How to Think Outside the Box: The Art of Creative Thinking

Thinking outside the box is the ability to come up with new and unconventional ideas. Creative thinking is something we are born with, but learn to forget. Buried under structures and concepts, our inner creativity is imprisoned. Here’s how to let it loose.

Creative Thinking

The reason why you can’t think creatively

Thinking outside the box implies a box. This box consists of all your beliefs and preconceived ideas about reality. It is a group of concepts you accept and don’t question. For example, you likely take for granted your name, the color of green or the fact that eating makes hunger disappear. Assumptions like these are useful. They allow you to communicate, make theories and predict events. This faculty has developed science. Humans are remarkably good at creating concepts. They’re competent at building well-furnished boxes.

Unfortunately, this tendency to conceptualize reality also has side effects. In fact, this box destroys creativity. It sets fences in your mind. It establishes a perimeter that determines what conscious thoughts can arise. When you think inside the box, you are limited. You copy what already exists. This is not necessarily problematic, but it often is suboptimal.

Ideas are constantly flowing in your subconscious mind. You’re not aware of most of them because they are blocked. They fall outside the box. Your mind constantly filters out stuff that it doesn’t consider relevant. To develop creativity, you need the ability to suspend that filter. You have to step out of concepts. It’s certainly doable. You do it every night ; it’s called dreaming.

You shouldn’t wonder how to be creative. It’s dis-empowering. Creative thinking is natural and easy. Children are immensely creative. All the dreams you have at night are innovative and unique. Being uncreative is actually much harder. Seeing through rigid concepts requires a lot of mental effort. It took you years of training!

Instead, ask yourself : “How do I manage to be so uncreative?“.

Stepping out of the box

To think outside the box, you have to step out of it. That means suspending judgments and labels. It’s impossible to be creative if you’re caught in prejudice. School taught you to rely on the box to solve problems. It made you remember existing answers to problems. That’s a very uncreative approach to problem-solving.

Let’s step out of the box.


Look at your hand now. What do you see?

“A hand”?

Where does the hand start?
Where does it end?
What would half a hand look like?

Observe the tendency of the mind to impose a fixed, simplistic label on everything. When you label reality, you stop seeing it. You only see names and concepts. You separate yourself from the world.

Try to see your hand without commenting it. Don’t give it a name. Don’t put it in a box.

What do you actually see? A hand? Fingers? Nails? Shapes? Lines? Dots? Colors?
Your hand has a lot to offer you. And that’s only the visual part of it.


If you can’t look at your hand without imposing a structure, you’ll have a hard time creating anything.

How could a blank page turn into a unique text? You’ll only see a white piece of paper.
How would a virgin canvas become an original painting? Nothing to copy from.

The source of creative thinking

Observe creative people you know. Chances are they’re very emotional. It’s not a coincidence. They use their emotions to step out of thought. They don’t get their inspiration from emotions, but emotions allow them to get to a creative place. Some people prefer drugs, others meditate. The destination is the same. It’s within everyone.

As a young child, your world was unlabeled. Objects had no names. They were fresh. Unique. Unrestricted by concepts, you were unbelievably creative.

Eventually, it got practical to label things to communicate. You took interest in learning names. You felt like the world around you could be grasped, understood. It was a fun game, but you got lost in it. You forgot that names were only “names”, and started taking them as reality. The world gradually lost its aliveness. It got “conceptualized”. Things somehow got dimmer. What once fascinated you stopped being close to your heart.

By labeling things, you associated fixed concepts to them. Concepts are empty; they’re nothing more than pointers. If you take pointers for reality, everything becomes bland. When you see the world through ideas, reality loses its dynamism.

When this: Creative Thinking - Chairbecomes “ a chair”, reality is narrowed down. What was infinitely complex, rich and unique is reduced to a concept. Ask a kid what she can do with a chair. She’ll easily come up with 20 different uses. How many can you come up with?

What came before the chicken and the egg?

What is.

You don’t need to destroy the box, you simply have to open it. When the box is open, you can freely use its content, but are not restricted by it. You’re much closer to truth when you see without inner commentary. And this truth is fresh. It is creative.

Next time you need a creativity booster, stop whatever you’re doing. Including labeling and wanting. Close your eyes for a moment.

Then look at your hand, and see it. See it for real. The fingers and nails. The shapes. The lines and colors.

Really do it, and you’ll jump back where you belong. Outside the box.

Image credit: Eyedzard

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Gabriel Rocheleau

I'm a meditation teacher, writer and live to grow at all costs. I've been encouraged to teach by Upasaka Culadasa, author of "The Mind Illuminated" and my goal is to help you develop an effective and profoundly rewarding meditation practice.

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