Sunday, May 8, 2011

Thinking outside the box

In medieval times, some thought the world was flat and others correctly subscribed to the idea of a spherical world. At that time, there was perhaps a lot of speculation about what lay beyond the vast seas. Discovering the new world involved thinking outside the box. The modern world as we know it today would not exist if Christopher Columbus did not think outside the box. Since that time, man has not only discovered and accounted for every square inch of land on earth, but also has landed robotic rovers on the surface of our neighbouring planet, Mars. Every innovation that has translated into the everyday conveniences of modern life, such as cellphones and microwaves, that we take for granted, is the result of someone thinking outside the box. A lot of people have great ideas, but only a few actually take the leap of faith to turn an idea into something that is tangible and useful. 

As children grow up, they have to constantly think outside the box. They learn new skills everyday that help them transition from crawling to walking. Each stage of development requires a different set of mental and physical skills. Children are constant innovators. As they physically grow, their mental capacity also increases exponentially. They are not afraid to experiment and they don’t dwell on past failures. Everything is new and exciting to a child. As children grow into adults and fear of failure sets in, something stops. Their innovating and experimenting minds brake to a halt. A large majority take a safe, well marked path and settle into a predictable life. This approach to life can lead to stagnation, disappointments and regrets about what ifs later on in life.

Fear is what limits people and makes them take a safe, easy approach to life. Thinking outside the box involves some element of fearlessness. As you approach any task, there are three states of mind based on the presence or absence of fear. As an example, take traveling to different parts of the world, to the moon and to mars.

The first state of mind is the fear of disrupting the status quo or the fear of failure, which makes people stay on a safe, predictable path. This can be compared to traveling to different parts of the world. People don’t fear much about traveling to other parts of the world, as there is a defined path to get you back to your home base. You set the course of your life and confine it within certain boundaries.

The second is a mixture of fear and fearlessness. For example, traveling to the moon requires a fair amount of fearlessness on the part of the astronauts, but there will surely always be some element of fear as they leave earth’s atmosphere. This second state of mind requires the ability of one to experiment with new ideas while maintaining some sense of predictability.

The third state of mind is fearlessness. Assuming humankind has developed the technology to put man on mars, the first people to do this need to be absolutely fearless. A rare few approach life in this way. These are people who truly think outside the box. If Bill Gates feared dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft, it is hard to imagine how I would be communicating my ideas instantaneously to people not in my physical proximity. Of course, not every “outside the box idea” translates into success. The idea also needs to be the right one at the right time.

Ideas that garner worldly success involve pursuing thought patterns that go against traditional mindsets. Successful ideas give the originator of the idea and the people that benefit from these ideas much happiness. To partake in this form of happiness that we derive from material objects usually requires resources in the form of money. Not everyone with money is happy and not everyone without money is unhappy. Happiness and unhappiness are both different states of mind. In everything we do, we strive to either achieve happiness or avoid unhappiness. In other words, our minds gravitate towards objects that give us a sense of happiness and away from things that create a sense of unhappiness. Happiness and unhappiness can be measured in terms of the relative attraction or repulsion of the mind to and from objects. These two states of mind are two sides of the same coin (mind). In reality, they are both the same thing, only the viewpoint differs. If the mind is a box, the boundaries of all the happiness and unhappiness we see in the world today are confined in this box. We all know that one cannot be happy all the time or unhappy all the time.

Now thinking outside the box, is there a state where there is neither happiness or unhappiness? What would it be like to go beyond the mental states of happiness or unhappiness? Just as a child who crawls sees the world differently from a child who has learnt to climb and run, the world would appear very different when you go from a state of relative happiness or unhappiness to a state beyond this. It takes a great deal of fearlessness to transcend the familiar confines of happy and sad states of mind that you are normally accustomed to. The first step involves refraining from running towards what makes you happy and preventing yourself from trying to run away from what makes you unhappy. This helps you develop a sense of neutrality to these two states of mind. Since the idea of being neither happy or unhappy does not fit into a traditional mental state, you are now treading outside the box (mind). The further you delve into this the idea, the more you see yourself as a witness to the workings of the mind. In this state of being a witness, you don’t stop thinking or generating ideas. As a dispassionate witness, you can then dive deep within looking for next great idea that may change the world. If that idea does indeed make a world of difference, keeping yourself outside the box (mind) will help you from being sucked into relative states of happiness derived from succumbing to the praises and accolades showered on you by the world. More importantly, if your ideas don’t come to fruition or you don’t get worldly praise, you will not be unhappy. Remember, you are just a witness thinking outside the box.