Think INSIDE The Box
To Balance Creativity and Accomplishment

We're frequently encouraged to "Think outside the box!" Experts assure us that unrestrained thinking will force our creative juices to flow, unleashing a flood of new ideas and inspirations. But take this advice too much to heart, and you may find yourself generating more ideas but less success.

As a writer and editor, I've interviewed and worked with hundreds of writers, photographers and artists. Time after time, I've seen wildly talented people fail to complete creative work, fail to take advantage of opportunities, fail to reach career goals because "thinking outside the box" holds them back. These people become so used to letting their minds wander that they can't fence their thoughts in long enough to follow directions or meet deadlines.

I saw "thinking outside the box" disease in full display at a workshop designed to help writers apply for a grant. Professionals from the grant organization were on hand to explain what makes a grant application successful. They spoke of the importance of being able to describe yourself and your work in two or three sentences. They explained the value of articulating one well-developed idea or project the grant money would allow you to pursue. And they went through the grant application, line by line, explaining how vital it was to answer each question and follow directions exactly. Then they asked for questions.

One by one, nearly half the people attending the workshop stood and explained why they could not follow these simple steps. Each felt they were the special exception to the rule. One fellow didn't want to provide the required 3x5 photo. He preferred, he said, to submit a digital slideshow that gave a more well-rounded look at him. When the grant professional explained that the grant committee would only look at the requested material, the man said, "That so restricting. It isn't fair to people like me that think outside the box!"

A woman swore she couldn't describe herself and her work in two or three sentences. "I do all sorts of things!" she wailed. "I write poetry and short stories as well as I write technical manuals. I also do my own photography and web site design, and I'm great at research. My problem is, I do so many things. I can't be reduced to a couple of sentences."

Why, the instructor asked, was she applying for a grant? Her answer was that she needed to fund some time to "get her act together," to figure out what she really wanted to do, since even with all her talents she wasn't making a living. Look at it another way, and what she was really asking for was someone to pay her to sit down for a while and think INSIDE the box. She intuitively understood that in order to move ahead in her life and career, she needed to set some boundaries for herself, to narrow her options as well as her focus.

Boxes serve a very useful purpose. They set limits and help us sort out the world. A frame around a picture, for instance, stops our eyes from wandering all over the wall. The frame helps us narrow our focus long enough to really perceive and appreciate the art within its boundaries. By the same token, a box like "The deadline is next Tuesday" helps the writer perceive their goal, plan their time effectively, narrow the focus of their attention and get to work.

The worst editor I ever had was a woman that did not want any limits in her life. She worshiped the idea of thinking outside the box. When I'd ask how many words she wanted on an assignment, she'd say 'I don't believe in limiting the creative mind. Write. And when you're done writing, you'll know it."  Without any guidelines, I floundered. I couldn't plan my time. Should I keep my calendar open for 800 words, or eight thousand? I couldn't limit my research. And I couldn't finish my work. (Neither could she. Issues were not published on schedule, subscriptions were not honoured and the magazine inevitably failed.)

In contrast, an editor that gives me clear, direct boundaries like "Write 800 word about tuna salad by the end of the month," allows me to calculate how long it will take me to research and write those 800 words, plan my calendar and write to the point. With limits, my thoughts are focused and my writing is sharper. I have a sense of purpose as I work, and a sense of completion when I finish.

There is certainly a time for thinking outside the box. As a creative professional, I know that I must give myself adequate time to daydream, to ask "what if" questions, to wonder about things both silly and sublime. I also know that I must give myself adequate time for thinking inside the box, for defining goals, limiting options, setting deadlines and narrowing the field. By balancing the two, I find both freedom and discipline, both security and surprise. The box, after all, has an inside and an outside, a ying and a yang. Pushing yourself always to think outside the box leads to unbalanced work and an unbalanced life. Exploring and appreciating the entire box leads to satisfaction and success.

About the author
Bonnie Boots is an award-winning writer and designer who says all writers should show off their talent by wearing their Write Side Out!