Has “Thinking Outside the Box” become a cliche?

“Once we create a comfort zone, we rarely step outside of that comfort zone.  But the consequence of that is a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. Overstimulation to the same kind of thing, the same stimuli, again and again and again, renders said stimuli invisible.  Your brain has already mapped it in its own head and you know longer literarily have to be engaged in it.”  – Performance Philosopher, Jason Silva

As a commercial copywriter, I find this concept extremely interesting.  When it comes to advertising, everyone expresses that they’re looking for something “really different”.  Something that will “stand out” and “catch people’s attention”.  But in truth, stepping outside their comfort zone is uncomfortable.  So they invariably revert back to what is safe and (in their minds) “proven”. 

Think Outside the Box

I’m not in any way saying we should reinvent the wheel.  But if the original concept had not been improved upon, I think it’s safe to assume we’d still be riding around in a horse and buggy.

We’ve all heard stories of people considered to be at the top of their game who were rejected time after time.  We all sit back and think “I bet so-and-so at such-and-such company is really kicking themselves.”  But rather than shut down and beat themselves up over a lost opportunity, shouldn’t they be opening their minds to the myriad of amazing talent just waiting to be discovered, ideas begging to be brought to fruition, and dreams sitting on the cusp of realization?  Instead of focusing on those who missed the boat, why not turn our attention to the people who recognized the brilliance of the idea and had the courage to take the leap?  THAT’S where the lesson is.

Maybe it’s time to admit that the proverbial wheel (along with all its clichés) has seen its day.  The next time we ask someone to “think outside the box”, perhaps we should take a moment and ask ourselves how far outside that box we’re willing to travel.


Let’s say you’re asked to come up with an idea.  I brainstorm all the time, so this is fun to me.  Here’s where it gets sticky.  There is no solidified brand, no positioning statement, no mission outlined, no target market established, no concept at all of the message intended for the potential audience.  Believe it or not, telling a creative mind that you’ll “know it when you see it” is actually more restrictive than approaching them with at least a general idea of what you’re looking for.  It does no good at all to give someone supposed “free reign” and allow them “creative expression”, only to shoot them down over and over again with a simple “I don’t know what I want, but I don’t want THAT.”  Now, I have had a very small selection of clients over the years who have allowed me to just run with an idea and been very happy with it.  But that is a VERY small group.

Getting back to the concept of a “comfort zone”, we all have them.  They’re necessary, or we would have no boundaries and no social code with regard to propriety.  Having said that, my boundaries are certainly different from yours, which in turn will be different from your neighbours, and so on.  You may find that you have to adjust your comfort zone in order to speak to those you’re trying to reach.  Otherwise you risk alienating your audience or worse.  Having them tune out altogether.  If you can’t manage the adjustments necessary, perhaps you need to rethink your entire game plan.

So, before telling someone to “think outside the box”, be sure that you are both on the same page with regard to the size, shape, and flexibility of that box.  Otherwise you’ll soon find that you’re each speaking a completely different language.

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