Thinking out of the box… but how did we get in it?

Commodore VIC 20

This can’t break its programming. You can.

Society has such an outmoded view of creativity. At best it’s a necessary evil, at worst it’s a waste of time.

If you don’t believe me, go and have a look at your primary national curriculum for schools and do a text search for creative thinking and see what comes up.

It’s a rhetorical question: why do we hold back from our creative potential? Because we were trained to. We were programmed to think we were good or bad at this or that and we’ve been running those programmes ever since.

Here’s proof. If someone asked you to do a drawing today, would your first reaction be, ‘whoopee!’? Or would it be one of fear and embarrassment? Ok, maybe you’re the exception, but most people would react in fear. Let’s remind ourselves why.

Let’s go back to being age 6, 7, 8 or 9. The teacher says we’re going to do a drawing. Can you think of anything more exciting? A drawing! It’s pure joy. We’re going to draw… an elephant. So we get going. Mine’s looking ok. But I’m not sure, so I look over at someone else’s which prompts a line of executable programming code from the teacher:

“Don’t copy!” the teacher barks.

So we’re programmed not to look at other people’s ideas. We don’t look to see what other people are up to. We don’t know what our competitors are up to so we can’t do better than them. We fear our ideas will be stolen so we hide them and never improve them. But paradoxically we fear that everyone else is better than us which undermines our confidence, but we can never look to see the truth because our programme stops us from finding out.

John turns to me to ask me something. This prompts the second line of code:

“Stop taking! Do your own work!” .

So we’re programmed not to discuss our ideas to brainstorm them with others. From now on we work in isolation and waste time re-inventing the wheel. We waste time making the same mistakes that others could have helped us with. We get stuck and don’t ask for help. We think that originality is better than collaboration and elaboration and never fully develop our ideas. We begin to doubt ourselves and what we’re capable of. We turn into perfectionists who never finish anything.

Then the teacher comes over and looks at my drawing. “That’s pretty good” she says.

Suddenly I’m programmed with a positive mind virus. It takes over my subroutine, re-calibrating my system with this logical argument.

Teacher is correct.
Teacher says I am good at drawing.
I am good at drawing.

Because she’s the authority figure, what she says must be true. Fast forward from that moment, a year, a decade, thirty years, and the programme is still running. Here I am. I can draw and I know it.

Then she looks at John’s. “Ha ha! What’s that supposed to be? It hasn’t even got a trunk.” She shows it to the class and they all laugh.

Teacher is correct.
Teacher says I am no good at drawing.
I am no good at drawing.

“She’s right. I can’t draw.” thinks John and he runs the further algorithm:

I cannot draw.
Drawing results in embarrassment.
Do not draw.

If we fast forward thirty years, not only does John actively avoid drawing, to avoid further embarrassment, he’s re-calibrated it as frivolous and irrelevant. Just to be safe, he’s lumped in all creativity with it, his software now labelling himself as ‘not a creative person.’

When I was seven I won a painting competition. The best in the village. I won £4.50. I bought a toy telescope with it. But was my painting really that great? If I showed it to you now would it really be that good today? Was it noticeably better than the 2nd place painting? Probably not much better. It probably wasn’t that much better than the worst painting. The painting is of course irrelevant. It’s the fact that I was programmed as a painter that counts.

Can we take credit for what we’re good at (or think we’re good at) today? We can certainly take credit for what we’re not good at.

Did we have talent that was encouraged and developed? Or were were programmed, sometimes randomly, sometimes arbitrarily? Have those programmes stuck, making us think we’re good at (or not good at) something?

The reason so many of us can’t ‘think outside the box’ is because we were forced into that air-tight box all those years ago and we’ve remained there ever since. That’s not really  ood enough. We need to do better. We need to break that programming.

I dare you to do it.

Make a list of the ordinary things you’re not good at. My guess is it will include some of the following: drawing, writing essays, maths, mental arithmetic, memory, sport, geography, finance, cooking, DIY, public speaking, selling…

These are all base-level skills that require little or no talent. They just require confidence and practice.

Pick one, and practice it. Seek the extra bit of training if needed to crack it, and break your programming.

You are not a color home computer loaded with a Beginners All Symbolic Instruction Code operating system and a flashing cursor awaiting instruction on what to do. You are a self-determining creative being. You need to start acting like one. We all do.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see:


4 comments on “Thinking out of the box… but how did we get in it?

