“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” – Erich Fromm

My wife and I were recently talking about creativity and where it comes from.  “Outside The Box Thinking” has been a popular catchphrase for my entire professional life. I’ve heard it used in articles and interviews, read about it in case studies of companies across multiple industries. In fact, one of the best compliments I have received was when a colleague told me that I didn’t even know that there was a box. At least, I think that was meant as a compliment.

Think about this, though; BOXES don’t occur naturally. I can’t think of or find a single example of a natural box. Can you?

We make boxes. Fancy boxes that sometimes become keepsakes, like jewelry boxes, even iPhone boxes, for some people. And plain boxes that we knock down and recycle.

We also create our mental boxes. The limits of our imaginations, the limits of our creativity, come from within or are imposed by our environment.

Sometimes creative thinkers don’t do well in highly structured organizations unless they create those organizations. Edison, Einstein, Jobs and Gates (the Mount Rushmore of Innovation) would likely have become frustrated in the corporate world if they hadn’t charted their own paths. Consider this, Thomas Edison was fired from his first two jobs for low productivity. The individual who gave us the light bulb and the phonograph (to name but two) was fired for low productivity.

In a 1999 interview in Entrepreneur, Bill Gates described Microsoft’s hiring and HR philosophy as looking for the brightest people available and then providing lots of stimuli to keep them engaged. Creative thinkers tend to get labeled as dissatisfied, or troublemakers because they  see the flaws in the system and desperately want to fix them.

Creating a culture where people can be creative starts with freedom. Freedom to challenge, experiment, and play. The freedom to be wrong. I once read that Edison failed 1,000 times before he developed a light bulb that worked.

Creative cultures also require support. Support through success and failure. Support for those who would work for continuous improvement. Think about the constant free updates from Apple that keep improving the experience of their users.

So let’s stop asking people to think outside the box.  Let’s knock down the boxes we create, the boxes that restrain free thought and conversation and progress.  Let’s put those boxes on the curb for recycling, something good might come from them.

Creativity isn’t an either or proposition, it is a both-and proposition.

Once our self-imposed boxes are banished, then we can create truly amazing things.


This post originally appeared on LinkedIn on July 1, 2016

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