We have all heard the phrase “Thinking outside of the box” many times in our lives and our careers, but where does this term really come from?

Partly from a puzzle. Here it is:

oustide boxThis is the “nine dots puzzle” and the goal is to draw 4 or fewer straight lines to connect all of the dots. There are some rules that must be followed however: 1. You cannot lift the pen.  2. You cannot trace the same line more than once.

Go ahead give it a try!

The goal of this exercise is to have you thinking creatively and to challenge any assumptions that you might have about a particular situation so that you can see it in a new way. This is not easy to do as we have noted in previous Mind Trips of the week. Our brains are creatures of habit.

The puzzle appears in Sam Loyd’s 1914 Cyclopedia of Puzzles. Sam Loyd’s titled his puzzle “Christopher Columbus’s Egg Puzzle” referring to the tale called the “Egg of Columbus” written in 1565  in “History of the New World” by Girolamo Benzoni.

Columbus was dining with many  Spanish nobles when one of them said: ‘Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been, here in Spain which is a country abundant with great men knowledgeable in cosmography and literature, one who would have started a similar adventure with the same result.’ Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for a whole egg to be brought to him. He placed it on the table and said: ‘My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.’ They all tried without success and when the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table breaking it slightly and, with this, the egg stood on its end. All those present were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it. (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egg_of_Columbus)

So how did the term “Outside of the box thinking” become associated with the puzzle? It may have been through a problem solving technique devised by HE Robert Sabga in 1979-80 (you can find him on Linkedin). He called his technique ‘the Youngman Technique’ because it was inspired by a joke told by the Vaudeville comedian Henny Youngman. The joke is as follows: At the US/Mexico border a guard sees a man crossing into the United States. The man is riding a bicycle and has a box balanced on the handlebars. The guard pulls the man aside, tells him to get off his bicycle and opens the box, but all he finds inside is sand. This goes on every day for two months: the man comes across the border on his bicycle with a box balanced between the handlebars, and every day they open the box but find nothing but sand. One day, the guard sees the man at a store and says, “Look buddy, you drove us crazy. Everyday for 2 months you came in on your bicycle with that box of sand…what were you smuggling?” The man says, “Bicycles.”

Mr. Sabga when he was teaching his problem solving would tell his participants to always say to themselves “OK, I see the sand. Now, where’s the bicycle?”, and his punch line was ‘Learn to think outside the box’. (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking_outside_the_box)

Ok, are you ready for the answer to the puzzle? Here are 2 solutions:


outside box solutionsIt is hard not to see a box when you look at the nine dots, but obviously these solutions definitely have no ‘box’ to them. If you come up with another solution, please let us know.

By the way, the answer to Susan’s daughter’s puzzle is that Friday is the name of the cowboy’s horse.