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Thinking Outside The Box By Going Inside The Box(es)

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 17, 2021

Thinking outside the box has become the holy grail for the creative process. An internet search for the term produces 467 million results and another search for book titles with the phrase produces 218 million results. The books have applications that range from the obvious critical thinking to include such not-so-obvious subjects as tax preparation, hockey, 3-D modeling, video games, and even equine-facilitated psychotherapy. But the most non-obvious application of all is crossword puzzles.

In an article in the New York Times, Adrienne Raphel, a lecturer at Princeton University described what she calls “crossword brain”:

It’s both intuitive and counterintuitive, knowing when to turn away from the seemingly obvious solution, but also knowing when to trust your instincts and go with the answer that feels good. Crossword brain requires you to bend and sometimes entirely break the way you think you should make connections. Crosswords tug all sides of your mind, requiring you to dart from straightforward definitions to narrative logic to free association to bad dad puns, all in the same space.

As validation of Raphel’s observations, a scientific study reports that crosswords stimulate “enhanced learning”:

Crossword puzzles provide expansion of vocabulary, stimulate thinking capacity, boost confidence, and fasten up the learning capacity.

Raphel is also the author of a book called, Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them. The box in her title, of course, relates to crossword boxes, but her description of crossword brain is as good a description of the creative process I’ve ever seen.  

As a writer, I gravitate to crossword puzzles. My Sunday ritual, along with 200,000 other devotees, is to dive into the New York Times Sunday version. As a coach, I am forever on the hunt for new ways to stimulate new thinking. In a previous Forbes blog I wrote about how social media can help inspire creativity. And as readers of this blog and my books know, I view creativity in business as important as creativity in fine arts and letters.

Everyone in business must be able to strike their own creative spark, not just for narratives, presentations, and messaging, but for developing marketing strategies, solving problems, and, with all due respect to Ms. Raphel’s title, appropriate for crosswords: to do so by thinking outside the box.

Unfortunately, that is not is the way most businesspeople approach their strategic planning, problem-solving, and yes, presentations. They default to the “We’ve always done it this way…” method. Of course, that approach flies in the face of the popular adage, often misattributed to Albert Einstein:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

No one knows who originated that very apparent truism, but I expect that its popularity is due to the pained, guilty realization that most business practices do indeed operate that way.

Instead, ignite your creative thinking for all your business challenges by borrowing Adrienne Raphel’s advice for solving crosswords:

Bend and sometimes entirely break the way you think…tug all sides of your mind…dart from straightforward definitions to narrative logic to free association…all in the same space.

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