What Does It Mean to “Think Outside the Box”? The Metaphor Explained

, Linguistics & Brand Editor
Updated December 8, 2022
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Let's be frank, we've all been asked to "think outside the box" at some point. From the office to the classroom, this is one of those phrases you just can't escape (unlike the "box," hopefully!). Step right in as we discuss what this phrase means and how it’s used.

Meaning of "Think Outside the Box"

The phrase think outside the box is what you would call an idiom, or an expression that is not translated literally but has its own unique meaning. In this case, there isn’t a literal “box” to step out of here. 

Instead, think outside the box means “to think about something in a different, unusual, or innovative way.” 

In other words, leave those traditional or conventional ideas behind, and bring in the creative ones. The more unconventional, the better! (Usually.)


Where Does “Think Outside the Box” Come From?

It turns out that this phrase seems to have originated in the early 1970s to describe how to solve a popular dot puzzle. Wait, a dot puzzle? You probably know the one, with a 3x3 square of nine dots and the challenge to connect all the dots using only 4 lines. The earliest known phrase used to describe the solution was to “think outside the dots,” which quickly evolved into the “box.”

The idea, of course, was that in order to solve the puzzle, your lines have to extend beyond the borders of the nine dots. Similarly, to “think outside the box” is to push your ideas beyond the usual limitations or boundaries of a situation to come up with a solution.

Using "Think Outside the Box" in the Real World

You will most likely hear think outside the box used as a verb or gerund (a verb used as a noun).

  • I want you to think outside the box when deciding on your essay topic.
  • He did not think outside the box when he suggested selling merchandise.
  • Thinking outside the box is a necessity to succeed here.  

How To Think Outside the Box

You’re bound to encounter this phrase in many situations, from the workplace to school. If you know the conventional practices of a given situation, you should be able to understand how this phrase is being used and what is being asked of you.

Thinking Outside the Box at Work

Think outside the box is probably something of a cliché in the business world now, but with good reason. Paying attention to how things have been done before will help you in “thinking outside the box” to find new answers. 

  • My manager wants us to think outside the box for ways to get new clients.
  • If we think outside the box, I’m sure we can figure out a better way to market this product.
  • Her ability to think outside the box is why she ends up reporting on the most diverse topics.

How To Think Outside the Box at School

This phrase isn’t only a business approach! Teachers will often push their students to be as creative as possible in all types of subjects. Thinking outside the box is an important skill to develop critical thinking skills, writing skills, and more.

  • The teacher expects us to think outside the box to create this presentation, so we won’t be making a PowerPoint slideshow.
  • Analyzing the relationship characters have with food in Winnie-the-Pooh was definitely thinking outside the box.
  • We’re only allowed to use a few supplies on this assignment, so we will have to think outside the box to design the machine.

When To Think Outside the Box at Home

You’re not off the hook yet! Thinking outside the box can even come up at home or in personal settings, too. It could be as simple as deciding what gift to get your mom or what kind of party to throw for a friend.

  • I’m tired of always thinking outside the box to come up with the perfect gift for him. He loves ties, so that’s what he’ll get!
  • A safari trip might be too far outside the box as an anniversary gift to your grandparents.
  • Let’s think outside the box and come up with a fun use for this extra bedroom. How about a bowling room!

You don’t need to venture too far “outside the box” to come across other ways to say this idiom or find phrases that are related to it. 

  • Think out of the box (also, out-of-the-box thinking) - creative thinking that goes beyond the usual.
    Example: She has a real out-of-the-box approach for addressing the company’s dwindling finances.
  • Inside the box - conventional or commonplace, being within the boundaries of normal practice. 
    Example: She's an inside-the-box thinker, we won't get any new ideas from her. 

Think Outside the Box With Your Wordplay

The whole point of thinking outside the box is not to feel limited by what has been the norm. That’s how some of our favorite words have been formed, for instance! And sometimes it means trying new writing exercises to see where your ideas will lead.