Why try to get up to speed if you can get by on a buzz phrase?

Have you ever noticed how buzzwords seem to pass for knowledge?

One buzz phrase that's almost out of vogue is: Think outside the box.

Many people use it as if it's a panacea. "We can solve this problem if we would
just think outside the box." But what does it mean, if anything?

To find out, we sent King Oxnard, procurement detective, to conduct an informal, yet
shallow, survey of the populace at large. This is his report:

If anyone would know what thinking outside the box meant, it would be those people who
invent their own languages. So here I am in the teen culture of the San Fernando Valley
with Mr. Gnarl E. Dude, teen linguist.

Oxnard: Mr. Dude, can you enlighten us on the meaning of thinking outside the box?

Dude: Like, well, uh, sure I can, like, uh, do that, see, it, oh, wow, uh, has to do
with boxes and stuff and how we think and all. Uh, it's like Wyoming, yeah, Wyoming, you
know that square state somewhere, like, away from here?

Anyway, if you're like in Wyoming and actually thinking about something, then in a
two-dimensional sort of way you're like thinking inside the box, 'cause of the shape of
the state and all, but, and this is, you know, what is really like happening. Right now
I'm like thinking outside the box 'cause I'm like here in the Valley, which is not, you
know, Wyoming.

Oxnard: So, you're thinking outside the box anytime you're not in Wyoming?

Dude: That'd be pretty much it, yeah. Except for maybe Colorado.

As you can see, that wasn't much help. Or, uh, maybe it was. Being the intrepid person
that I am and on an unlimited expense account, I traveled to Transylvania to visit that
world renowned box thinker, Count Dracula.

Oxnard: So Count, what does it mean to think outside the box?

The Count: I wouldn't know. I do most of my actual thinking inside the box. When I'm
outside the box, I'm all hormones. You know what I'm saying here?

Thinking doesn't even enter into it. I see a neck, I go for it. I have no control over
my urges. Bite, bite, bite, that's all that's going through my mind.

But, when I'm in my casket, it's a whole new and creative world, filled with
possibilities and the bright promise of tomorrow. I'm in a dreamlike place at complete
peace, at one with the universe. It's as if I'm lying in state.

Oxnard: State?

The Count: Like, you know, Wyoming, Colorado, one of those.

I figured I had one more chance. And then it struck me: Who was the best box thinker of
all time? Harry Houdini, of course.

Oxnard: We don't have much time. Could you explain the significance of thinking outside
the box?

Houdini: As you no doubt know, I made a career out of thinking outside the box so that
when I'm chained and shackled inside the box I can escape and become one with the world
outside the box.

Thinking outside the box means thinking in a disciplined and structured manner so that
no eventuality goes unconsidered. Stay with the tried and true.

Thinking outside the box means not leaving anything to chance when you're inside the

Stay with what works, because when you're inside the box, smarts get you out, not
innovation. New is not necessarily better. What works is better. Know the rules. Apply the
rules. Don't break the rules. There are old escape artists and there are bold escape
artists, but there are no old, bold escape artists.

Oxnard: There doesn't seem to be any geographical element to your view of thinking
outside the box.

Houdini: Quite the contrary. It is well established that disciplined and creative
thinking can never happen in geographical areas shaped like perfect squares, even if part
of the square has been removed.

For example, what shape is the District of Columbia?

Bob Little, an attorney who has worked for the General Accounting Office and a
Washington law firm, teaches federal contract law.


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