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Think INSIDE the box and LIVE LONGER!

By on September 10, 2013 in

There’s a great show on NatGeo (National Geographic) called The Numbers Game. I found it by complete coincidence but was hooked by an episode focused on predicting human longevity by correlating a series of factors to a long life.

In one of the scenarios there are two young men standing side by side. It’s actually the same person to emphasize that only a few factors will be manipulated. The one on the left is a runner who drinks fruit juices and is single; the one on the right is a dog-walker who drinks coffee and is married. All other things being equal, “which one will live longer?” According to the show, the dog walking, coffee drinking, married man will live longer. I was HOOKED – all I need is a dog!!!

A few minutes later the host, data scientist Jake Porway, asks the TV audience to follow a series of instructions. As it turns out, researchers believe that conscientious people (“rule followers”) will outlive their risk taking counterparts. And that got me thinking — since thinking outside the box is apparently detrimental to your longevity, is it worth the risk? 

As with everything else, it depends. Putting aside the connections to a long a life, thinking outside the box can be a great tool. It offers one the ability to look at issues, challenges and problems from a different perspective often resulting in breakthrough learning (and resolution). But therein lies the problem.

Doesn’t thinking outside the box require the thinker to acknowledge and understand the box? How can someone think outside the box if they don’t know that they’re in a box to begin with? To that end, I would like to propose two thoughts for consideration:

1. Following the rules helps you live longer!

Thinking inside the box isn’t always bad. It’s necessary and without “inside the box thinking” Henry Ford would not have revolutionized the auto industry. Think about it. We probably don’t have to argue that Henry Ford was an “outside the box thinker” but what he ultimately created was another box – a better box. And when people operated inside the “Ford Box” great things happened. Not all boxes are bad.

2. To think outside the box you must understand the box that binds you!

“Think outside the box” has become an overused, knee jerk reaction. In order to actually think outside the box you MUST understand that your “box” is defined by your assumptions – your mindset. Take the classic example of the nine dots puzzle. The instructions are extremely simple; connect all nine dots using four straight lines or fewer without lifting your writing utensil and without tracing the same line more than once.


•  •  •

•  •  •

•  •  •

And as you do

  1. What assumptions did you make about the solution? What does it mean to think inside the box?
  2. Why is inside the box thinking so wrong in this case?
  3. Is it an individual box or an organizational one or both?
  4. What are the rules and assumptions of each of the boxes?
  5. What problem are you trying to solve and why does the box (or boxes) prevent you from solving it?

In this case, knowing how your thinking was restricted by your assumptions should have helped you solve the nine dots problem. To think outside the box understand and appreciate the box you’re in.  And to be a better manager and leader, understand and appreciate the boxes your teams are in.

Finally, the show also suggested that “happier” people outlive their “less than happy” counterparts. If thinking outside the box makes you happy then doesn’t that outweigh the conscientious variable? Let’s compromise and agree to think outside the box only when it makes sense to do so. In other words, don’t break the rules for the sake of breaking the rules. After all, I’m almost positive that an unhappy rule breaker is definitely on the short end of the longevity discussion!!!

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