learning to think outside the box

Remember that well-used piece of advice to “think outside the box”? It’s practically a cliché by now. I guess most people realize that there is sense in it, but don’t quite know what it’s supposed to mean or how to go about it. I can’t tell you either. I can tell you, however, that I’m starting to learn what it means for me and boy, is it different from what I thought it meant!

During the time I was living in London, about a year ago now, I was looking for work and spending most of my time martyring my brain to hit upon a solution – to my life, to finding work, to earning enough money to be independent… I felt for days at a time that the answer was just on the tip of my tongue and I couldn’t *quite* reach it, but maybe if I thought about it just a little bit harder, wrote some more in my journal, drew up some more plans, I would reach it. I was telling myself and my friends constantly that I just had to find a way to think outside the box, to not look at things in the conventional way. And nothing happened. In the end, I had to pack up my stuff and move back to my parents, with nothing achieved and nothing gained.

I’ve come to the realization that the box I was trying to think outside of, and the box I should have thought outside of, were two different ones. While I was ripping out planks of one box, the other and more important one stood untouched. And I didn’t even know it was there.

The box I was taking apart bit by bit was the one that the society, the place and the time in which I grew up put me in. I was trying to find new approaches to how to find work. I was trying to find new approaches of the kind of work I could do and wanted to do. I tried to think from different perspectives. I tried to use the (necessarily very much) free time that I had to write, but couldn’t concentrate because I was worried about where next month’s rent was going to come from and then tried to look at that problem in a different way. I was really hard on myself and tried to push through to that elusive solution and got nowhere.

Since being back with my family, in the home of my childhood, I’ve been .. well, lazy. Especially the last two months. I’m applying to work, but not excessively. I’m writing, but not very much. I walk the dog, I cook for those family members that are here, I do household chores, I drive my grandma to various doctors or to go shopping. I don’t socialize much, I don’t go out, I live a very retired life. The days go by. A while ago, a very good and wise friend told me that our society didn’t rate lethargy high enough. That being lazy was a necessary germination period. I told her that I had it up to here with lethargy and this germination period of mine had been going on for long enough, that things had to change. I want to apologize now for being slightly flippant about her theory and not accepting her words with an open mind. Because lately, they have started to make sense, and very, very slowly, things are coming together.

The change has been subtle – so very subtle that I couldn’t put my finger on it for days. Yesterday, the right words to name the process blossomed in my head: I am learning to think outside the box. Very surprised, I looked inside me to try and see where that thought was coming from and it led me back to various experiences in the past weeks and months. I suddenly understood that the box that I’m working on now, working on so very gently and fluently, is not the one constructed by society, but the one constructed by myself.

This box has enormous power over me, because most of the time, I’m not even aware of its existence, yet it’s there all the time, in the background, influencing every choice I make. This box – my box – is made up of different things. There are past experiences and there are expectations I have of myself. There are expectations that I imagine others to have of me. There is fear, and insecurity, and that nasty little voice that keeps whispering: ‘You won’t succeed anyway, so why even try?’ Worst of all: There are assumptions I have made about myself my whole life long, and that are so entwined with me that most of the time I don’t know anymore if they are fact or fiction.

An example: I’ve always assumed that I’m a chaotic person. My desk is usually covered with things – papers, pens, computer cables, letters, bills, documents, books, a used teacup, pretty stones or shells, a calender, … You get the picture. I’m not very neat and tidy. So I must be a chaotic person. Clear, right? But now I’ve begun to doubt that assumption. I’ve remembered that when I feel blue or when I feel ill with a bad cold or a flu, the first thing I do is to straighten up my room. Everything needs to be clean and tidy before I can start feeling better. I’ve also realized that in digital spaces, I’m highly organized. My music collection, my photos, my writing documents – everything is very, very organized and I need to be able to find everything at a moment’s notice. I’ve also noticed that I spend quite a bit of time thinking how to organize, group and/or categorize things, starting from craft material to books, to folders both physical and digital, and so on. So maybe this assumption that I’m a chaotic person is wrong? It almost feels like a betrayal to even think it, let alone write it out, but it’s certainly true that the facts and the fiction are not congruous.

I could give you more examples, but I think you understand already. There are two results of this assumption – I’ve put an unnecessary limit on myself and because of that, I’ve not had the achievements I hoped, waited and wished for. I blocked myself by believing something about myself that is now turning out to not be true!

I’m starting to adjust and experiment with the new bits and pieces of knowledge about myself that are slowly surfacing. The results so far are encouraging. Of course, I’m still in the beginning of this process. It’s slow and not always perceptible. It feels more like a continental drift than like an earthquake.

The really staggering thought, however, is this: What else don’t I know about myself? And who will I be when I fully let go of who I think I am?

Have you experienced this? Did you find it as frightening and liberating as I’m starting to feel? And is a year and a half of germination period really necessary to learn things about yourself?


About wordsurfer

writer, ex-teacher, human rights believer & fighter, traveller, adventure-seeker, freedom lover, global citizen. big on daydreams, less so on reality.

Posted on December 16, 2012, in day-to-day and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. free penny press

    I can relate to this on many levels.. It can be frightening almost like a person set free to run wild at a county fair.. never sure which way to go because everything looks and feels so new & exciting.. Just allow yourself to go and you will know when you get there..
    Yes, we all need to tear down our boxes..
    Much enjoyed this post!!

    • Thank you so much! 🙂
      It’s really crazy when things start to happen when you least expect them to and have stopped trying to make them happen. As if knowledge is just waiting for you to relax…

  2. When our kids were 7, 5, and 3, we moved to Britain, sort of on a whim; husband called from work, said there were jobs in England, should he apply for one, and I said sure! That began an eleven-year odyssey of living outside the box, but like you, it sort of crept up on us. Now I can’t imagine living my life according to accepted norms, which I don’t mean to come off as ‘Oh, aren’t I eccentric’, only in that both my husband and I often feel like the odd ones out.

    And it’s so nice. 🙂

    It takes time to find one’s rhythms, and it’s not being lazy. People seem to put a great effort on boxes ticked off, lists, that sort of thing. But that’s a relatively new-ish sort of development in the grand scheme, time-wise. I think a year and a half isn’t really all that long; all of those eleven years in the UK were vital to who I am today; the writing didn’t just spring out of the woodwork. Not everyone has those ‘I’m going to be a doctor/dentist/lawyer when I grow up’ sort of dreams, or those kinds of lives. The liberty to explore and experiment and just BE seems to be lost in this hustle-bustle-smart phone world. Kudos to you for letting things unwind as they have. Such a wonderful post!

    • I was wondering what brought you to England – I love that you did it on a whim! That’s totally fabulous. And what a great experience for your children! I guess they feel more English than American now, after growing up there?

      It’s true what you say about having a clear life goal – I used to envy those people who just knew what they wanted and could go for it without getting distracted by every influence that came their way, but now I think it must be so boring (although more safe, in a way), and it’s so much better and more fun to explore the side paths. That kind of ambling pace isn’t really appreciated by most people though. It feels really good to have people like you, that do things in a similar way, it feels less alone!

  3. lifeonwry.com

    Love this post. I totally get it. I just wish mine wasn’t so on again, off again. But I guess that’s just how it works and I should go with it.

    • I know what you mean. I have these moments of absolute clarity, when everything seems so simple and straightforward and then it just fades away again. I think, like you say, that that’s just how it is. Unfortunately.
      However, being aware of those moments is really important! 🙂

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