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For creative professionals, lawyers, athletes, chefs, physicists (basically everyone), one of the most commonly thrown around expressions regarding creative thinking is “think outside the box.” To illustrate this point, a simple test was devised to see how well people actually carry out this concept. Perhaps some of you have already seen this, as this is certainly not news. The objective is straight forward. Using only four strokes, connect the nine dots on the page, with your pen never leaving the surface. For those of us that are visually challenged, here is my illustration, aided by my child-like handwriting.

In my two-dimensional brain, this was hard. Like a raged bull constantly charging a brick wall at the end of a dead end street, I zigzagged my way across this grid, seemingly lost.

The outcome was something like this.

The solution is rather simple, revealing a critical assumption – no one said you had to stay within the “boundary” created by the nine dots.

Taking that into consideration, here is the answer.

“No one said you had to stay within the box.” The illustration above, I hope, is self-explanatory.

The expression “think outside the box” sounds very creative, insightful, and is indeed useful. It reminds us to lift our heads out of the gutter, step back, and observe the situation as a whole. It reminds us to not allow the given rules of the situation limit our thought process by throwing up brick walls at every turn. It reminds us that the answer is actually “outside” the box, not within it.

This expression, however, is not always accurate.

Often, there is no box at all.

“Think outside the box” assumes that there is indeed a box to think “outside” of. Take a look again at the diagram of nine dots. Let me assure you, there is no box. A simple grid of nine dots. This “box,” then, is a pure creation of our imagination. The imaginary box dupes us twice. First, when we were trying to connect the dots (unsuccessfully), we assigned ourselves an imagined rule that we had to stay “within” non-existent boundaries. That led to nothing. Second, even after we figured out how to connect the dots with four unbroken strokes (by going “outside” the self-assigned, non-existent boundaries), we slap our knees and resort to saying something like “and that’s why people say think outside the box.”

Often, there is no box at all.

The only alleged box is the imaginary one we perceive, limiting our thought process to such non-existent boundaries. Therefore, the correct expression should be “think like there is no box.” In other words, think like you’re drawing your own boundaries, because there are none to begin with.

Problem solving requires one to work with a set of “givens,” meaning there already exists certain pieces to the puzzle that one simply cannot discard. Fair enough. But those pieces themselves are rarely “boundaries” imposed to set the outer limits of one’s proposed solutions.

Creativity, unlike problem solving, rarely prescribes a set of givens to work with, so thinking like you’re drawing your own box should be simpler. The dots on a grid do not signify anything; they are mere reference points, mere suggestions, designed to prick the tiniest of holes in a bulging water balloon of ideas. The reference points do the pricking, and the gushing thought process does the rest. Remember, no one told you to connect the dots within a supposed square outline. But also remember, no one told you to imagine a box in the first place.

Think like there is no box.

A few months ago, when Jodi of Legal Nomads asked me to take part in an interview for her “Thrillable Hours” series, I was excited yet worried at the same time. Unlike many other interviewees for that series, I had not turned my back on the law, I had not packed my bags to travel the world, and I did not have a unique, interview-worthy career. I was (and still am) an associate at a small law firm, living in the repeated patterns of commuting, working, commuting, eating, sleeping. I did not attend a top law school, and I certainly did not finish in the top of my class. Nothing special. What the hell was I going to talk about?

I was telling people that the gist of my interview was this: stop being an asshole and you’ll start having fun. That point still remains true. Upon reading through the interview again, however, I realized that a common thread was much broader and “brighter”: it was creativity. What I didn’t have was the Ivy League diploma, the credentials, the experience, the connections, the ability to travel the world. What I did have, and what I was really struggling to get out through the interview, was to show an average lawyer’s desperate clawing to live a creative life, to lay in bed at night and honestly say I created something today that I am really proud of. What I did have was this blog, started from humble beginnings (still is), but slowly growing to 500 subscribed readers. What I did have was a developing writing gig with an online magazine headed by former editors of world class publications (why the hell would those guys work with me?). What I did have was the urge to think beyond my daily lawyer parameters, to leave something lasting that is more than legal memos and motions. What I did have was a new found ability – and willingness – to stop and to think, not only with the logical left brain, but with the entirety of my being. Creating.

