June 02, 2005

X-ing outside the Y

Mr. Sun recently offered 13 items of ironic advice to graduates, including this one:

Contrary to what you may have heard about business, you should not think outside the box. You should get your green-as-grass self back in the box and don't come out unless it's to bring me some hot coffee and do my work so I can take credit for it. Welcome to the working world, Rookie.

By coincidence, I've keeping an eye for a few weeks on the snowclones "X outside the box", "think outside the Y", and (of course) "X outside the Y".

Rummaging around on the web, we can find advice to "think outside the" album, axis, bag, basket, bison, boat, bomb, book, booth, bowl, bus, cabana, cage, clock, condom, cup, docs, feed, gates, grid, helmet, house, mall, niche, office, SarbOx, season, stocks, square, vote, window, zone and many other constraining structures.

There are also many particular sorts of boxes we are invited to think outside of, including these: age box, ballot box, big box, cereal box, firebox, gas mileage box, idiot box, lunch box, mailbox, pretty box, semester box, and (last but not least) xbox.

Other activities besides thinking that some have suggested that we do outside the box include advertising, believing, bowing, dining, designing, hiring, learning, living, marrying, preaching, stepping, styling, teaching, testing, voting and working. (Some outside-the-box activities are not recommended, such as crapping.) And other things that can usefully be found outside the box, according to the Wisdom of the Web, include apartments, chocolates, church, eating, evangelism, linux, medicine, music, religion, security, solutions, spirituality, therapy, treatment and worship.

According to the OED, the origin of this phrase is

With allusion to a puzzle in which the aim is to connect the nine dots of a square grid with four straight lines drawn continuously, without pen leaving paper; the solution is only possible if some of the lines extend beyond the border of the grid.

The OED's first citation is from 1975:

1975 Aviation Week & Space Technol. 14 July 9 We must step back and see if the solutions to our problems lie outside the box.
1984 Fortune 6 Feb. 114/3 He tells his managers to be ‘cross-functional’ and to ‘think outside the box’ of their own specialty

The first use in the NYT appears to be in an article by Shirley Christian, March 18, 1985, "City Plans New Effort To Curb Dropout Rate", which quotes Victor Herbert, newly named as superintendent for dropout prevention in the New York City School system:

"We need to think outside the box to find what may be radical solutions to a radical problem."

A few other searches through historical databases turned up a flurry of examples starting in the mid-80s, but nothing earlier -- though I expect Ben Zimmer to write in with a list of citations from the Roaring Twenties or before...

[Update: Ben comes through--

Sorry, I was away from my computer today so I missed your blog entry. And I'm also sad to report that I can't oblige with cites for "thinking outside the box" from the Roaring Twenties. But I can provide a more modest antedating, taking the "box" metaphor back to 1969. It appeared in a newspaper column by Norman Vincent Peale about how people get "blackmailed" by their problems:

Norman Vincent Peale, "Blackmail Is the Problem"
Chicago Tribune, Oct 25, 1969, p. I13, col. 4
There is one particular puzzle you may have seen. It's a drawing of a box with some dots in it, and the idea is to connect all the dots by using only four lines. You can work on that puzzle, but the only way to solve it is to draw the lines so they connect outside the box. It's so simple once you realize the principle behind it. But if you keep trying to solve it inside the box, you'll never be able to master that particular puzzle. That puzzle represents the way a lot of people think. They get caught up inside the box of their own lives. You've got to approach any problem objectively. Stand back and see it for exactly what it is. From a little distance, you can see it a lot more clearly. Try and get a different perspective, a fresh point of view. Step outside the box your problem has created within you and come at it from a different direction.

Considering how widely read Peale's motivational writings were, this could very well be the origin for "stepping/thinking outside the box". The 1975 OED cite, for example, looks very similar to Peale's formulation. It's intriguing, though, that more recent motivational writers have apparently not attributed the metaphor to Peale. Perhaps the image was taken up by various writers/speakers in the '70s, so that by the time "think outside the box" became an '80s catchphrase the Peale origin (and the story about the puzzle) had been forgotten.

(Checking Peale's bio, I see that he published a weekly newsletter for businessmen, Guideposts, which reached as many as two million subscribers. So perhaps the newsletter was more responsible than the newspaper column for propagating the "box" metaphor in the business world.)


Posted by Mark Liberman at June 2, 2005 07:35 AM