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Thinking Outside The Box

Creativity isn’t the domain of only a few. It is actually the birthright of every human being. Somewhere between youth and adulthood, most of us have learned how to add fear and worry to the burden of life on our shoulders, and we lose our creative edge.

Creativity is inborn and any casual observance of children anywhere at play, reveals how creative we all truly are. Yet in that transition to mature adulthood, one of the reasons we often stifle our creativity in favor of being excessively concerned about “making it” in life is because we have forgotten how to play.

Brian Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity Of Play informs us that play-like activities invite us into a domain where we are given permission to fail. That permission to fail releases us into a world of possibilities where we become as children again and imagine “what if” and then act “as if”.

This kind of “what if” thinking is the exact opposite of the negative inefficient “what if” thinking that feeds anxiety and worry. This kind of “what if” thinking invites us to think outside the box of our perceived paradigms of reality and explore territories we don’t normally give ourselves permission to explore.

Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, we adopt an anxiety-driven “what if” thinking that stifles our ability to playfully imagine some “what if’s” that are rooted in what lies beyond the realm of what we have perceived as possible. “What if” thinking from a root of anxiety constrains us and restrains us into a limited and limiting existence. It reduces us to survival mode thinking and can often lead to “playing” the role of being a victim, having believed that life itself is victimizing.

Sutton-Smith reminds us that play involves entering the realm of Victor Turner’s “liminal space” because it requires crossing that “threshold between reality and unreality”[1]. Ironically, for adults, entering liminal space, which requires crossing thresholds, always involves some level of anxiety, because you have to step outside the box of your preferred paradigm, and think in alternative ways. However, if you give yourself permission to fail, your psychological state will change in favor of curiosity, discovery, and new learning.

It seems to me that creativity and play, which requires thinking outside the box and then acting outside the box, can elicit intuition at a new level in our lives. Intuition is that instinctive knowing where you become aware of something without have to discover it or even perceive it. You just “feel” it and that “feeling” at a gut level is actually a “knowing”. It could be linked and connected to Micahel Polayni’s “tacit knowing”, which in his work “The Tacit Dimension” as well as in “Personal Knowledge” is a kind of knowing and a kind of knowledge that is quite difficult to transfer to someone else by way of describing it or verbalizing it. If you were to ask Barry Bonds to describe how he actually hit 762 home runs in his career to become the greatest home-run hitter of all time, the chances are he couldn’t describe it to you. He just “felt” the connection between the ball and the bat that was a “knowing” as to how to put the ball out of the park. He “played” with the bat and the ball. Intuitively he felt something.

It isn’t a whole lot different than when I lived in Calgary in the early 1980’s and saw that north of us in Edmonton, on the hockey team of the Edmonton Oilers, there was a young Wayne Gretzky, who was gaining momentum and fame because of his success on the ice. One night on the Canadian Broadcasting Network he was being interviewed, and the commentator asked him what the secret of his success on the ice was. Gretzky replied in that now famous response, “I don’t play to where the puck is, I play to where the puck is going to be!”

Think about that for a minute. Given that there are 12 men on the ice, and that there is one puck that travels each time it is hit at about 120 plus miles per hour, and the mathematics of how many directions that puck could take, how could Gretzky know where the puck was “going to be”? He didn’t have time to figure it out mathematically, or logically. He had to go outside the box of his normal thinking patterns, and elicit his intuition playfully, and know in his knower, if at all possible, the future before it arrived. Not only did he have to know it, he had to act on it and go to the future ahead of everyone else, and ahead of the puck itself so it could meet him in the future he already “knew” was headed his way. He was “playful” in his imagination!

Gretzky, like Bonds, “knew” something because they thought “outside the box” of rational, logical, sequential, analytical thought. So what about you and me? How do we learn how to play and release our creativity in our own sphere and domain of life?

It was Albert Einstein who said, “There are two ways to live your life – one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.” Start living and thinking as if everything is a miracle. What have you got to lose? Be playful! In a day of complexity, uncertainty, challenge, change, and high stress and anxiety, eliciting your intuition is more needed than ever. Innovation and creativity require you learning how to give yourself permission to play again. You know how to play. You have to learn how to give yourself permission to do so. You have to cross a threshold and enter liminal space, outside the realm of your predictable comfort zone (which is rarely comfortable when it is filled with stress and anxiety).

Kids play because they easily accept randomness and chaos as their playing field. If Einstein taught us anything, it was that things are not as they appear. He was actually quite playful in his journey and it was his playful intuition and imagination that led to the discovery of E=mc2. The mathematics came after his playful imagination, not before.

There is a leap of faith you need to make in this current culture if you are to become innovative and creative. You have to be willing to become childlike all over again and learn how to play in an imaginary world. You have to stop seeing the world the way you think it operates and start seeing the world the way it really operates. You can’t do that until you step outside the box, think outside the box, and act outside the box!

[1] Brian Sutton-Smith. The Ambiguity Of Play, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 1

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