor and significance, sometimes you just need to mark its expression on your flesh. Or sometimes you don’t. The tattoo artist who provided this tattoo even thought it was a bit weird.

My trip to the tattoo parlor on a hot summer day in 2017, then, was not random — it was a moment that felt as if it had been poised to occur for centuries. The evolution of my soul through the culmination of my history led to me owning this part of my identity externally. That is why I put this overly simplified conglomeration of lines and shapes on my arm. Even if folks often ask if it is a blueprint for an upcoming surgery or if I let my children draw it (the two most cited reactions by people who see it for the first time), it captures the depth of my soul. However, it often requires explanation. Though I know intrinsically what it means, it is a bit ambiguous to anyone else. That’s why, when folks see this strange pattern of lines on my arm, they typically inquire, “That’s…uh…interesting. So what does it mean?”

Sometimes they are genuinely trying to be nice. Often it is mixed with a derogatory jab, a degrading comment, or a pure look of disdain (usually by overtly religious folks). Either way, I offer my meaning behind the tattoo to all who dare care; which is the explanation of a process that has been embedded in my life and a process that could alter the way others approach their own lives. It might even have something to do with creativity.

That’s why I decided to waste money on such a terrible tattoo — because this tattoo is the central definition of my life that I felt would be helpful to put on my flesh.

The answers to these other questions have a bit more depth, full of rich offerings that need to be explored.

We have to be honest that the question raised in creativity or innovation & how to do it is also the question of how to live with an unfiltered and unconstrained movement towards untraveled and uncharted territory. “What is creativity?” is a much bigger question than we might realize that deals with suffering and waves and change and your brain and rivers and seeing and questions and…oh, so much more.

Hopefully, dear reader, you will not end this with simply an answer to that question, but will end with tools capable of living a life that resembles that tattoo.

A life where there is no box.

Which just might produce the so-sought-after ensuing reality of creativity.

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[ boxes ]

Part One — Your Reference Points Are Showing

Why do we find things funny?

Humor is an interesting facet of life, but in order to understand humor, we have to understand reference points; because humor involves the loss of reference points.

Reference points are the parameters that govern and determine what is normal — they are the familiar territory of what you have come to expect from the world, the script that we assume the laws of life should function by.

That moment where you are caught off guard because something unexpected happens, then, is the loss of a reference point. If you were to come to my house for dinner and I handed you a plate and some utensils while you sat at a table, on a chair, in a room with lights on while you were basking in the smells permeating from the kitchen — this would be reality aligning with your reference points. However, if you sat down and I opened up a pot and you peered in and saw a…pile of legos? That would be against your reference points.

If reference points are how we make sense of the world, anything that doesn’t align with your expected paradigm will create a tension of uncertainty. The incongruence of your expectations and reality leave you in uncharted territory. In these moments, which are often not as pronounced as being served legos for dinner, we find ourselves on a part of the map of life that is not in our existential database.

Which raises a question: Why do people often rebel against change? Why do we encourage, and even crave, the familiar? Because our reference points make the navigation of our world easier. If you are a human being, anything unexpected or unfamiliar is the enemy (we won’t bring up how your reference points were, at one time, new and unfamiliar and only became something to cling to once they became normal). Our brains still function a bit like a primitive creature. You have your neo-cortex, associated with humans and complex thoughts, you have your limbic system which is commonly mammalian and correlates with care and connection and action. But you also have what might be called a ‘reptilian’ component to your brain. The innermost piece that quite like, you guessed it, reptiles hosts your amygdala. Your fight or flight, your desire to survive, & your very natural and involuntary actions that make life possible, like adrenaline, resides within you just as a lizard. In our innate desire to survive and continue our species, we set up systems and methods and procedures that are known and make this survival easier. We hate uncertainty. Because, in our triune brain, we aren’t too different from lizards.

Do you see why, when a reference point or a norm is established, people don’t want you to mess with it?

These are our reference points. Sociologists call this ‘culture’. In our determination to survive, we long for predictability and stability so we develop norms and values that will fill out our map of the world as we have come to know it. We have “traditions” for how things work — from what you expect when you sit down to eat to the scripts that determine our well-functioning society (I won’t mention, at least not yet, that these traditions are quite simply constructs and that when people use the words “tradition” or “heritage” or “history” they don’t actually mean the complete span of tradition, they simply use those words as a synonym for “what I am familiar with”). Therefore, we work hard to access these reference points and live accordingly; anything outside of them will be seen as a threat to retreat from because that isn’t how the world is supposed to work.

Your triune brain is not hardwired for a world without reference points. Let’s just name that whatever is happening with creativity isn’t going to be popular with everyone — it won’t even make sense to some people — and it will be in rebellion to our natural, predisposition as human beings.

However, in our awareness of what reference points are in terms of our triune brain and our compulsion towards predictability and stability, can the loss of reference points actually be a good thing?

Well, have you ever laughed at a joke?

Because comedy is what happens when someone takes you to a place that juxtaposes itself with the world you know. Humor is when your reference points are taken away — you will laugh at said humor if you still feel safe in the process. This might be a good indicator for how to incorporate creativity and change when it deals with others. You are, after all, messing with the basic biology of humans.

So can the loss of reference points be good?

I would say that, for the most part, developments in science and philosophy and art have been good. Actually, humans being have been nurturing the creation of the world since the dawn of time. The human journey has been one of introducing uncharted territory — that’s how you get reference points in the first place. The familiar rug gets pulled out and the world gets pulled into its future by experiencing or adding something new to our existence. The great movements of art have been people transcending the norms to unexplored possibilities. The great achievements in our world have come from folks who saw the world as it was and then decided to see it differently.

The loss of reference points leads to previously unharnessed possibility. Whether through humor or science or art or any development in your life, culture, or world — you have now explored new terrain. Which, keep in mind, will eventually lead to a new set of reference points that will one day be transcended. The result of creativity is not an end of itself, but rather, the next part of the story. You could even say that the loss of reference points leads to new reference points that will, one day, need to go through the process again.

But the process of creativity, well, requires the loss — which makes possible the exploration.

The loss can also be good in another way — it can force exploration.

Consider what happened recently to London when it closed down certain subway lines for construction. The people who depended on those lines to get to work were furious. Not having their normal routes was going to cause immense elongation of their commute. If we took away your normal processes of life, or reference points, I imagine you would feel just as estranged and anxious.

But what really happened was that a large majority of the people realized that the route they normally took to work was not actually the fastest or even easiest route — it was just their normal route.

