Outside the Box

Submitted by Sheri Emerick, Development Officer, Art Museum of South Texas

Emerick writes: What box? How large is it? Can we all fit in it? Is there a gift inside?

Tony responds:

If you’re still working in your “silo,” you’d better take off your “blinders,” stop coloring “within the lines,” and start thinking “outside the box.” Or so every motivational speaker, poster, and book is constantly telling us. These days, any suggestion that ideas should have boundaries or that tasks should have limits is hopelessly old-fashioned.

To get anywhere on the lecture circuit, the first thing you have to do is tell everyone to start trespassing on everyone else’s intellectual turf. If you’re thinking within the known limits of your expertise, well then you’re just not thinking.

Now, I don’t mean to be flippant about this (OK, so maybe I do — but I know I shouldn’t be). There’s a role for people who encourage us to question our habitual definitions and to liberate ourselves from inherited boundaries and accustomed limits and mental cubicles and whatnot. But we also do well to revere and learn from the people who actually bother to accumulate some expertise inside some traditional field that has actual boundaries and limits and definitions. Some “silos” and “lines” and “boxes” contain things of great value in their orderly domains. As a wise English teacher told me in high school, it’s fine to break all the rules that James Joyce breaks — but only if you can recite those rules, preferably in Latin, the way James Joyce could. If you plan to spend a lot of time outside your box, you’d better be sure you’ve mastered what’s inside the box first.

In any case, if you’re going to make a run of the lecture circuit telling us all to get outside of our boxes, you might want to pause a moment and ask what these “boxes” are, or where they come from. Some of those boxes and boundaries were put there to keep us from making fools of ourselves. Are you really asking us to give all definitions and classifications the heave-ho? Should we hire our brother-in-law the podiatrist to fix the plumbing? Should we hang out our Art History diploma as a credential for accountancy? Should Tom and Ray Magliozzi be the next poets laureate? (Well, wait. Come to think of it …)

The exhortations to think “outside the box” and “break down the silos” and such-like are usually just sloppy pieties with little underlying meaning, apart from some sort of vague encouragement to be creative. But that isn’t their worst offense. Their worst offense is being clichés. At some point, long ago, telling people to think “outside the box” became a thoroughly conventional, routine, “inside-the-box” thing to do. Anyone who doesn’t see the irony in that situation probably shouldn’t be standing on a soapbox telling other people how to broaden their minds.

Leave a Reply