Real creativity happens inside the box

We’ve all heard it thousands of times: what we need is some out-of-the-box thinking. We could solve this problem if only we could step out of the box. Golly, J.P., that’s a really out-of-the-box idea!

It seems that we can accomplish anything if we’re brave enough to step out of that bad, bad box, and thinking “creatively” has come to be synonymous with ignoring rules and constraints or pretending they just don’t exist.

“Real creativity is put to the test within the box. In fact, that’s where it really shines.”

Nonsense. Real creativity is put to the test within the box. In fact, that’s where it really shines.

It might surprise you, but it’s actually easier to think outside the box than within its confines. How can that be? It’s simple. When you’re working outside the box, you don’t face rules, or boundaries, or assumptions. You create your own as you go along. If you want to throw convention aside, you can do it. If you want to throw proven practices out the window, have at it. You have the freedom to create your own world.

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with thinking outside the box. At times, it’s absolutely essential – such as when you’re facing the biggest oil spill in history in an environment in which all the known approaches are failing.

But most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to operate outside the box. We’ve been shoved into reality, facing a variety of limitations, from budgets, to supervisors’ opinions and prejudices, to the nature of the marketplace. Even though the box may have been given a bad name, it’s where most of us have to spend our time. And no matter how much we may fret about those limits, inside that box is where we need to prove ourselves.

If you’ll pardon the inevitable sports analogy, consider a baseball player who belts ball after ball over 450 feet. Unfortunately, he has a wee problem: he can’t place those hits between the foul lines, so they’re harmful strikes instead of game-winning home runs. To the out-of-the-box advocates, he’s a mighty slugger who deserves admiration, but to his teammates and the fans, he’s a loser who just can’t get on base. He may not like the fact that he has to limit his hits to between the foul poles, but that’s one of the realities of the game he chose to play.

The same is true of ideas and approaches. The most dazzling and impressive tactic is essentially useless if it doesn’t offer a practical, realistic way to address the need or application. Like the baseball player, we may not like the realities, but we have to operate within their limits.

Often, I’ve seen people blame the box for their inability or unwillingness to create something workable. For example, back in my ad agency days, I remember fellow writers and designers complaining about the limitations of projects. If it was a half-page ad, they didn’t feel they could truly be creative unless the space was expanded to a full page. If they were given a full page, they demanded a spread. Handed a spread, they’d fret because it wasn’t a TV commercial. If the project became a TV commercial with a $25,000 budget, they’d grouse about not having a $50,000 budget.

Yet the greatest artists of all time didn’t complain about what they didn’t have; they worked their magic using what they did. Monet captured the grace and beauty of France astonishingly well within the bounds of a canvas. Donatello exposed the breathtaking emotion that lurked within ordinary chunks of marble. And I doubt that Beethoven ever whined because there were only 88 keys on the piano.

Similarly, I’ve watched the best of my peers do amazing things in less-than-favorable circumstances. There were brilliant commercials developed with minimal budgets and hand-held cameras. Black-and-white ads that outperformed their colorful competitors. Simple postcards that grabbed the attention of (and business from) jaded consumers.

You see, real creativity isn’t hampered or blocked by limits. It actually flowers in response to challenges. Even though it may be forced to remain inside the box, it leverages everything it can find in that box and makes the most of every bit of it. Real creativity is driven by a need to create. When Monet approached a blank canvas, it’s safe to say that he didn’t agonize over its size. He wanted to capture something he’d seen and share how it looked through his eyes. The size of the canvas was incidental to his talent and desire.

Think about the Apollo 13 mission. NASA didn’t have the luxury of flying supplies or extra tools to the crew. They couldn’t rewrite the laws of physics. Plus, they faced a rapidly shrinking timeline, so their box kept getting smaller and less forgiving. And yet they arrived upon a solution that was creative; more important, that was successful.

The next time someone tells you that the real solution involves stepping outside the box, challenge him or her to think and work harder. After all, the best solution may very well be lurking in a corner of that familiar box.

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