You took a route every single day and it became engrained as the only route worth considering. That particular route became normal and its normalcy is what made the subway users value their route as “the best” one.

But what happened was that a large selection of the individuals, in adjusting their route for construction, actually realized that their commute was now faster in the new route they were taking. Most of them actually changed their daily route as a result even when the construction was finished.

Had they held onto their previous route, no new possibilities would have been exposed. The absence of their reference points made exploration possible.

See, we can lean into an ever evolving landscape that calls out to us to manifest our imaginations to the infinite paths yet to be traveled.

But if we don’t, your reference points will be showing.

It was a January afternoon when my family and I were preparing to embark on a return trip to our home in the wintery landscapes of Ohio. We were in Florida with a couple hours until our plane was set to depart. To buy time, we sought out a park and we stumbled on something peculiar. As we approached an oasis-like playground set against the ocean in the distance, there was a feeling of accomplishment. But uncertainty grasped our consciousness as we approached this playground and realized that it had none of the common equipment we had come to expect — no slide, no swings — none of the familiar trappings that are assumed from a playground. For a brief moment, we wondered if these strange shapes and contraptions were a testament to the abstract art of modernism. As our children ran forward to explore, we entered a state of skepticism. Our children, too, were a bit perplexed by what to do with these uncanny pieces of equipment.

Our reference points were showing.

In my disorientation, I remember thinking, “What is this? Where is the slide? Can’t they just accommodate a basic swing set?" Then I realized that my hesitation was simply a confrontation to the lack of reference points that I had come to expect. I approached this austere playground as if there was only one type of playground possible — as if there was only one manifestation of what playful equipment could look like. But as my children began climbing around on various objects that made no sense to me, I found myself following their imagination.

And we all found ourselves realizing that this type of playground, though unexpected and unfamiliar, was intrinsically better than what we had been clinging so tightly to.

Our reference points were showing.

But we were willing to leave their familiarity behind and embrace the possibility that lay ahead.

And it was a pretty good time.

Part Two — Get Your Head Out of Your Box

Another explanation of this all too common human pattern would be “boxes.”

The clinging to reference points and their stifling stagnation is what happens when your life is dictated by the familiar reference points that you have based your existence on. In respect to the human condition, we can pronounce that there are certainly boxes everywhere we look. To which you say, “Yeah! Think outside of the box!”


Do not say that.

Our culture has lauded this phrase that has been propped up as the epitome of innovation:

“Think outside the box.”

I do not like this phrase.

I do not use this phrase.

I hope you will consider not liking or using this phrase, either.

Because, while the concept is not necessarily bad, it can be potentially dangerous — because with any progress, innovation, creativity, etc, there is a built in assumption that it is still defined by, dependent on, and attached to the box (or the reference point) that you are outside of.

Now, I want to be clear, boxes can still be helpful. These expressions of our reference points make the world more clean, easier to navigate, and give the two innate goals us humans crave for survival — predictability and stability. Boxes make sense out of an otherwise confusing, chaotic, and dangerous existence. As a result, boxes are completely natural in the development of our lives and in the unfolding of society. Often, when we find ourselves in difficulty, it is the boxes that give our feet ground to stand on when nothing is left.

Boxes are natural. Often, they are necessary. Occasionally, they are helpful.

But the problem, even the danger, is that boxes can be limiting.

Part of this depends on recognizing that a box or a reference point is something we created. Whether from the sociological perspective of culture or the societal script that we almost sub-consciously adopt, the boxes of our lives are ways and ideas and processes that we made. In philosophical language, they are constructs and are only naturally occurring in the sense that we naturally built them. This ought to be good news — because whatever limitations we encounter within them are as easily deconstructed as the creation of the box in the first place. If they are just manifestations in a current moment of space and time, they can go away by the same intentionality that brought them into existence.

But here’s where the limitations of boxes gets interesting.

If you have ever encountered the common phrase of, “But this is how we’ve always done it,” then you, my friend, have come face to face with the limitedness of boxes. In a space of comfort, we submit to captivity. When we conquer an existential reality, we feel at peace with ceasing any further discovery. Our boxes allow us to turn off any imagination because our work is complete, our status is secure, and no further traversing of uncharted territory is necessary.

There is a common tale about ancient cities — that to offer protection, safety, and assurance to the community, they would enclose the city in walls. The walls would keep out opposing armies, wild beasts, and even the threat of disease. To be surrounded by walls and reference points and boxes was to feel as if your world was, finally, taken care of. But there was a common problem in many ancient cities — what happened when you had a fire? You see, the walls kept the uncertainty and the danger out…but it also kept you in.

Our boxes may offer norms that feel they can sustain indefinitely.

But our boxes also keep us from moving towards anything that could be better. In fact, our boxes may even keep us from moving towards the very thing that will keep us alive.

This is why creativity might be best understood as not having boxes rather than thinking outside the box — because if the box still defines your reference points, you are held to the parameters of the box. Thinking outside the box might be best compared to being able to develop agriculture around the city walls. You are now outside of the box, but you are still held to the walls to determine every move you make. If the box still exists, then so does your dependence on them. You may go further than the box, but you are still endeared to its trappings.

Consider the concept of bounded set versus centered set. Drawn from the comparison of herding animals, bounded set is the equivalent to keeping the animals contained by using a fence. You bound them in. This provides a solution to keeping said animals where you want them, but it also implies that there is a type of permanence involved that constrains the animals. Movement will not occur. Centered set approaches the desire to maintain a healthy herd differently — by having no limits, but by keeping the animals in control via the use of desire. By having some sort of providence — food or water — in the center, they are drawn to a common proximity while still being able to traverse the world as they wish. One has a box, one doesn’t. One is built on limitations, one isn’t. Two very different experiences of the world are, therefore, made possible.

This is what we have to confront in our traversing of our existence. Will we function by a bounded set or a centered set? Will we function by our boxed up reference points or will we have a more free movement?

In any pursuit of creativity, we must acknowledge that the limit of a box will constrain how you move in the world. The hope would be that you might just live in a way that pursuing the best pasture, the best land, the best method, the best manifestation of our context will be possible aside from any limitations. If the world is not all it could be then why would we constrain ourselves and making any further movement impossible? Why would we limit what we could see if it could be what shows us where we need to go next in order to thrive? Our question should be, “If this is where we are, how much more are we capable of? If this is the peace and life and flourishing we have found, how much more is available if we would keep exploring? Fullness and health and the best version of our lives and the world are only possible if we do.

Which leads us to our first note of importance — there is a difference between creativity and change.

