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I was never a great drummer. Snare, I could tap the snare just fine, but not in conjunction with the bass, or with the symbol or the toms. I was never a great classical pianist. I could play the right-hand treble lines just fine, but not while reading the left-hand bass lines. Dammit, I wanted to focus on one thing at a time.

Multitasking is not a great virtue of mine. And despite many critical voices telling me otherwise, I am not too keen on developing it as a skill. The ability to do and complete multiple tasks simultaneously is a valuable asset when your goal is to complete many tasks in a short amount of time. Wait, that is the goal for almost any modern office environment – more, faster, now.

In this centrifuge of everyday “productivity,” no one bothers to ask, “at what cost.” Day is night, night is day; weekday, weekend, it’s all the same. Life becomes a round of pinball, violently bouncing from wall to wall, not at one’s one volition or will, but by sheer opposite forces.

This traps us in “fast-think.” It’s fast food for thought.

We lose the ability to think strenuously. After one-too-many years of fast-think, we lose interest in simmering our thoughts, and our taste buds have become too immature to appreciate or too senile to care the slow-think process.

Running, writing and reading, and cooking combats the epidemic urge to feed all our thoughts into the processor.

Trails and the mountains present us with both the macro and the micro. The sheer size of nature’s peaks and falls dwarf us, putting us in our place as mere specks in a much larger sphere. Meanwhile, every tree root and rock on the trail must be taken into account – your mind and body is on full alert as you nimbly and efficiently make your way through weaving paths. Your body may be moving swiftly, but your mind is at a calm standstill. Your thoughts dwindle down to the bare essentials; it’s you and your next step, nothing else. Scrambling demands your utmost attention and nothing less, as your fingertips and toes are often the only things keeping one from a devastating or fatal fall. Sounds crazy, but in that void, I get most of my heavy “thinking” done. Thinking less ends up being more. Doing more with less. Things come together at the end of the trail.

Writing, done right, is a painstakingly slow process. The distance from one end of a computer screen to the other is a matter of inches, but sometimes, jotting down that next word feels like a power-hike up a vertical mile. Few other exercises devised by mankind requires you to focus as much as writing. In that moment, you are battling with your self, both past and present, on every word. Then you delete-all and start from scratch again. Reading is similar. Textbooks, Supreme Court opinions, news articles, you can get away with skimming through. You can’t bullshit through a novel. I find novels are hard to read during rush hour subway commutes because they require an extra gear of attentive devotion. The sheer depth and breadth of characters and intertwining of plots are only fully appreciated with your ass on a couch for a good three or four hours at a time.

What more can I say about food. Slow-food is now a popular term, countering fast-food. But apart from that, cooking at its core represents the most raw human behavior. Gathering (or shopping for) ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, and eating around a table is the ultimate symbol of slowing down. Along with brewing freshly ground coffee in the morning, cooking and eating a meal with other human beings is what bonds us to life and why we work to sustain ourselves. You stop, you breathe, you look around. The dinner table is a powerful glue that has steadily lost its adhesive power.

Fast-think, it’s no different from fast food.

billygoat2 thanksgiving

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.

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