A headache created by the left brain is often cured by igniting the right brain. We were born to create, and therefore, we experience the purest quality of satisfaction and happiness when we are creating. Sadly, some occupations were not created to create, consuming even our non-working hours with work-related thoughts and worries, a never-ending noose slowly suffocating our creative capacities without any tangible alarm system to trigger our senses. Take lawyers for example. By nature, lawyers are destructive. To be successful, we must be (particularly litigators). Whether you practice before county judges or federal agencies, lawyering is warfare; if you don’t strike first, if you don’t strike accurately and with force, if you don’t contemplate your opponent’s every move two, three, four steps in advanced, you die. There is partial truth in that even we lawyers create. Yes, we come up with legal arguments, draft pieces of writing, practice the art of persuasion before judges and juries. But the ultimate goal of such creation is, ironically, to destroy. Someone must lose for you to win that verdict, that settlement, that zero percent dumping margin. The tool of our craft, our weapon, is principally the left brain and the logic it supplies. We strain the brain for every ounce. This is the prime culprit behind lawyers’ unhappiness and destruction. With every successful memo, with every persuasive brief, with every jaw-dropping argument, we may win motions, we may win cases, we may achieve acclaim, money and success. But as most lawyers would agree, behind those wins lurks emptiness. Uncontrollable emptiness. Human beings (yes, lawyers are people too) were meant to create lasting value for the enjoyment of the entire flock, and when we fail to do so, we are miserable.

This is why I write. Commuting on the metro, walking the sidewalks of DC, I take notes of every morsel of thought that jabs my thought. Every time I scribble something in my Moleskin, every time I sit in front of that keyboard to pound at something, that is when I feel like I am truly creating lasting value, something worth pouring time into, something that will live on long after the breath at the tip of my nostrils ceases. That is when I feel alive. That is when my right brain, and for that matter, my entire being, is moving. No, I am not a professional writer. No, I was not a journalism major. No, I am not actively seeking to become a professional writer or a journalist. Regardless of one’s profession, we are all writers on many levels. Historians say humanity, and culture, was born when people started drawing and scribbling things inside caves. Writing need not be so technical; simply put, it is a form of expression. Every breathing being yearns to express itself, though some are more talented at doing so than others. I am a human being who expresses himself through writing – this is a natural, very average, phenomenon everyone should strive for. The form of expression varies. Some write music and perform, some paint, some act. Though different in form, all methods have this in common: they make you stop and “think.”

To live creatively, one should practice two principles.

First, be observant. Two people see the same object, experience the same environment and observe the same happenings. The non-creative person easily walks by, nonchalantly, thinking “this is the same lilac from yesterday, this is the same street, the same protests.” In other words, the non-creative person does not give a shit. On the other hand, the creative person, having taken in the same things, “cares” and does give a shit. He stops, observes, and more importantly, asks “why” or “how come.” I once read somewhere of a training technique for fiction writers. They would sit around in a cafe, facing the street and looking through the window. Taking turns, they pick out a random person, and knowing absolutely nothing about that person, they would devise her life story – where is she from, where is she going, why is she going there, who is she meeting, and on and on. This exercise is perfect for fiction writers who need to develop characters and prose. It’s also a great example of what daily creativity requires. It requires observant storytelling. It requires you to look at something, someone, and think beyond the mere given, beyond the facts. What you see with your eyes is the bare minimum; you have to imagine beyond that to tell the hidden story. Creativity is storytelling, and all stories are built upon patient observance.

Second, become a generalist. Study and absorb as many areas of knowledge as you can. Throughout the industrial era, and even as recently as the 1990s, many “successful” people were highly specialized professionals, the cream of the crop in their fields, sharp as a sushi chef’s knife. They drilled a singular well, and they drilled deep, not wavering, not looking to their left or right. So what you end up with are physicists, lawyers, doctors and PhDs of all kinds. For drilling that one well, for drilling it deep and sturdy, you were compensated. People paid you for your professional knowledge and experience. In other words, people receiving your services could care less about whether you played in a garage band on Sundays or whether you secretly baked macaroons as a hobby. You’re a doctor, I’m paying you to remove my appendix, do your damn job and remove my appendix, no more, no less. To be clear, if you’re a general surgeon, and if your job is to remove the patient’s appendix, you better be qualified to do the job, and you better do a damn good job. In terms of living a creative life, however, just doing your job is no longer good enough. Rather than becoming a specialist – studying one thing, doing one thing, and living completely immersed in only one thing – become a generalist. Be the doctor who can discuss economic policy with other economists. Be the mad physicist who can discuss Manet with the art student. Be the lawyer who can discuss the ancient art of Edo-style sushi with the chef from Japan. Creativity in this century will come from a wide net of individuals, all contributing (and deeply understanding) one’s intellectual gifts. All areas are interrelated. Sorry, but you can no longer give the science guys the finger. The web of knowledge is what creates true value that lead to lasting change in people’s lives. To join this web, one must meet others dwelling in other professions, widen one’s reading capacity and crack open one’s intellectual curiosity.

Whether it’s literature, music, economics or engineering, regardless of professional area, the creative being – the satisfied and happy being – is one that constantly seeks new ground, sees what others do not see or simply pass by, and stops to create something that adds value to humanity. The artsy people do not own the copyright to the word “creativity.” This transcends occupations or personality. We are all wired to live creatively. Not creating will inevitably lead to bitter depression and hatred. Live according to your wiring. Stop and observe something, and think. Meet new people and read about the last think you thought you’d ever read about. Ignite your being in its entirety, and live happily ever after.

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