Depending on where you look or who you listen to you, there will be a myriad of definitions and explanations of creativity. A consistent theme, however, is that creativity involves something new that brings value. This means creativity isn’t just something “original” as lots of new or original ideas or objects aren’t all that great. Let it be said, as imparted by the entrepreneurial scholar Teresa Amabile, that ‘value’ is dependent on the context. Unfortunately, there is no absolute definition of what is valuable to everybody, everywhere.

So, what is creativity?

Creativity isn’t just changing things and it isn’t just creating something new.

Creativity is freedom from reference points — it is the posture of unfiltered and unconstrained movement towards uncharted and untraveled territory.

Which means creativity is, in other words, not having boxes.

Compare this to the often commended idea of making changes or being unique as “creative.” The difference between creativity and just being original or changing things is similar to what many food establishments do with burgers. There is an attempt, in a state of descent, to make a change that appears new and is still beholden to the box rather than doing something actually new and, therefore, valuable. Many businesses like food establishments, but also cultural institutions and societal norms are in the unenviable position of having to reimagine their existence to adapt to a changing landscape. The scripts that defined us in small ways, but even in societal ways, are no longer accessible or valuable. In these reference points being challenged, something different is necessary.

But the equivalent of what so many answers to this situation seem to be is like a food establishment that realizes they serve burgers and culture has stopped eating burgers. In their anxiety, they prop up the creative solution of moving the cheese to the bottom or adding a special ingredient or rebranding the restaurant and present the same old burger as if it is something new. If you have been offering burgers and you need something other than a burger — you can’t just give us the same burger disguised differently.

While it may be thinking outside of the box, it isn’t creative — it is an addition to the box that allows any real change or potential new territory undiscovered in the distance. Unfortunately, as many once flourishing businesses and systems have realized, using the same materials or processes or thinking, using the same reference points that brought forth the current problem in the first place, isn’t going to solve the problem. Thinking outside the box leaves us with the same box that we were attempting to transcend. You can’t solve problems with the same consciousness that created the problem in the first place.

A lot of creativity is disguised behind doing the same thing with minor differences — of maintaining the box as your reference point. Your outcome, though maybe a bit new, are still shaped by the box itself.

Real creativity, I believe, involves the removal of the limitations of the box.

The invitation of creativity is to have an imagination; an independence to actually reimagine the world as we know it. Just like the great art and science of our past, we are invited to see the world, but then to see it differently.

Which, do you see why kids are always more creative than adults? They don’t carry the engrained assumptions we have. There is no “but this is the way we’ve always done it” baggage. Their imagination unfolds the infinite ways for the world to move. We should be learning from our children.

This is also why suffering often forces creativity.

Because it takes away the references points for you. It pulls the rug out, leaving you with no familiar ground to stand on and no boxes to hold onto. Suffering eliminates the boxes…which is why it is painful.


For example, do you know who this is? Let me briefly introduce you to Karol Wojtyla.

Karol Wojtyla grew up during the origins of the Nazi ascent and lost every single member of his family while still a teenager in Nazi-invaded Poland — which catapulted him to a future of impacting the world the way he did. Losing everything forced imagination. His suffering left no other option but to become the person Karol Wojtyla is known for being today.

Wait, you don’t know who Karol Wojtyla is?

Of course you do…he’s also known as Pope John Paul II.

And in the midst of some of the worst a human being could find themselves in, he decided to ask, “What now?”

Getting rid of boxes will always be difficult. In some cases, the destruction of boxes will be forced on us by outside effects that would be even worse. It might be even worth considering that trying to stay in our walls will invite the forceable removal of them by the ever changing world that does not care for what structures we have firmly entrenched in the ground. Like a wave that is riveting up its monumental crash — we can either stay ahead of the wave and ride it to the next destination or we can allow it to disrupt our world and force us into what is next. We can either wait and continually adapt or we can start asking, “What now?” well, now.

Our invitation then, is to get your head out of your box.

Because you are limiting the possibility of everything our lives and the world could be.

Let’s start asking, with fierce imagination, “What now?” in every conceivable way.

Let’s realize that the question of creativity is not how to think outside of the box, but how not to have boxes in the first place.

Which means we need to talk about Self-Maximizing Systems, Linear versus Lateral Thinking, and Containers versus Contents.

First up, Edward de Bono and his practical explanation of this creative process.


[ The creative process & Two Types of Thinking ]

Part Three — Self-Maximizing Systems, Rivers, & Edward de bono

Reference points.



The creativity scholar, Edward de Bono, has another, more official name for this — Self-Maximizing Systems.

Consider the geological reality of a river — a river begins with an accumulation of water that then seeks out the fastest, most efficient, & easiest path towards sea-level. Gravity demands that the water go from Point A to Point B in the most direct way possible. As the water falls along its navigation of the terrain, it picks up sediment (called weathering), moves the sediment (called erosion), and eventually creates a crevice that future water will naturally follow. The unfolding of a river is the natural unfolding of water following the most effective way to travel to its geologic destination.

The result? A permanently engrained feature in the earth’s surface.

The path of the river becomes the natural contour that everything flows by.

Self Maximizing Systems function in the same way. Our being & moving in the world are the surface that, through pursuit of predictability and stability, becomes weathered and eroded to create a norm that streamlines our lives into a seemingly normal route. As we gravitate towards the familiar, it is like water traversing towards the ocean, creating the same indentation in our daily rhythms, practices, & perspectives that a river does to the earth.

And this isn’t just a cultural manifestation or a societal reality — we even experience Self-Maximizing Systems in the biological effects of our behavior and thinking. For example, consider the myelin sheath that functions in your neurological system. Every time you do something, a stronger and stronger coating is formed that makes that action easier to do the next time around. Your brain quite literally functions the same as a river. Ever notice how continued habits become harder to break? We may refer to it as muscle memory, but the repeated weathering and eroding of a pattern ebbs its way into the very identity of who we are and how we do whatever it is that we are doing.

Self-Maximizing Systems are true of rivers, true of your brain, and even true of the larger macro system of culture & society.

These habits and practices and norms, then, become the patterns we live by — whether daily routines or societal scripts, our reference points and boxes condition us to continue like a river in whatever we are doing. The options you have are usually just a following of what has been laid out by our familiarity over time. A system, a pattern, a norm, a value, an action, or a way of doing something becomes maximized by us to the point that it becomes natural and ingrained. Hence, Self-Maximizing Systems.

