Thinking outside the box is a maxim that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? Some people might say it means breaking rules. I think it means innovation and synergy. It means taking what might appear to be disparate concepts, tossing them together, and seeing what happens. It means taking a look at a problem from a completely new perspective. It means considering that there is no right or wrong answer, just infinite possibilities and choices, some of which will lead you in one diretions, others down a totally different path.

Some people naturally think “outside the box”. They come up with ideas that seem off beat, kooky, funny, original. They aren’t looking for just an answer- they are looking for spectacular. I have a paperweight that says “An Original is Hard To Find, But Easy To Recognize.” This is the “Oh, Wow! Neat-o!” moment. The thing that catches your attention for its originality and novel approach. But it’s also hard to be “original”, particularly on demand. Is there a trick to it?

Think about how much easier it is to use a phillips head screwdriver than a regular screwdriver on a phillips head screw. It can be done, but not as quickly or efficiently. Sometimes the right tool makes a job so much easier, you can;t imagine what life was like beforehand. Take reading for kids. Once you know how to read, your life is fundamentally different than it was before, and you can’t go back to a time when you didn’t know how to read, at least without major brain trauma.
Kids with LD often need what we refer to as a toolbox- a set of skills and tools they can use to approach a novel problem. A set of strategies, so that if one doesn’t work, they just merely grab another intellectual wrench out of the box and try again. Most people have their own personalized set of intellectual tools they have developed and invented on their own. Sometimes being shown a new tool by a friend opens up a whole new world of possibilities and opportunities- work can get done more efficiently, better than ever before- now that you finally have the right tool for the job.

So in order to “think outside the box,” you need to use your whole toolbox, even the wrenches and hammers and screwdrivers you never thought you could use in this way before. Consider:

1. You are a summation of your life experiences to date. There’s no rule that says you can’t use what you learned in freshman psychology to your current work situation. You need to be able to apply what you learned in Area A to Area B. I use my undergrad studies in biology as a framework to think about how people act and develop. Add psychology classes, and my law degree, and you end up bringing disparate skills sets together in a way that makes me a perfect blend for producing my podcast on Learning Disabilities. It requires an understanding of how people tick, how the law structures what services kids can get to help them in school, and a logic and discipline that come equally from the exactness of science and the reasoning required in the law.

2. Don’t Assume Something is a Waste of Your Time. I have gotten some great ideas from really odd situations. I can take the problems someone is having and try to find a new approach, a new order, a new solution that at the very least, offers a different possibility to consider. I wrote about a friend who was considering buying a small business. After we dissected why she wanted to do this and did what amounted to a business autopsy, she decided she would try to work for the business for a few months, to see whether or not it was a good fit for her. (A suggestion we discussed). A much better plan than jumping off the financial cliff into business ownership, without preparation. You could contend this might have seemed like a waste of my time, but it presented an opportunity to really look at a business objectively, pros and cons, without bias. It gave me not only an opportunity to help a friend, and as it turns out, she might help me complete the long-stalled book project, so it ended up being win-win for us both- something I did not anticipate.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Try the Router. You never know when a new tool or strategy will really help. Whether it’s using gmail, or having learned the quick mental math to figure out percentage discounts, you never know when a new tool will come in handy. Collect them, even the odd ones, (well, keep expense in mind) because you never know when you’ll need it. Or at least know which one of your friends has those tools, so you can borrow it or get a recommendation when you need it. (There are many people I rely on for this role, including the Mac Ninja, Chris Penn.) This is when twitter is really useful- crowd sourcing problems to friends.

4. The Answer You Seek is in Another Section of the Bookstore. The interesting thing here is a concept I read about initially from CS Lewis many years ago- he has a great book all about the things he learned on his way to looking up other things. Follow your curiosity, and don’t be afraid to look in other topic areas for answers. My favorite example of this is that most management books apply equally to parenting children as they do to employees and vice versa. You can learn more about getting your children to be responsible, maximize their achievement and the like from Marcus Buckingham as you can from T. Berry Brazelton or Dr. Mel Levine. And at the heart of the matter, many of the concepts are the same. The business language of “Finding Your Strengths” is the same as finding “Islands of Competence” for kids as suggested by Dr. Mel Levine. And should we really be so surprised? If you can teach and manage children, adults are easy by comparison. If you can capture the attention of a room full of fifth graders with your story telling, presenting to a conference room full of executives is essentially the same.

5. Simplify Down to the Core. Many problems become so much easier to solve if you take a reductionist approach. Ask yourself- what is my goal here? What is the bare minimum, and what is the “Lexus” version of things? What do I want versus what do I need? Can I make do with Good enough? It’s like my friend Jen says- You can have it Cheap, Fast or Perfect- Choose two. You can get it cheap and perfect, but it’s gonna take a while lot longer. You can get it faster and perfect, but it’s gonna cost you. A lot. Or you can choose Cheap and fast, but perfection is not gonna be there.

Thinking outside the box takes a willingness to use every tool in the box if need be. Don’t assume it’s one size fits all, or that your lunch with a friend is pleasant but a waste of time, or that the idea that flashes while on the phone is crap- write it down and see what happens- it may be a tool you’re going to need a little farther on down the path. Grab those tools from all over your life, and apply as needed. Cross pollinate. It works.