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Getting Beyond the Box: Part I
For Creative Rebirth-Think Out of the Coffin
by Mark Gorkin, LICSW


"Thinking out of the box." What exactly are we talking about? Not being limited by obvious assumptions or expectations? Experimenting with problem solving steps that are untested or that are not necessarily logical or predictable? Perhaps mentally meandering along, if not jumping from, your paradigmatic edge? Or does it mean consciously and unconsciously weaving and unraveling till you've spun a conceptual web that catches those elusive and defiant bits (and bytes) of data and imagery?

So the first principal: there are many escape hatches as opposed to "one right way" out of the box. Yet, even when doing your headwork, heart work and homework, with bold liberating steps risks often lead rewards and fantasies partner with fear and frustration. Your worldview may need to be twirled around, if not turned upside down, to discover a heart that sings and a mind that dances out of the box.

The second principal also sounds an encouraging yet cautionary note: thinking is just the first step; one must also act and test out of the box, presenting ideas in a more public forum. Still, you now are grappling along the innovative edge. And remember, if you're not living on the edge-you're taking up too much (conceptual) space! So here are the Stress Doc's Out of the Box Skills and Strategies:
Part I for being dynamically balanced and "lean and keen":

1. Embrace Contradiction. Why might oppositional thinking or a capacity for embracing contradiction be intellectually and emotionally liberating? Consider this: Dr. Albert Rothenberg, a Yale research psychiatrist, found subjects who responded with more opposites or antonyms in a word association test - e.g., "wet" to the word "dry" or "fast" to the word "slow" - had higher scores on certain creative personality measures than subjects generating mostly synonyms or "original' responses. While his sample was small and the results can only be suggestive, why might there be a correlation between creativity and contradiction?

a) To think oppositionally reveals a willingness to challenge the conventional and the accepted or even "the authority." As von Oech noted in his classic on creativity, A Whack On the Side of the Head: "Sacred cows make great steaks."

b) Challenging the status quo, especially from a 180 degree opposite perspective creates a polar tension. If you are rigid or self-righteous, then the answer simply involves being right or wrong, productive or wasteful. One rarely sees shades of gray or discovers a higher-level perspective, for example, how the tension between thesis and antithesis can yield a creative synthesis. Years ago, I tried writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don't ask. ;-) One morning, shortly after my noble effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)-What was I doing trying to write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As the mist lifted, there-a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a catalyst for my pioneering psychologically humorous rap music. I was no longer just dreaming in the field of "Shrink Rap" (creative synthesis).

c) And finally, a comfort with contradiction often allows us to discover a paradoxical essence. To quote the artistic giant, Pablo Picasso: Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. (Guess sometimes you have to blow up the box.) So things that appear oppositional or contradictory may, in fact, have a complex or subtle relation that yields a higher truth. For example, do you know any maddening passive aggressive or "yes, butt" individuals? Maybe a little "tough love" (or my variations of TLC, "tough loving care" and "tender loving criticism") might straighten them out.

A New Yorker cartoon forever embedded the dangers of rigid non-oppositional thinking. A pompous looking publisher standing behind his power desk begins to chastise a humbly dressed, hat in hand Charles Dickens: "Really, Mr. Dickens-was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both!"

2. Reframe the Content and Context. The potent creative problem-solving tool of reframing generates new or unexpected ways of defining and designing or, even, marrying the components and character, the events and effects of ideas and images. For example, the French author, Edmund Rostand, upon turning 75, while gazing at his reflection declared: "Mirrors just aren't what they used to be!" And Mark Twain, while calling it wit, cleverly illustrated the surprising (and often amusing) essence of reframing: Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas, which before their union were not perceived to have any relation.

And when you can reframe both content (data or messages) and context (psychological, communicational and/or physical environment or conceptual envelope), you are definitely thinking and performing out of the box. A dozen years back, I was consulting with a federal court that was automating their record keeping process. Management had not solicited much input from employees directly impacted by the technical changes, especially involving a key administrative form. The employees were not just anxious about an uncertain future but were also angry for being bypassed in the decision-making and implementation process. And not surprisingly, there was passive group resistance to the change.