We should take note, therefore, that the most efficient, easiest, common ways of doing things might eventually be referenced as ‘the only way’ just as a river might consider its trajectory through a landscape as the only way. Self-Maximizing Systems enforce a sort of permanence that supplements our desire for ease — in our gravitation towards making survival easier, the repetitive motion encloses our innate actions and our possible imagination through what has become normal.

Edward de Bono calls this development of narrow singularity a “Path of Dependency” — the continuous process becomes normal, the normal option becomes natural, the natural option becomes the only option, and, at that point, you become as dependent on that way of seeing or moving through the world as a river following its prescribed course to the ocean.

Whether it is your daily routine or your assumptions on how an organization should work or your view of government or religion or philosophy, you now have a constraint that probably seems a bit like a box.

“This is the food we eat.”

“This is how we act.”

“Art or music or our community is defined by this.”

“This is how this is supposed to work.”

Fill in your own specifics for the “this” referenced in those common phrases because we witness the manifestation of our Self-Maximizing Systems all the time.

Now, let’s have a moment of honesty. If there is a way your family works best or a way that eating has become normal or a way that society has streamlined existence to become more efficient, predictable, and stable — this is not, inherently, a bad thing. We need ourselves some boxes sometimes. Having a Path of Dependency, having a river to ease our flow through the universe, having reference points is not necessarily negative. There is a reason the river has constrained its path — because it was the most effective way to sea-level. The development of a script, of parameters that define what is normal and how certain things ought to function, is unavoidable. In fact, any act of creativity will eventually lead to new Self-Maximizing Systems. The point is not to be without these norms, the point is to not be dependent on them. The point is to live with an awareness of what is ingrained and what might be limited in the process.

Our goal, then, might be to develop a way of thinking that can recognize the parameters and constraints of our rivers and find ways to function independently of them.

Our goal might be, not just to be able to impede the river or make a slight change (which rivers naturally do through their continued movement of sediment called erosion), but to be independent of the path that has been maximized, to explore untraveled trails across the landscape, and not just follow the prescribed norm of the river because, “That’s just what we do.”

Because the river won’t just pick itself out of the bedrock and change into something else, there has to be an intentionality that makes that ensuing result possible.

This would be the practice of lateral thinking — that which opens the possibility of independence from our boxes and leads to creativity.

But first, let’s discuss the kind of thinking that is in the way.

Part Four — Linear Thinking

Back to the creativity scholar Edward de Bono and his description of the futile attempts to be creative that fail to deal with the ingrained patterns of the river.

As the age of Enlightenment and modernism and the scientific and industrial revolutions came to fruition, we capitalized on the hard work of many people to create survival at its easiest. Humanity seemed to have captured the world, reduce it down to its simplest form, and established efficiency, predictability, and stability at its finest. Our current epoch has been defined by pursuing the best way — which, as you know by now, becomes the only way. The conveyor belt scripts of existence have ensued from a way of thinking where we carefully place our box-like-rivers and entrench them in the ground — leaving us only the self-maximized path to determine any further navigation. We have been taught to simply analyze what is available and make decisions based upon the already proven norms.

While I am grateful for the ease of life this has made possible, it is a way of thinking that also makes many possibilities impossible. Where modernity has succeeded, we become the recipients of many benefits that satisfy our basic human drives. Where modernity has failed us, however, is in the imagination to utilize the vast amount of land not encompassed by the singularity of the river. A way of thinking that has become normal has produced an easier life. But it is a way of thinking that, the longer it goes, nullifies the possibilities of creativity.

This way of thinking, in Edward de Bono’s words, is called “Linear Thinking.”

Consider the metaphor of digging a hole. You begin with a shovel and make a change in the earth. Our prescribed method for continuation, then, is to continue the hole. We take another shovel-full of dirt and the hole gets a little deeper. Maybe we move the shovel to take out a little dirt in the horizontal direction, but we keep digging the same hole deeper and, eventually, are left with one hole — a magnificently explored hole with lots of room and development, but a hole limited by its singular exploration.

We are left to function by the bounded set of where the hole is. Though infinitely deep, we’ve left much unexplored for the maximization of what we are decidedly dependent on.

To compare this further, any developments will be based on your current hole in its current location. There is still a box that determines how to think or act or live. The hole is normal. Any creativity is limited to what you already have and will only build further in the same direction.

Creativity is then limited to how you can interact with the current hole — which usually only involves digging the same hole deeper, maybe with a few minor differences or flairs of uniqueness, but continuing the path in the same, limited direction. We are left with the organization that wants to be innovative by adding a new product to its brand or improving its current system of advertising to a larger market. Worst case scenario, you try fixing problems by doing the same thing with a deeper hole and expecting different results.

You think outside of the box, but you are still defined by the box; you still are forced to work within the parameters set by your hole.

With linear thinking, the answer to the problem of a food establishment selling burgers to a clientele that does not eat burgers is to move the cheese to the bottom the burger patty instead of the top — proclaiming to the research and development team at the meeting, with fist bumps and celebratory gestures, “How’s that for creativity!?”

Which brings up another point on creativity — there is a difference between creativity and “cool”. Something can be neat and still be creative if it is meaningful. Something that is just cool, while it may be lauded by the masses and shared on social media, does not necessarily equate to creativity.

To what can this be compared? Linear thinking would take on the task of solving the transportation issue in the early 20th century by reconfiguring the horse and buggy. How would we improve transportation? Well, if we are only thinking linearly and digging the same hole deeper, we would be working with the horse and buggy as the dominant pattern. We would then take what is normal, what currently would have defined transportation, and follow that river to create a better horse and buggy. Maybe a better technique for steering the horse? What about adding chrome wheels?

You get the point.

We would be left with only minor differences.

We would have simply added to the hole, but continued within the same Self-Maximizing System.

We would still be dependent on the box, though we thought outside of it.

We would still be left the same horse and buggy — possibly the best horse and buggy ever!

But it is still a horse and buggy.

And what we need is a car.

Part Five — Lateral Thinking

What if you got out of your current hole, set your eyes on another piece of terrain, and dug somewhere else?

What if, instead of flowing down the river, you began traversing another path, possibly to a different destination?

What if you ignored the the parameters and constraints and reference points within the bounded set and allowed the manifestation of something independent of the box?

Then you would be practicing the other way of thinking that Edward de Bono calls, “Lateral Thinking.”

Instead of digging the same hole deeper, you pick up the shovel and move to a different piece of ground and dig a different hole.

Instead of moving linearly, you move laterally.

