We all like to believe that we can “think outside the box”—that is come up with imaginative solutions to problems, unconstrained by conventional wisdom. But what is that “box” outside of which we like to think? A recent “Says You!” radio show (heard nationwide on many public stations) asked its panel if they knew the origin of the phrase. The panel opined valiantly, trying to relate it to the box-like cubicles standard in offices today.
Host Richard Sher, however, provided the answer: the term relates to the imaginary square formed by nine dots lined up in three rows in a puzzle known, not surprisingly, as “the nine-dot puzzle.” The challenge is to connect all nine dots with four straight lines, without lifting your pencil (or pen, if you’re really sure of yourself). The only way to accomplish the feat is to draw the lines beyond the boundaries of the imaginary “box.”
The question of who first used the term “think outside the box” is not so easy to pin down. The puzzle itself has been around at least since 1914, when it appeared in Cyclopedia of 5,000 Puzzles by Sam Lloyd, an American chess champion. It may have been devised by Lloyd’s frequent collaborator, Henry Dudeney, an English puzzle wonk. Lots of hotshot management consultants now claim to have originated the phrase “thinking outside the box” (to describe their own genius compared to their hopelessly dopey clients) sometime in the 1970s, but no one can really say for sure who thought of it first.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who does most of his thinking inside a large packing crate filled with excelsior, reacts as follows:
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Liked to think outside the box.
And then for lunch he’d munch a bagelSmeared with cream cheese and some lox.