Sunday, January 09, 2011

Don't think out of the box

We've seen this advice all the time to think out of the box. However, we've been in the box for so long throughout our entire lives, specializing in what we do best. Now, didn't the great investor Warren Buffett said that we should focus within our circle of competence and don't stray too far from it? I don't think there's much difference between a circle and a square when we're talking about such things. So, should we specialize within our box of competence or shall we stray from it?

I think instead of thinking out of the box, how about we grow the box? We still do what we do best within our area of expertise, but we take potshots at new materials, take them, form new connections and grow our box bigger. By doing so, we have a base area where we're already good at, but we incorporate new materials and expand outwards. This is differently from getting out of what you're doing and coming up with totally new ideas. Being creative is to come up with new ideas,  but I think more importantly, it's coming up with new relationship between existing ideas.

I think that's why it's important to read widely, instead of just deeply. You're building the supports in order to build the interconnecting beams across them, so that the structure will be robust.  I think that if you want to learn more about finances, it's important not only to read finance books and also other genre and then you try to link the connection. That's exactly how our memory functions in our brain - we grow our synapses and the interconnection between brain cells.

I will give some examples of how, in my contorted mind, I tried to link seemingly unrelated topics to derive some new insights about existing ones:

1. In music theory, there are silence intervals called rest. In order for a piece of music to sound nice, there must be periods of silence interwoven in that piece. I think likewise, when you're conversing with others, it's important to have 'rest' in between the 'notes'. It's important to have planned silence when talking to emphasize certain points or create certain effect. This is to make the music of a presentation much nicer. How about in relationships? Should there be a rest between the crescendo and the diminuendo? There is a value in silence.

2. In accounting theory, for every debit, there is an equal entry on the credit side of the balance sheet. It does show that for every good thing, there's a cost to it. When someone gives you something good, there'll be a need to reciprocate that, otherwise the relationship balance sheet won't be balanced. In fact, that's the basis of a relationship - give and take. You can't just take and take or give and give, the whole balance sheet will be upset. Now imagine between any relationship, there is an invisible balance sheet - so how are you going to make it work?

3. In engineering theory, you use the margin of safety to overestimate bad things and underestimate good things. Combined with cost-effectiveness, you derive an optimized solution to situations. There are no perfect answers, just how you want to balance things up. I use it all the time to budget big ticket items and my ability to save for them. Engineering is the art of applying existing theories to practical situations to obtain an optimized solution.

4. In science, you learn about the scientific method of observation, hypothesis and experimentation with independent variable to prove or disprove the hypothesis. When my computer hangs, I'll do the same method for fault finding. If just before it hung up on me, I've installed a new hardware, I'll try removing it first and test the hypothesis that this new hardware is the thing that causes it. I'll be careful to change one variable at a time to observe one factor at a time. This can be used to finetune investment and TA strategies too. Change stepwise to observe before jumping the whole ship in.

5. In air rifle (I was the school team for some years), I learned that in order to shoot accurately and consistently, the psyche is as important as the technical skills. Knowing what to do does not mean you can do it.  Furthermore, the best way to perform at your peak is not to think that you're in a competition. I don't look at what others are shooting nor do I count how many bull's eye I had hit. I just keep on doing what I can control - focus on my breathing, ensuring that my rifle sight is aligned and try to sing myself a melody. Most importantly, I will try to forget that I'm even in a competition.  I still remember all these whenever I'm required to perform under stress.

I think if I'd tried to come up with one new relationship between existing ideas everyday, it'll really allow my box to grow bigger.


Createwealth8888 said...

For those folks working in Product Development, R&D, Marketing, etc, they better think out of the box and show to their bosses that they can or else parts of their year-end bonuses will go to their peers who can.

AK71 said...

Hi LP,

In one of my earlier blog posts, I talked about how I was a frog in a well and whether I should see the world outside the well. I decided that I would be quite happy to simply move into a bigger well. ;p

Anonymous said...

Hi LP,
Do you know Viagra is discovered by accident?
I bet you know.
So are many other drugs during R&D.
The spin-off for the original intention of R&D.
Do these by accident, spin-off drugs count as thinking out of the box products?
Ha! Ha!
So many people so lucky for these accidental drugs.(Me included?)
Ha! Ha!

Singapore Man of Leisure said...

What if there were no boxes to begin with from the beginning?

The willow that bends in the wind, needs an anchor point for it's roots. If not, it's no different from the tumbleweed - rolling wherever the wind blows.

la papillion said...

Hi bro8888,

Haha, I've no bosses to address to :) I only think out of the box, so to speak, only to add value to myself :) Can't stay too comfortable for long...not good for long term.

Hi AK,

Haha, is that the same as growing your box? Jumping from a smaller well to a bigger well?

Enjoy your trip!

Hi Temperament,

Ya, a lot of other invention are done by accident. Even penicillin. I think the idea is to keep your mind open to possibilities :)


I think it's hard not to have a box. We all have our preconceptions and assumptions and stereotypes - the cultural baggage that we bring along with us wherever we go. Someone with no box to begin with would be a child. But that is soon corrected by education, haha!

CreateWealth8888 said...

Ya, some babies are made by accident too.

PanzerGrenadier said...


When I was studying literature in JC, my tutor introduced me to this concept called the "Renaissance man" that was prevalent during Leonardo Da Vinci's time.

Many of us know that Da Vinci's was a genius in many areas of anatomy, engineering, arts etc, the epitome of a "Renaissance man" or someone who is endowed with multiple intelligences and talent, i.e. to have both IQ and EQ, 文 和 武. Thus thinking outside of the box entails being someone who has breadth and depth of knowledge and skills :-)

How I interpret "Thinking outside of the box" is to be open to new ideas, approaches and frameworks to existing problems or situations. I count myself fortunate that as an internal auditor I get to practice a little bit of "out of box" thinking each time I review a set of business processes.

My team and I need to identify areas where controls can be enhanced, but more importantly, to value-add to help the dept improve its processes in terms of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

I don't always prescribe the most excellent recommendations but I try to push the envelope a little bit at a time and to get my colleagues to think beyond their day-to-day challenges in their own processes :-)

Be well and prosper.

JW said...

Hi LP,

before you grow your box, you need to think out of the box :)

The true meaning of thinking out of the box is to be able to see things outside norms. What happens next should be what you said, to grow the box till where we managed to think. Why I say so? By thinking out of the box, it forms a goal, somewhere to work towards, and eventually, your box will "grow" and include that area that was originally outside.

Jay said...


A very innovative post. I do like most of the analogies you gave on the different fields. Rest - is definitely so impt, even in a relationship. After a long biz trip, getting home and meeting your wife again feels so good.

And the air rifle - yeah, when the mind is in the state of zen peace, that's the ultimate feeling. No one can beat you. I fully agree!

Thanks for the post!

la papillion said...

Hi bro8888,

Haha, indeed...see how you make good of this 'accident', haha!

Hi PG,

Thanks for sharing your experiences on how you excite the neurons of your team members!

Hi JW,

I agree...before you grow, you need to think out first :) Ignore the title, it's meant to draw people in to read.

Somehow, as I was writing the post, the meaning of it got lost in transition. Happens something, haha!

Hi 8%pa,

Glad you liked it - thanks for your encouragement!