What is the benefit? Well, one straight line will be strong, but where linear thinking is inherently limited by its current trajectory, lateral thinking offers breadth and variety. Multiple lines in different directions might lack the strength of a norm in its infancy, but it is capable of searching and exploring the ground for other solutions — lateral thinking is capable of culminating in something inherently different, something creative. Instead of creating another component of the same river, you create multiple trails that all search out that which might have been left behind if we only followed the same pattern every single time.

A third note on creativity is worth mentioning here — there is a difference between creativity and rebellion.

If the only goal of creativity is to not do the previous thing, your focus is on the lack as opposed to the possibility. An attempt to move away from something might be a good starting point for creativity, you get out of the hole, but the goal ought to be markedly different — the goal should be focus on what you are pursuing, not what you are against. There is a possibility that your pursuit of creativity is more driven by your ego than meaningful innovation. Always check the ego of trying to be successful, cool, and even rebellious at the door.

This is why, in reference to Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono points out that the point is in the process. Lateral Thinking is not solely concerned with a solution, especially if that solution is just to get away from what you perceive as a negative. Lateral Thinking is about harnessing a posture that is able to be independent from a current context. You may start with the goal of leaving the house, but it ought to lead to a hope of creating a better life. You may start with a desire to stop a negative, but it ought to lead to a desire to fulfill what would be positive. You might even say that moving in a new direction just to avoid the current direction is still functioning by the parameters of the box. We need to move past rebellion and towards exploration. Even if rebellion is the catalyst for taking on the posture, that is okay, but we can’t let it end there.

Lateral Thinking, to say it a different way, is about seeing.

Because once you take on this posture of not being constrained by the current hole in the ground, you are able to see the landscape for what it is. You can see new territory and your options are now enhanced. You are able to expose better alternatives that didn’t fit the script. However, and this is why the point isn’t rebellion towards the hole or river and why the point isn’t necessarily a solution, you may simply see the norm in a more valuable way. Lateral Thinking frees you to go about exploring, but there is always the chance that you will end up back at the original hole with an affirmation of its practicality as opposed to mindless obedience to the script. That option is lost with pure rebellion — the option that way the river flows actually is the best way to go.

When the goal is exploration, you are not looking for a solution, you are looking to see — and are willing to accept the best possibility based on what you have explored.

You can be assured, though, that whatever is explored, whatever is created, is independently produced from the box itself. You might keep the box. Great. But you are no longer entrenched in its trappings.

What Lateral Thinking does is subverts the Path of Dependency and offers a more full awareness of the Self-Maximizing System. Digging lateral holes allows us to pursue what is most valuable and see options that were previously disguised.

Essentially, without Lateral Thinking, you never invent the car. This is why Henry Ford claimed that, “If I would have listened to my customers, I would have invented a better horse.” To stay linear, to stay within the Self-Maximizing System, you miss the potential hidden by your dependency, your boxes, and the constrained absolutes of your reference points. If you only dig the same hole deeper, you never see the possibility of uncharted territory.

But with a centered set, open, exploratory posture, instead of moving the cheese to the bottom of the burger, you might discover the next part of your food establishment’s story, independent of how the dominant pattern said it was supposed to be.

The invitation of creativity is to begin by seeing the world independent of the current pattern and, therefore, see what might be left out. While this may lead to nothing, affirming that the initial pattern is the most useful, only this kind of thinking unleashes the potential of discovering what was hidden and uncaging the breadth of what is possible. That’s why Lateral Thinking should, in every context, hum within our bones. Whatever is mainstream, common, normal, and ingrained is either exposed or affirmed; it either leads to new territory and creativity and innovation that was not visible within the river or it allows you to see those dominant patterns in a new, valuable way.

You want to pursue the best possible world? You want to take us from where we are to where we could be? You want to discover the potential of what is possible and merge it with reality? Whatever fullness or end goal we want to manifest, it should begin by acknowledging that we aren’t there yet. We can celebrate where we are, how far we’ve come, and the goodness of what is, but we can also proclaim that if there is where we are now, how much more are we capable of? There is a Greek word, ‘telos’, that simply means “end” and has been used in philosophy and religion to paint a picture that there is a way this is supposed to be. If that is what we are after, then that means whatever is normal and dominant isn’t the telos because wherever we currently are isn’t the fullness of where we could be. Which means that our current scripts and boxes might not be the last word, they just might be a step to get us there. The imagination that will make telos possible is harnessed by thinking this way — laterally.

A lot of our culture’s promotion of creativity is just better horse and buggies that follow linear thinking. We think outside the box and we add to the box. We come up with a cool way to improve the river and end up doing the same thing with a different disguise. We miss the potential options that remain hidden outside of the self-maximizing system by adding to the current hole. This addition appears new, but it isn’t actually new and your lack of exploration never confirms if it is even valuable. We are left with the same systems, habits, and boxes that we had before because we tried to solve a problem or change something by using the same materials, processes, and ideas that brought forth that problem in the first place.

If you continue to use the box as your reference point, it will continue to produce outcomes shaped by the box.

If you want something new to adapt to a changing landscape or to take the world in a new direction, it won’t happen through linear thinking.

You have to remove the limitations of the box.

You have to think laterally.

So how do we do that?


[ Avoiding Linear & Practicing Lateral ]

Part Six — 6 Guides From Which Creativity Will Ensue

How do you move past the constraints and reimagine our movement in an ever changing world?

How do you get out of the hole and dig somewhere else that the Self-Maximizing Systems left unavailable?

How do you harness independence from the boxes that will emerge creativity?

How do we have the imagination of Lateral Thinking?

Here are six practices developed by Edward de Bono through the lens of one of the best lateral thinking discoveries of all time — cooking a steak:

1 — Name the Boxes (Dominating Ideas & Self-Maximizing Systems)

Let’s say you are going to cook a steak for a meal. You prepare your ingredients and your space (mise en place, anyone?) and you go to begin cooking and notice that it is your natural inclination to cook a steak by first putting it on a hot surface to sear the outside. You notice that you have a reinforced belief that doing so will lock in the juices of the steak.

Your first challenge in lateral thinking and ensuing creativity through imagination is to notice that this is a box. This is simply how you have always done it. The reference points, the rivers, the holes — you have to begin by noticing what they are.

What are the norms of culture, of your relationships, of your routines and habits that are the default mode?

What is the box?

Hopefully by taking on this posture you begin to recognize that there are lots of boxes that have blended in unnoticed like a tree in the woods or a fish in water because they are so ingrained in your normal rhythm of life.