Memos and motivational exhortations were having minimal effect when I experienced that "out of the box" (actually, "out of the coffin") moment: "Let's have a forms funeral." This proved a lot more creative than a group gripe session. We gave employees a public forum for: a) mourning the loss of the old data processing system, b) expressing frustration with management's unilateral process and c) articulating concerns about the upcoming changes. This group grieving enabled folks to gradually and more objectively recognize the limitations of the old and the productive potential of the new. Now all levels in the organization acknowledged that the whole had to be part of the problem and part of the solution.

By shifting the content from critical top-down memos to bottom-up expression and by thinking and acting out of a reframed coffin context, a more cohesive and responsive Organizational Phoenix rose from the administrative ashes of unilateral decision making.

3. Find the Pass in the Impasse. Today's downsizing climate makes "out of the box" problem solving especially timely and critical. And ironically, sometimes, we must go deep inside the box in order to break out. Let me explain. One December, just before the holidays, I had become a political hatchet job casualty. The newly appointed leader believed his division no longer needed the team building services of the Stress Doc. (Was it a coincidence that three weeks before his appointment, in a meeting with IT contractors, I had to set limits on his intimidating micromanaging style?)

Missing my clients and our long-standing work, as well as concerned about finances and, in general, having a case of "Holiday Blues," I was moping around the house. Sitting in front of my AOL screen, mostly wasting time looking at personal ads or scrolling around websites, I finally admitted my avoidance pattern: a reluctance to explore "The Writer's Forum." Why bother. I probably wouldn't get published. And if my work were picked up, how many folks would actually eyeball it? Serious case of being boxed in by self-doubt and cynicism, not to mention narcissistic injury. (A not unlikely consequence of being rightsized or frightsized.)

Despite myself, I responded to a request for humor writing by a small electronic newsletter. The editor was excited, the publisher tentative. But I had the green light for 100-word stories. 100 words!!! Who can say anything meaningful in such a tight space? (Obviously, still stuck in a numbers box.) Somehow I did; sometimes you need to be pushed out of a comfort zone. And got good feedback from several readers. (Okay, the newsletter's high school contingent wanted me to walk the cyberplank for sullying their cyberjokes format.) But with a little confidence and some healthy calluses I contacted AOL's Online Psych mental health forum. They jumped at getting insightful and playful stories from their future "Online Psychohumorist" . An AOL Keyword followed: Stress Doc. And as they say, the rest is well, maybe not history-but, now, at least I'm a legend in my own mind!

So go deep into the heart of darkness and with hard work, a penchant for contradiction, a reframing touch, embracing both risk and support along with a bit of luck, you too may find some liberating light and lightness. It's a strategy that will help you break out of the box and-Practice Safe Stress!


Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc is the Internet's and America Online's "Online Psychohumorist". An experienced psychotherapist, "The Doc" is a nationally recognized speaker, and training and OD consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management, Reorganizational Change, Team Building and HUMOR! An expert advisor for www.AdviceZone.com and iVillage/allHealth, his writings are syndicated by iSyndicate.com and appear in a wide variety of online and offline forums and publications, including AOL/Online Psych and Business Know How, Mental Health Net, 4Therapy.com, HRHub.com, SelfhelpMagazine.com, Financial Services Journal Online, CONVENE (The Journal of the Professional Convention Management Assn.), OpportunityWorld and Counseling Today. Recently, he has been quoted and/or featured in such publications as Biography Magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Bloomberg Report/News, Forbes Magazine, FoxNews.com, Dallas Morning News and The Washington Flyer. The Doc also leads his national "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" for AOL/Digital City and WebMD.com. Check out his USA Today Online "Hotsite" Website -- www.stressdoc.com . For info on his workshops or for his free newsletter, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662. Fall 2000, look for Practice Safe Stress with the Stress Doc, published by AdviceZone.com .