The children in my family have a long-standing gift-opening tradition. After excitedly ripping away the paper on the giant something-or-other our parents painstakingly tracked down, funded and gift-wrapped just for us, we marvel at our new possession for the requisite seventeen seconds – then we set it aside and climb inside the giant box it came in.
Our family albums house decades of evidence that no Barbie Dream House nor Big Wheel nor Strawberry Shortcake Kitchenette were any match for the wondrous potential of cardboard and non-biodegradable Styrofoam. Larger boxes transformed into lemonade stands, forts, and rocket ships. Smaller boxes became doll furniture and homemade board games. I once turned a shoe box into a old-school version of Match.com – put a dollar into one slot and pull the name of your true love out of another (thanks to my gullible third grade classmates I made thirty-six dollars of seed money to fund my cardboard lemonade stand startup.) Being inside the box was the most imaginative place to be.
With that history in mind, the time-honored challenge of “think outside the box!” has never sat right with me. From professors to colleagues to magazine editors-in-chief, this clichéd advice is offered at every turn. In their minds, “the box” is the armpit of human inspiration, some black hole where creativity goes to die. I disagree; and the proof of “inside the box” excellence is abundant:
Jack: For generations, this ghoulish feetless creature has been surprising children over and over with his terrifyingly delightful routine. They know what’s on the verge when they hear that last strained “do do do do do” and the box begins to creaks ever-so-slightly – poised to pop that freaky little devil. But do they stop? Do they get bored? Nope – they squeal in glee and Mr. In-the-Box does an encore.
Pandora: While she certainly wasn’t gifted with the virtues of willpower or restraint, Pandora can surely attest to the beauty of leaving well enough alone. She should have a chat with those dummies on Big Brother.
FedEx: Much like the wonder inspired by that wrapped birthday gift, the power of the FedEx box is immense. Just ask any freshman in college or Tom Hanks in Castaway. And in both cases, sometimes leaving all that wonder in the box – unopened – is better than whatever happens to be inside. (This advice from a once-freshman who, anticipating homemade cookies, instead received a copy of her will. Thanks Grandma.)
Elementary School Teachers: If every Valentine’s Day, grade school children across the land were given a glue stick and some glitter and told “think outside the box,” it would be anarchy. Providing the foundation of Mom’s Nine West shoebox doesn’t limit creativity – it focuses it.
Milton Bradley: I like to imagine that once upon a yesteryear, Mr. Bradley and the Parker Brothers signed a treaty decreeing all family leisure games take the form of board-in-box. Connect Four nearly started an unnecessary revolution.
Street Performers: Ever see a mime inside an imaginary sphere?
Crayola: If you want to color your sky “blue,” there’s a box for that. If you want to color your sky “sky blue,” there’s a box for that. If you want to color your sky “cerulean,” there’s a box for that too. The true visionaries just get a bigger box. Don’t get me started on coloring outside the lines.
While I realize that without outside-the-box thinking we wouldn’t have the Pyramids of Giza or or The Eiffel Tower or Jell-O Jigglers, I believe that facing obstacles, challenges, constraints and limitations unleashes incredible innovation. So I vote we keep the box. Besides, it makes everything so much easier to wrap.
Help me make my case: what’s the coolest thing you ever made from a box?