Start by seeing them for what they are — if this is just “how it is,” then you have yourself a box!

And now you are able to start navigating the terrain independent of those boxes because you have seen them for what they are.

2 — Challenge Assumptions

Could something so strange as the Bible contain a declarative posture of lateral thinking and creativity? Well, generally, I notice that Lateral Thinking is embedded throughout the meta-narrative of this ancient text, but one of the striking commands given is to “Hold fast to what is good by testing & questioning everything.” I understand if you find Christianity’s complete opposite posture a little incongruent with this saying from the letter called 1 Thessalonians, but it sounds an awful lot like lateral thinking to me.

Whatever is normal, whatever sits so unassuming that it has simply become the way things work and how we have always done it — ask, “Why?” Where did this come from? What made it become normal? Who constructed this box and why was it constructed?

However something has been defined is the result of the process being reduced to one possibility — what else is possible that is being ignored will emerge by doing the opposite of saying, “But this is how we’ve always done it.”

Challenging assumption reveals the very real human component to our scripts that didn’t just absolutely fall from the sky.

And doing so gives a sense of permission to explore what might have been missed in the reduction.

Very often, challenging assumptions and asking why reveals that the prevailing norm was a response to a contextual need or was the result of people coming up with something based on what they had available at the time. A clarity emerges that the norm was one possibility for the desired outcome and a plethora of possibilities can now be explored per your imagination.

For example, you may ask why you assume that steak is the best option for your meal. More specifically, you may go to sear your steak and ask, “I wonder why we assume we need to sear a steak first to give it the best flavor?”

Challenging assumptions is how you begin climbing out of the hole to see the landscape more fully.

And if the norm is actually the best way, your challenge will pose no threat. You will hold to what is good. But only because you questioned it and put it to the test.

Nothing is so sacred that it can’t be explored. In fact, the best essentials will not only withstand your challenge, they will enhance your appreciation. But the best manifestations will also be found possible if you are willing to begin asking the questions.

Please note, challenging assumptions is not a means to figuring out the next solution, it is just a means to begin the process — so start with asking why.

3 — Generate Alternatives

Now that you are out of the hole, begin asking, “What else could be here? How else could this work?”

You look at the river and you visualize other ways the river could go. Or you take a process you typically do something by and you come up with a different way altogether. Pull the rug out, start from scratch, and see what else is possible. Whatever might have been forgotten or dismissed or unexplored, break the normal pattern and try something else. The goal here is not to have the ultimate solution figured it out, it is just to see what else is possible.

So with that steak that you usually sear first, apparently to lock in the juices, and then roast it in the oven to your desired doneness. Well, what if you roasted the steak in the oven and then seared it at the end? Or you could do another level of alternative and not cook steak, but rather, cook something even more unexpected.

Just try to do something that doesn’t come naturally. Once you have identified the common rules, break them.

An infinite number of alternatives begin to emerge that might be better than what you are working with currently.

4 — Suspend Judgment

This is more of a general posture than a practice, but it is incredibly important as you move into uncharted territory by generating alternatives.

Commonly understood as brainstorming, the goal of generating alternatives is not to come up with the most valid idea, but to formulate as many ideas as possible. Nothing is off the table. At some point, the lack of reasonable implementation will lead to certain ideas being thrown out, but suspending judgment on all of them now opens up for the possibility of an idea that might not come to mind at first or, that in coming to mind, you might immediately reject as implausible.

Just start throwing out all of the ways to cook the steak or all of the possible meal options there could be in existence. It will lead you somewhere that you wouldn’t have gone naturally if you only functioned by those thoughts that seemed “practical” — because those thoughts are based on your current perspective and that is what is limiting your possibilities in the first place.

To get out of the river, you have to open yourself up to even the craziest options…because one of those might actually be the best.

And it might have been the one you thought the least possible.

5 — Random Stimulation

Use other contexts that apparently have nothing to do with yours to help inform your process. What do you see happening in other places in the world? Steal those ideas and cross-pollinate them into what you are working on. Especially if there is a big idea that you can apply to a smaller, more refined process like taking Quantum Mechanics and applying it to parenting or using sociology to help inform the creative process — you just may be surprised by how connections you considered irrelevant may catalyze your imagination.

You might be cooking, but a theory in architecture could lead you to unforeseen possibilities when it comes to food.

You might be starting a business, but a food technique could inform possible innovation.

You might be engrained in a certain culture or institution or norm, so intake wisdom from the breadth of sources that have spoken to how the world works and stimulate different possibilities.

We need to get curious because it is amazing how the vast world of discovery can inform the world that you currently inhabit. The archetypal rules that lie within seemingly diverse worlds might not actually be that different if you look closely enough. If that is true, the only missing ingredient to bring apparently disconnected items together again is someone to do the hard work of application. When it comes to creativity, that person would be, of course, you.

Mine every field, study, topic, event, discovery, or piece of information — because it will cultivate imagination and will allow you to not be dependent on the sources of inspiration that you assume you must have. Even your imagination might be hindered by its own boxes.

6 — Start From Somewhere Else

Once we see something one way, we tend to always see it that way.

Psychologists call this Perpetual Set — trying to solve a problem by doing the same thing over and over. It is what happens when you lose your keys and you keep looking in the same three places again and again and again.

Instead, you should go to the last place you assume to look and start there — from somewhere that isn’t your default. It breaks you out of the pattern and exposes insights and perspectives that are usually ignored. Often this can be discovered by giving yourself arbitrary constraints that you don’t naturally function by. Artists and writers will often do this to create content or music. It might be saying, “If I could only write three sentences about this topic, what would they be?” or, “Every other word in the song has to start with the next letter in the alphabet.” There is even a book called “Gadsby” that the author Ernest Vincent Wright wrote with the constraint that he couldn’t use the letter “e”. Somehow you have to force yourself to approach the new landscape in a way that you wouldn’t on your own.

One of the most captivating examples of this is why the “Koln Concert” is so powerful.

The Koln Concert is perhaps one of the best live piano improvisations of all time because the esteemed pianist Keith Jarrett had requested a Bosendorfer 290 Imperial grand piano for his performance at the Koln Opera House. But when the 17 year old concert organizer, Vera Brandes, found herself in some confusion, a small baby grand piano was placed on the stage instead. It was in poor condition, meant for rehearsal only, but the error was discovered too late to make the correct change. The pedals didn’t even work and the upper and lower registers were incredibly weak for a skilled musician’s, such as Jarret’s, compositions.