  1. Well done on another frank and fearless post! Many teachers are now seen (or see themselves) as postmen, who ‘deliver’ the national curriculum. Or perhaps they are educational wranglers, who ‘drive up’ standards. Sadly, there is much good intention, churning out templates of detailed planning, which results in tasteless inanimate fodder that cannot elicit creative responses in children. It is undoubtedly true that nobody gets out of school with all the creative potential that they had when they started. Primary teachers are well aware how fragile a child’s self-esteem can be. They try to build it up with regular positive declarations of praise and encouragement – and perhaps, for some children, a self-fulfilling prophecy will be exemplified. However, the tests have dominion. The stark truth is that, if individuals are to become creative thinkers, a lot of their schooling will have to be unlearned. Maybe we need a sort of apolitical Obama-like message of ‘Yes We Can!’ Now, here’s creativity involving a box: In Chapter 2 of his book, ‘The Little Prince’, Antoine de Saint-Exupery shows how, when he cannot draw an acceptable sheep, he draws a box – and then explains to the Little Prince that his sheep is in the box. See:


  2. Now Ayd and Robert you have made it very difficult for me to choose which one of your ‘post’ I enjoyed the best.
    They were both delightful.
    In the school I was with today I heard many great examples of how, in this school at least, teaching has changed enormously from the situation you describe.
    Creativity, sharing and collaborating was actively encouraged in all.
    There are great schools out there that are bucking the trend.

    Now off to read the rest of The Little Prince.
    Robert, thank you so much for signposting this fabulous book for me.


  3. Great blog. I can still remember the teaching assistant in my reception class circa 1967 trying to programme a friend of mine that she couldn’t paint trees red. I was the arsey little madam that stood up and argued that trees could be painted any colour we liked. But then I had a mother who programmed me to be the first girl ever to wear trousers in that school (1967, remember) and a father who programmed me to look up anything I didn’t understand in the relevant book (he’d have loved Google. Possibly). No regrets from me on either score 🙂


  4. Allow me to play devvil’s advocate, please… I merely want to throw out a few ideas for people to consider.

    On the other hand, if you copy someone else’s work, you:
    1. May not be being creative. It depends on the circumstances.
    2. You may be stealing. No, really stealing. Again, circumstances. The bloody devvil is in the details.
    3. You may bot be getting the full benefit of the exercise, as you are shortcutting. Sometimes, shortcutting is good. Sometimes not. DETAILS!

    Yes! Working together, in collaboration, is GREAT! But sometimes, independent work is needed, also! The key is in knowing what to do when…

    Now, as for teasing, and bullying, and denigrating someone over their work. BAD BAD BAD! There is a right way to tell someone “you suck at this”, and there is a wrong way to do it. Your quoted example shows the wrong way. The person who did things that way, would NOT be a “good” teacher.

    On the other hand, the devvil is again in the details.
    Let us say you take an art course. Or a singing course. Or an accounting course. Along the way, you ask the instructor: Am I good at this? Is my work any good? Should I continue in this, or go to something else? These are valid, practical questions. They deserve an honest answer. Properly phrased.

    The instructor (hopefully an experienced pro), could say:
    “Well, your artistic style is very unconventional. You draw a horse/tree/whatever, and no one can tell what it is. Your pictures are not beautiful as far as I can tell. If you are doing this for personal interest, ok. If you are thinking of making a living at this, I am not sure you will succeed….” THAT IS BEING HONEST.

    To say to you (when you cannot even draw a straight line):
    “You are fantastic! Great Work!” Is LYING!

    The same would apply in telling a person they either can or cannot sing, or are or are not good at accounting or bookkeeping. In fact, telling a person the wrong thing could cost them thousands, ruin their lives, or cause harm to a lot of other people. Assume someone with no competence became a doctor. And was a quack. And ALSO…. YOUR doctor! Do you see my point, now?

    Now… When I was young, (I was what, 17?) I had a real architect (Taras Sawchuck) as a teacher, in a course called RESPLAN. I was not that good at it. I suspected so. But Terry, was smart… He told me he did not see me as an architect, or since my math was very poor, an engineer. But, he could see I enjoyed drawing floor plans. He knew I could not draw, I was not artist. But he still tried to teach me how to draw a house “in perspective”. It looked horrid!!! But he did not tease, bully, or denigrade. He looked at it, and gave me a “c-“. UBER Generous. He gave me that based on effort! He gave me that, because I put in some interesting detail that he liked. He gave me that, because we both knew that as a drawing, it WAS an “F”. But I had made HUGE progress in understanding the theoretical material, and in making the effort. And in self confidence. I just did not have “the hands”. My brain could envision, but not put it on paper. But, I tried. AND ALL THAT “other stuff”, WELL, THAT COUNTED TOO, in his grading scheme. But he did tell me no client would want that picture. He was honest, AND encouraging.

    Today, SOME 40 YEARS LATER…. I use a program called Right Suite by WrightSoft. I “draw the walls” to house plans, so that they can be turned into HVAC system designs and calculations. Now, I do not do the HVAC system designs. I do not have the education, experience, or talent for that. I am semi-retired for health reasons. But the few hundred dollars my little PT work brings in, helps my personal economics a lot. Terry taught me how to use a scale, and guesstimate distances. And many other things. He must have been an UBER Great Teacher. Because I make a crude living off what he taught me. And what he taught me remained “usable to and for me” for 40 years.

    Thank you, Terry Sawchuck. You are long gone, and missed. But I remember you every day that I work. Your students loved you back then. (Platonically.) I still love you, man. I wish you could have seen…. The good you resulted into being. I do not know if he would be proud of me. But I am STILL proud of him.


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