"Outside the Box?" It's Likely Not What You Think

Aug 29, 2022

 His frustration, evident as a wart on the tip of one’s nose, was just as unpleasant.

“Mom!! Can’t you just think inside the box?”

He’d been presented with a “pick one” moral dilemma by a teacher and wanted to hear my choice. I understood the point of the exercise. I also disagreed with it. Asking if I’d save the sickly infant or the genius scientist felt as ridiculous as inquiring if I’d prefer death by hanging or drowning. However, I wasn’t going to play by the rules. I wasn’t coloring inside the lines. I was thinking outside the box. Or was I?

“Think outside the box” is a ubiquitous phrase applied to everything from considering what color to paint kitchen cabinets to creating a $1,000,000 marketing campaign. You (like me) have probably heard and/or used these four words a thousand times. And (like me once upon a time) you likely have no idea of its origin or true meaning.

Somebody hijacked “Think outside the box.”

It’s not a catchy title.

It is a capital book. 

Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box has nothing to do with spicing up walls with a never-thought-I’d-like-this hue or launching an innovative crusade to sell the latest must-have widget. It’s not about creativity or innovation, although it fosters those skills. In a describe-your-life-in-ten-seconds abridged format, it’s about thoughts: what we think about ourselves and others.

Every action follows a choice. Every choice follows a belief. Every belief follows a thought.

Physiologically, the more we think a thought, the more our brain “hard wires” us to think that thought again. It’s one of the reasons it *does *become more difficult to change as we age. Thinking, like walking or eating or drinking, is an activity we engage in without “thinking.” Unless there’s a special situation -- like re-learning how to walk after an injury -- we don’t say, “Okay, left foot. Get ready to move 8” forward. Right foot, be prepared to maintain balance for that split second while the left foot is mid-air.” We just walk – without “thinking.” Although we are, in fact, thinking. It’s just that our brain processes it so quickly that it bypasses our conscious mind.

We do with others and ourselves what we do with our feet. We move with such speed in making decisions it bypasses our conscious mind.

  • Mutual friends gather for a lunch to which we weren’t invited, and we assume we’re not important to them.
  • A spouse fails to complete a chore – again, and we surmise he’s irresponsible.
  • Our child’s assignment scores a low grade, and we decide the teacher plays favorites.
  • A colleague gets the promotion, and we conclude it’s because of her connections, not abilities.
  • Someone cuts us off on the highway, and they’re an idiot.

We make thousands of these decisions every day – most, if not all, without any conscious examination. And the cost is exorbitant. Without even realizing it, we trade precious peace, joy, and happiness every day for beggarly beliefs. Until we learn to truly “think outside the box.”

This isn’t wearing “rose-colored” glasses or blinders to keep us from seeing scary realities. It’s practicing the art of seeing through someone’s else eyes, walking in their shoes, and holding our conceptions up for inspection.

Sounds easy. Except the price is humility, and if we’re honest, sometimes that tag seems like too high an expense.

Humility is a virtue easier to praise than practice.

“Self-deception,” according to the authors, “actually determines one’s experience in every aspect of life.”

Every good photographer knows no matter how high a camera sensor’s quality, its capacities will be limited or maximized by what lens is used. An excellent sensor will never produce amazing photos if it sees through a lens which is dirty, damaged, or distorted.

We’re all sight impaired. Nobody lives with a perfectly performing lens. We don’t accurately see ourselves or others. Our only choice is whether we accept this truth and commit to a lifestyle of lens-correcting work or disregard this reality and continue affirming ourselves with how right we are.

“Self-deception … blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the ‘solutions’ we can think of will actually make matters worse. Whether at work or at home, self-deception obscures the truth about us, corrupts our view of others and our circumstances, and inhibits our ability to make wise and helpful decisions.”


Blaming is so much more appealing than ownership.

  • The longer we run from this truth, the harder we must work to find it.
  • The longer we tune out this truth, the more deafened we become to it.
  • The longer we ignore this truth, the more oblivious we become to it.

We hear a lot these days about self-care. Self-compassion. Self-acceptance. Yet without owning self-deception, we’ll only produce self-indulgence, self-ignorance, and self-isolation.

Accepting and owning our self-deception tendencies is actually incredibly freeing! We can solve problems rather than ruminate on them. We can get to the root of issues rather than run circles around them. We can cultivate deep relationships rather than settle for surface acquaintanceships.

We can avoid the trap of isolation, often mistaken for independence. We can recognize self-sufficiency is not synonymous with strength. We can build a strong identity engaging in the world rather than retreating to a mindset where hiding becomes our protection.

Yet there’s a pay-off to staying inside the box.

It’s so much easier – especially with the world accessible at our fingertips – to find others to confirm our views are informed, accurate, and right than to submit our thoughts, methods, and motives for examination. We can do that ourselves, thank you very much. Believing others are lazy, selfish, rude, arrogant, schmoozers, boring, and impossible to please invites us to treat them differently than if we believed they were forgetful, ignorant, discouraged, overwhelmed, grief-ridden, insecure, and generally trying to do their best.

But when we choose to assign – and choosing it is – a negative motivation to others, we can easily excuse, justify, or allow us to engage in what the authors call “self-betrayal.” Hold on. We’re not talking about “big” treasons like affairs, stealing, and lying. Although those count, it’s the dozens of “little” acts of deception which accumulate to keep us “inside the box.”

The book lists these seven principles about self-betrayal:

  1. An act contrary to what I feel I should do for another is called an act of ‘self-betrayal.’
  2. When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self-betrayal.
  3. When I see the world in a self-justifying way, my view of reality becomes distorted.
  4. So – when I betray myself, I enter the box.
  5. Over time, certain boxes become characteristic of me, and I carry them with me.
  6. By being in the box, I provoke others to be in the box.
  7. In the box, we invite mutual mistreatment and obtain mutual justification. We collude in giving each other reason to stay in the box.

So how do we genuinely think and live “outside the box?” Stay tuned...!




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