Upon arrival from his trip from Switzerland where he had not slept well, Jarret refused to play. Brandes, knowing that the concert was already sold out and was the first ever jazz recital to take place in the famous Koln Opera House, had to convince Jarrett to play, even if it was going to flop. Eventually, as the show time drew near, he decided to perform— and the ensuing recording remains his most popular of all time. Why? Because he was forced to re-imagine the piano through constraints he would have never implicated on himself. He couldn’t play the same notes or do the same things, but his mastery of the art unleashed a completely new sound that only came because of what was taken away. The box was gone…and now creativity was possible. Because of the constraints, Jarrett had to think laterally — and he produced creativity at its finest.

Constraints force you to see what you are working with differently — you end up having something, even arbitrary, that will inform your path and take you to a new starting point.

So you start with your steak in the oven and you then realize that the norm of searing first doesn’t actually lock in juices and, by doing the reverse, you actually retain more water in the muscle of the meat making for a juicier steak.

The self-maximizing system was wrong, but you had to engage the process differently to actually figure that out.

 Which, by the way, this whole searing a steak thing was an actual Lateral Thinking style experiment done by Harold McGee that challenged the traditional way of cooking.

To be more concise, creativity through lateral thinking is just the process of creating automatic imagination.

At first, this may need to be learned — or, rather, re-learned from how our imaginations were stifled as we became enlightened adults — but eventually it becomes a new normal; eventually it becomes your authentic approach to the world.

But a warning for harnessing this sort of imagination:

Because, is this why some people associate creative genius with mental health disparities? Possibly. Because living without boxes, always exploring and asking questions and discovering the world in a way to pull it more towards its future will not be normal. You have to see the world differently — which means you may be seeing the world in a way that others can’t quite relate to. Creativity can certainly be lonely. Not only may you be called a fool and be misunderstood, but you will take yourself to a place that others aren’t as willing to go to and that can wreak internal havoc, as well. The very thing we were taught to withhold, you are embodying in your flesh through lateral thinking.

Take this as a warning.

It won’t be romantic.

But it could change the world.

In fact, it always has.

part seven — A Note On Roots & Rules

Here’s another note on creativity that is helpful to produce a life of imagination, but that may also cause you to question the whole “thinking outside of the box” thing.

Consider again the great achievements in science or philosophy or art — they are all nurtured by these guides to lateral thinking. Which means these practices are not new. Every discovery or idea or mind-blowing cultural manifestation were built by these practices.

But there is an important detail that makes innovation and creativity like this possible — an important detail for tangibly carrying out these practices.

Before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules.

The eras of art are a very visible example — from ancient art to romanticism and impressionism, someone was trained in a certain form, mastered it, and then changed the rules to manifest a completely new way of creating art. Their imagination dug a new hole, but it first had to know the old hole. Only by fully seeing the reference points and boxes, only by rooting themselves in how things were, was the next iteration possible.

My favorite example is Arnold Schoenberg, a musician trained classically and who produced many valuable works of classical music. Yet he was also the musician to popularize atonality — a form of music that uses every key possible and sounds like something from a Halloween film. Now, many people raise issue that what he produced was new, but it wasn’t valuable — the question of whether or not it was creative, then, is up for debate. But it is important to pay attention to how he created an expressionism in music even if it was labeled as “degenerate” by folks of his era.

Did Schoenberg create something new?

Well, he was trained by the likes of Beethoven and Bach. He was handed dominant norms that led to his ability to create — norms that were previously reiterated by previous forms of music which were informed by the periods of music before that. So when he debuts a piece using his “new form of music” via atonality that, certainly, audience members would have been scratching their heads at, you could say that he didn’t create anything new.

The strand of musical development is long and is more like an evolution than random explosions of ideas that are disconnected. Even the new and, sometimes, strange forms of music we have today are indebted to the roots from which they, too, were informed.

When it comes to creativity, you break the rules — first by knowing what the rules are — and then transcending them into the unexplored possibilities that have been there the entire time. The great song or painting or poem or film or even food that makes you see the world differently came from someone who saw the world…

…and then decided to see it differently.

These practices of lateral thinking, this pursuit of imagination that leads to creativity, start with the ownership of the norms. Only then can you be independent of them. You have to fully enter and understand the box before you can destroy the box. A very naive approach to creativity, then, is to just want to be different and not look like all the other scripts. While this might lead to pleasant meandering, it most likely won’t lead to the transcendent value of changing the world’s narrative arc.

One of the best chefs in America, Grant Achatz, established an entire restaurant based on leaving the confines of the rules and not doing the same thing. Familiarity breeds unfamiliarity, you begin to lose touch with what you are handling  —  so he dove into subverting the familiarity. He worked to take the act of eating dinner at a quality restaurant and transformed it into becoming an experience — more like a magic show than a meal.

It wasn’t just about making good food, but making good food and taking it a step further that was unexplored. But this was only possible because he knew the rules and trained under some of the best chefs of his time. Once he knew that terrain, he could disembark from it; he could get rid of the rules. Achatz is noted for asking, “Is there another version here? Is there another way to plate food? Is there another way to feed guests? How can you make eating connect with the emotions of the diners?” and he ended up with “Alinea” — which means “the beginning of a new train of thought.”

But it all began with being able to understand what he was attempting to transcend. He had to, first, know the old train of thought.

Just like comedy or just like the Koln Concert, if creativity involves breaking the rules and boxes and norms, it begins by being rooted in what has led to this box in the first place. Keith Jarret could only improv with a sub-par piano because he had mastered the craft.

We want creativity without mastery. Yet, whatever innovation you are pursuing, you might want to know what got you here. Knowing the story that you are in allows you to write the next chapter.

A fair question becomes, “But isn’t this just ‘thinking outside of the box’? How is this different?”

The only clarifying way to differentiate the two, then, is if the next chapter, the next iteration, or the next evolution is inherently different from what came before. Creativity is new and valuable — which is something that can only be decided on by the people who inhabit the context of its manifestation. Atonality? I think so. Moving the cheese to the bottom of the burger? Not really. Rebranding a logo or adding a different style in organizational workflow seem to be changes — and creativity is not the same thing as change.

Maybe the question to be considered is, “Does this dependence on the rules lead to an independence from the norm?” There must be an intentional independence or departure from the constraints of the box or river or hole or reference points where you use them to lead to the next thing, but you are no longer captivated by them.

