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Lifehack Presents: The Thinking Outside the Box Mini Guide

Lifehack Presents: The Thinking Outside the Box Mini Guide

    Being creative day-in and day-out is a must for most, if not all, knowledge workers and entrepreneurs. We have to come up with new ideas related to struggling projects, new products, business creation, and ideas to solve numerous amounts of problems. It can be a hard thing to do if you don’t have a framework or process for being creative.

    Instead of just skirting by when it comes to creative pressure, you have to stand out and create ideas to make things happen in your career and life. That’s why it’s important to start thinking outside the box today. This mini guide will show you how to create ideas with minimal effort and frustration.

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    What this is and what it can help you with

    First off, what is “thinking outside the box”? According to the Wikipedia article on the term, there is a 9-dot puzzle that is meant to be an intellectual challenge. The idea is to connect all of the dots of the puzzle by drawing four straight lines without ever lifting your pencil. The term “thinking outside the box” was coined because to solve the puzzle you have to move your pencil outside of the artificial boundaries of the box.

    It’s interesting how this term came to mean “think creatively,” and now it is sort of a cliche when you hear it, but it doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t important. Thinking outside the box is important for so many things. Here is a quick list of different issues creative thinking will help you with:

    • Large problem solving at work or home
    • Creating ideas for new business opportunities
    • Creating potential ideas for writing
    • Project planning
    • Goal setting
    • Ideas for new products and services (as well as ideas to improve current products)
    • Event planning
    • Household repair

    … and the list goes on

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    There really isn’t much in our lives that doesn’t deserve some out-of-the-box-thinking, that’s why it is important we have a creative process in our lives.

    The process

    When it actually comes to generating ideas and thinking creatively, there are many different ways to do it. But, there is a small, simplified process that you can follow to start thinking outside the box as quickly as possible. First let’s look at the overall setting you need to put yourself in to think differently:

    • Turn off your filter. We all have an internal “filter” that tells us ideas are good or bad even before we let them see the light of day. You have to make sure that when you are trying to think differently and come up with ideas, that this filter needs turned off so you can create as many ideas as possible without criticizing them internally. Some of the best ideas may be lost because of this internal filter we all have.
    • Create now, criticize later. When you are in “idea generation mode” you want to come up with as many ideas as possible. These ideas shouldn’t be classified as “good” or “bad” because that it is a totally separate process of thinking outside the box. Make a list
    • Go off in tangents. While creating ideas it’s important to let the creative process go where it “needs” to go. That is, don’t try to limit your ideas to the problem that you are trying to solve. If you start creating new ideas for a product or service while you are trying to create ideas to solve a family problem, let it flow the way that it flows. Some of my best ideas have come out of the weirdest and most “unnatural” times and situations. Embrace these times.
    • Create time and space for creating. As you can have creative ideas anywhere and everywhere, it’s important to remember to actually carve out time to use your creativity to solve your problems. If you have a group of people that need to be in on the creative process then schedule some time with them. Even if it is just you that needs to create some ideas, time block it in your schedule to create the time and space you will need.

    Now that you have the atmosphere for thinking outside the box down, here is the simplified process of idea generation and critique:

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    1. Start with a focal point and create as many ideas around that focal point. The focal point requires you to have some sort of focus and perspective on a current project, problem, business idea, etc. Having this perspective will help put your mind in the right place. You will be able to create ideas around something you are focusing on.
    2. Create ideas for a set amount of time. This could be between 5 or 25 minutes at a time. The idea is to devote this time to collect all ideas that are related to your focal point.
    3. Take a small break after the creation process. This break will be followed by the next step.
    4. Critique and organize. Now that you have some ideas down it’s time to throw out some of the bad ones, organize ones that go together, and also create new ones based off of the organization and critique. Sometimes, by this point in the process, you will already have the ideas that you need to solve your problem. If so, you can stop and work on your new ideas. If you still need more ideas then…
    5. Repeat steps 1–4.

    The tools

    There are a good amount of creative tools that you can use to bolster your outside of the box type of thinking. Here is a list of things that we at Lifehack like to use:

    • Mindmapping software. This is (in my opinion) the be-all-to-end-all creative thinking tool. You can get a good mindmapping app for any platform (MindNode Pro for Mac, MindManager for Mac/PC, or FreeMind for Mac/PC/Linux). Mindmapping is great to set-up your creative focal point and then generate ideas around it.
    • Outlining tools. These are good for the organizing step or even the idea generation step. Once again, there are great outlining tools for all platforms (OmniOutliner for Mac, Word for Mac/PC, Microsoft OneNote for PC, Outliner for iOS, Vault 3 Outliner for Android).
    • Pen, pencil, crayons, markers, and paper. If you are an avid mindmapper, you should try mindmapping on paper every once in a while. This will help you free yourself from digital constraints and put your mind in a different place to create. There is nothing like a huge piece of paper and a bunch of different writing utensils to help you get your creative ideas down.
    • Whiteboard and erasable markers. The corporate standard for creating ideas. It’s so engrained in corporate and business culture that it’s referred to as “whiteboarding”. Usuaally you are using whiteboards in a group setting, so remember to keep your filter off during these “whiteboarding” sessions.

    Dealing with criticism

    No matter how hard you try to turn your internal “filter” off or force yourself and others to keep the creation and critique and organizing steps separate, you will inevitably be faced with criticism from yourself and others. Here are some ways to counteract the effects of criticism in the creative process, while keeping the positive aspects of it:

    • When creating ideas by yourself, instead of “forcing” yourself to not be critical when a new ideas strikes you, write down the idea and then the criticism on a separate piece of paper (or digital mindmap our outline, you technophile, you). This helps you to get the idea out of your head, the same idea that could have been killed off by your filter, as well as getting the criticism out that could help you later in the creative process.
    • When creating ideas with groups, try to have a “creative thinking leader” that will help account for criticisms that come up. This person is sort of a facilitator and they can lay out the groundwork for the creative process before it even starts. This creative leader can do the same thing with criticisms of ideas that are generated, log them for later. If a certain group member has become Mr. or Mrs. Critique Master, then the creative leader may need to remind them that this isn’t the time to critique ideas, only create them.
    • There may be times that your criticisms are too harsh. One of the best things to do in this case is to keep the idea on the “back-burner” and come back to it later. If you still think that the idea is bad and are still very critical of it, you may need to let it go. Sometimes this revisiting of old ideas can last for months or even years. That’s not a bad thing. Just make sure that when you re critiquing something that you aren’t being negative, that you are being realistic.

    Thinking outside the box is an important skill to have for any knowledge worker, entrepreneur, or creative. Hopefully this guide will help you grasp the creative process when it comes to project planning, goal setting, idea generation, business creation, etc. You should now be able to generate massive amounts of ideas and not let your internal or external criticisms get the best of you.

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    (Photo credit: Anonymous businessman with his arms folded via Shutterstock)

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    CM Smith

    A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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    Last Updated on March 17, 2020

    A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

    A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

    Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.

      Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

      Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

      The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

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      According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

      He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

      Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

      Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
      where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

      A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

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      “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.  Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

      This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

      Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

      Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

      There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

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      Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

      This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

      There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

      The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.

      Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

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      The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.

      I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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      Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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