Unboxing your thoughts

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A. R. Samson

Fence Sitter

Unboxing your thoughts

In 2014, the top YouTube sensation in the Philippines belonged to a video series of toys being unboxed by two sisters recorded and uploaded by their father. After that, other similar unboxing shows followed. One involved toy eggs being peeled of their layers to show what’s inside. This version got an unbelievable 35 million views.

Now, the term “unboxing” has become a digital event featuring the filming of new gadgets being taken out of the box for evaluation and review by a tech guru.

The progressive revelation of a desirable object through the peeling away of outer layers of covers has always offered a titillating pleasure — Okay, let’s not go there.

What is it about boxes being unwrapped that casts such fascination? Is it the same thrill felt when unwrapping gifts? The celebration of “boxing day” on Dec. 26 for example specifically commemorates the opening of Christmas gifts, in England where the special holiday came from. There are mad sales promos on boxing day in many countries. The theory perhaps is that you would buy what you didn’t get as a gift.

Boxes too have become part of the manager’s vocabulary.

Exhortations to “think out of the box” require throwing away old-fashioned solutions and adopting heretofore unthought-of approaches. Stepping out of the box is a favorite mantra of consultants. After all, if everybody is comfortable with current practices, is there a need for outsiders to offer 10 ways to think out of the box? (Do you really need a box?)

Companies are comfortable with boxes. It defines their comfort zones. The traditional hierarchical structure itself is an array of boxes connected by lines, both solid and dotted, to denote reporting relationships or the flow of information and decision making. Boxes define jobs to avoid redundancies and overlaps.

Ideas out of the box are automatically seen as novel and creative, even if they first seem outrageous and unworkable. Planning sessions have an exercise precisely to get people out of the mental rut they have traveled too predictably before.

Exercises in creativity (think of 25 uses for a paper clip) are supposed to unlock the left side of the brain. This parlor game allows blue-sky, off-the-wall, and far-out ideas to percolate. The facilitator nonchalantly lists down even the weirdest ideas. (Don’t laugh, that’s good — cheese holder; bra fastener; fake beard…what else can a paper clip be used for? Okay, temporarily holding pieces of paper together… anybody else?)

The phrase “out of the box” is based on a puzzle designed by the British mathematician, Henry Ernest Dudenay to connect nine dots to form a box by crossing all the dots, without lifting pencil from paper or retracing any lines. The solution involves drawing beyond the nine dots to complete the puzzle. Extending the line outside is a creative breaching of a presumed limitation.

Even when there was no stated requirement to stay within the space of the nine dots, most of those tested did not think of venturing out of bounds — unless they had encountered this puzzle before.

There is only one rule for out-of-the-box thinking: if it is not explicitly forbidden, it is considered allowed. Sometimes, even stated rules can be broken — they’re already passé and should be changed.

The opposite of thinking outside the box is being “boxed in.” The latter refers to a sense of limits that turns us into creatures of habit and orthodox thinking.

In computer software terms, however, an application “out of the box” is one that is readily available to install and use without further modification. This other meaning ironically refers to a routine approach. It is similar to off-the-rack or ready-to-wear. It is the default setting that requires no further tinkering.

Can being out-of-the-box also imply lunacy? A maverick posture does not necessarily contribute to team play. Being out of the box can mean being unhinged, out of whack, the odd man out, undisciplined, a cowboy going off by himself into the sunset. (Is he on the same page?)

Thinking out of the box has its downside. It often requires a reality check. Straying too far away from the nine dots of life may mean not being able to get back to the box.


A. R. Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.