Learn how to think out of the box

In 1942, Einstein lectured at Oxford University. One day he gave his students several exam questions. When he later walked outside with his assistant, she asked, "Mr. Einstein, weren't these exactly the same questions that the same class had last year?" The amazement was great when Einstein confirmed this, and she asked, "But sir, how can you do that?" Einstein looked at her briefly and said: "That's very simple, the questions are the same, but the answers have changed".

What was true in 1942 has now become even more true. Some questions remain the same, but the answers are changing at an ever-increasing pace.

Learn how to think out of the box

Doing what wasn't possible before

If you want results that didn't seem possible before, you have to do things you've never done before, you have to think out of the box. But how do you do the right things to achieve what no one thought possible previously? How do you get everything that's possible out of everything you have?

The standard behavior of people in crisis is almost always the same. They will either do more of the same, or they will do less of the same. But they stubbornly do the same in the hope that a different outcome will follow. Only rarely do people suddenly start doing something else. Research shows that only 3% of people can do something really different in these situations. In other words, they can come up with solutions that result in a different outcome.

How can only such a small percentage of people be able to really think of and do something else? According to some researchers, this has to do with the energy that is needed for thinking. Thinking is an absolute energy-killer. That's why most of us think about something as briefly as possible and then do the exact same thing they have always done.

It turns out that we are on autopilot for 95% of our time. When we are in the car, it can happen that after half an hour, you suddenly realize that you are almost there. All this time, you drove for 95% or more on the autopilot. While you are reading this, you are probably doing this on autopilot. You record it and don't think about it yet, or maybe you think about it barely.

Thanks to this autopilot, it can happen within companies that some tunnel vision is created. It is comparable to driving a car entirely focused on the road and then lagging so far behind that when you look in the rear-view mirror, and you think you are in the lead.

Shifting our boundaries by thinking out of the box

Most people know the concept that you have to think out of the box. It is often illustrated as a box with you inside. The lines of the box are the boundaries you sometimes have to dare to cross. The four boundaries you prefer to stay within are, for example, boundaries in terms of legislation, technological possibilities, physical possibilities, and existing (business) models.

Sometimes you are limited by convictions that something is not possible or allowed, and sometimes you are limited because you lack knowledge of what else is possible than you know. The problem, however, is not only the boundary of our own conceived box. The problem is that our box is usually ten times smaller than we think.


To show how small our box is, you could think about what you can eat tonight. You could think of a Japanese meal, a delicious cheese fondue, or maybe even a fresh Italian pasta. Few people will fantasize about going to the nearest highway tonight to see if any dead animals can be prepared on the barbecue. We consider that disgusting and distasteful. While for many people in the world, this would be the most logical thought. That is how small your box is.

The industry norm and standards

Within each field, you'll find these kinds of small boxes with obstructive boundaries. We call this industry standard or the industry norm. For example, in the restaurant industry, the norm is that people visit you, eat, pay, and then leave. That's how everyone does it. In banking, the norm is that people give you money that you can lend to other people.

The point is that the word "norm" is an abbreviation for the word "normal". In other words, if you use the norm, you do what others do, and you can expect the same result as everyone else. That is: normal results. This is while most companies strive for extraordinary results when they think out of the box

The question is, therefore, how you can kick yourself out of your own box to end up in a much freer and happier world with unlimited opportunities and possibilities. The place where fresh innovation can take place, and extraordinary results can be achieved. How do you do that?

To learn how tho think out of the box you have to start asking new questions

You can step outside the box by asking new questions. The following example illustrates a new type of question.

If you wanted to become a taxi driver in London, you had to know all the streets of London by heart. For some, this was a life's work, and others were studying for at least a few months. This is not a problem in itself unless you want to expand your taxi business rapidly. The question that was asked was, therefore: "How can we have people driving taxis that know nothing about the streets of London?" The answer was a taxi with a large sign on the roof saying that the driver knows nothing about the streets of London, but likes to be shown the way.

It turned out to be a success because it attracted a lot of local Londoners who knew the city well and could finally be the boss in a taxi. This is what thinking out of the box is all about.

It turns out that by asking questions, we can break with the standards and norms that were used in a particular industry or field, and achieve extraordinary results.

The challenge is to understand that you can only achieve normal results within the current standard. Within the standard, you can, if it's not too late, sub-optimize and fix things. But don't expect any extraordinary results. New remarkable results call for new questions that lead to a new exceptional approach that takes place out of the box that you have created yourself.

Source: Paul Rulkens

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Ben Steenstra Ben Steenstra
15-10-2019 6 mins read
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