Grant Achatz’s food resembles some remains of a previous box, but he is fully able to function independently of them. His creativity is real because it not only transcends the box, it transcends the notion of being defined by one in the first place. There is a cognitive liberation where the rug gets pulled out and a decision is made not to function within the streamline of the river or the parameters of the reference point. The difference may sometimes be minute, but the posture is usually quite obvious. You do begin by going outside of the box because you are no longer functioning within it, but instead of adding to the box and keeping your previous reference points or digging that hole deeper, you inherently dig a different hole that makes the confines of the box inconceivable.

Chrome wheels on a horse and buggy is a failure of creativity — no rules are broken, no alternatives generated, and no new landscape discovered.

The invention of the car, while it is based on the previous set of rules, transcends the familiarity and takes the landscape in a new, previously unexplored direction.

We will never be able to fully escape the boxes we’ve been handed — they will always be a part of the longer strand of our human narrative — but we can escape their control and we can take on a posture that functions independently of them. Not having boxes is an ideal that, quite possibly, will never be attained. It can be pursued. Again, its the posture, necessary in the endless evolution of creativity that will never be finished, not the solution that is important.

Therefore, in response to this inescapable reality, we need to be intentionally rooted — for it will pave the way towards what is next — but we must also, within our boxed up world, be willing to break the rules and be willing to break the boxes along the way.

Part Eight — Containers Versus Contents

Rules and roots and lateral and linear and boxes and rivers and systems and reference points and imagination — and we are almost done.

But one more illustration to help pull together how we might practically navigate this conversation of creativity and the difference between thinking outside of the box and not having boxes in the first place.

In the human journey, there is the essence of something and there is the box we use to capture that essence.

At some point, someone came up with a way, out of a desire for ease and survival and predictability and stability, to take the essence of some thing and apply it in a practical way. We want to travel so we walk, but then we use horses and then we add a buggy. Traveling is the essence. Those modes of travel are the boxes. We want to create an organization or community or concept that helps people and then we name the organization or develop a product that embodies our vision or create rules or details.

We create a structure for the essence of something.

Then it becomes normal, maybe even idolized.

Then it becomes the only way.

Then you are left with, say it with me now — A Self-Maximizing System (or river or box or reference point or whatever other word you decided to blurt out).

There is the content and then there is the container — the structure that becomes the dominant way to manifest that content. Maybe the biggest problem with creativity is that we often take the essence we are handling and start with its container…and we fail to allow that essence to manifest in any other way but the box that currently enshrines it.

If we were to ask you to create an apple picker, for example, you would most likely already have an image of an apple picker you are familiar with in your head. This is good, for now you can name the dominant container, challenge the assumptions, generate alternatives, suspend judgment, have random stimulation inform your next iteration, and start from new places to determine how you could add further value to the previous styles of an apple picker. You would be able to break the rules because you know what they are.

But there is also a chance that you will just add a different style wood or add an extra mechanical piece to the previously designed apple picker. You will have thought outside the box, changed the container slightly, altered the course of the river, but we won’t be left with anything new. The lack of lateral thinking becomes a lack of imagination and we just dig the same hole, or in this case, the same apple picker, deeper.

Yet in the process of lateral thinking, once you understand the container, you can start asking different questions of the content — what is the essence of an apple picker? If we were to reduce it down to its basic purpose, what does it need to do? What else is like an apple picker that could inform a better version? What is the foundational, base definition of an apple picker and how else could that look? If the only requirement is to get an apple down from a tree, what is necessary and what is the best way to do that? Without any of the assumptions or baggage you have in mind, what else might an apple picker look like? While processing these questions might lead you back to the traditional mechanism of the modern apple picker, affirming its use, it could lead to something previously undiscovered or something that had been lost in the process of self-maximizing.

If you started from scratch without the container and just the bare, primal content — then you can reimagine it and end up with something inherently different from what our current container has given us.

When you allow the unconstrained essence to manifest without a box, that’s when you can reimagine it — that’s when creativity happens.

But remember:

  • The exploratory process might not lead to anything useful and might just reaffirm the previous container you were rooted in.

  • Whatever rules or references points or norms or scripts you break will lead to another container — and, one day, it might need to be broken, too.

  • Your container might actually be an old version that had been lost over time. Sometimes what is seemingly radical is more rooted than we think (which is where the word “radical” comes from…like a radish…a root vegetable). Sometimes in imaginatively creating something, we are just recovering something old adapted to our contemporary environment.

What is important, however, is that we do not confuse the content with the container.

Getting out of the river is the ability to recognize the construct of the container and allows for the meaningful contextualization of the contents for a new day, in a new way. We need containers in order for the contents to manifest and be held and applied, but we ought to let the content define us, not the container. You can’t idolize the container as synonymous with the actual content.

When you can make this differentiation, you are on your way, liberated to pull the world into untraveled and uncharted territory.

Because the container no longer has you controlled by its grasp.

The essence of creativity is the stripping away of any said container and letting the content unfold in the infinite amount of ways possible. In starting from scratch, you unleash the creative potential just waiting to be discovered. It is the open set, having no restraints to your travels while still staying true to the essence, that allows you to function independent of an obligated or ingrained pattern.

Containers versus contents.

Knowing the difference is the key to imagination.

And the cause to creativity’s effect.

Conclusion — A Final Image For Having No Box

Maybe we could reframe the common liturgy of creativity as “Thinking outside the container.”

Just doesn’t sound as interesting anymore, does it.

What is interesting? Reimagining the contents.

We must realize that any container has no intrinsic value to the content — it is just a current manifestation that might be valuable to us as human beings. We made up the container, we made up the Self-Maximizing Systems — which means we can also detach ourselves from them and move the content to the next part of the story.

And if we are going to aid this story of our universal project to culminate to its fullness, we are going to want to have this kind of imagination. We are going to want to let the content unfold independent of the structures that might be limiting its essence.

Don’t think outside of the container — think free and disconnected from the container.

Don’t think outside of the box.

Think without boxes in the first place.

Creativity is the opportunity to embrace a posture towards life and the world where we know the boxes we are working with and we destroy them in order to emerge a more meaningful world. It is the posture of allowing ourselves to move uninhibited to the infinite possibilities that have been hidden on untraveled ground — always with the possibility that we will affirm the value of a container, if necessary.

Let’s blow up the boxes and allow the essence to unfold — that’s how creativity will ensue in every moment, every decision, every creation, and every dream:

With the posture of Lateral Thinking.

With the commitment to detaching from the limitations of our containers — even blowing them up and dismembering them into pieces if we have to.

With the internal manifestation of this reminder I have instilled on my flesh and, hopefully, in all of our lives:

That there is no box.