Yesterday I was having dinner with Yvonne, a close friend who teaches engineering at The United States Merchant Marine Academy.
As happens many times, I was sharing a number of components of a writing project I was working on. And, as happens many times, she stopped me, and said something that I’m used to hearing.
“Derek,” she said in the most tactful way (for Yvonne is one of the most tactful people on the planet), “I’m really having a hard time following you.”
She held her hands out, perpendicular to the table, as if to make light karate chops. Then, as she spoke, she moved her hands to various places, as if she was positioning objects that needed to be in order.
“These,” she said, sort of patting a group of invisible objects she had placed to her left, “are getting in the way of the main point of what you’re trying to say.”
Then she reached to her right, and pantomimed picking up three objects, one after another.
“Now,” she said, “this one, and this one, and this one, are your main points. These are the things you want to focus on.”
…and once again, Yvonne reminded me of the vast benefits of thinking inside the box.
Yes, the term “thinking outside the box” connotes a valuable mindset to get into from time to time. It is outside the box where new ideas arise, and bursts of creativity emerge.
Yes, engineers can, and should, be creative. Similarly, people in the military can, and should, be creative.
Nonetheless, in these places, there are rules, and it’s a good idea to follow those rules, which are inside that box.
For example, no matter how creative the proposal, no matter how gloriously, dazzlingly outside the box, a ship design that calls for a chassis made of pure sulfur is just not going to work. Sulfur is one of the most reactive of elements, and it bursts into flames upon contact with water. No amount of thinking, or living, outside the box is going to change that.
Similarly, when designing a ship, it is a good idea to not arrange the parts of the engine so that they are scattered here and there. These parts must fit together in a certain way.
Alas, creative folks such as myself must accept this.
And this is a good thing. Even when dwelling outside the box, it is best to think that we have, in fact, simply moved to another box, a box that has its own set of rules. Often, in fact, this box may have some rules that are identical to those inside the box we decided to leave.
No matter how far flung my ideas may be, no matter how interesting, it is a good idea for those ideas to be clear. It is a good idea for the ideas to flow, one after another. No matter how far away I drift from the box I inhabited, this new box still demands that I clearly indicate the new coordinates from which I’m writing whatever it is that I write.
In many ways, this, for creatives, is not so much thinking “inside the box” as thinking outside the box inhabited by creatives. Too often, creative people speak of “breaking all the rules,” of simply going to the far edge of the universe, with no particular guidelines, which in itself, can be a confining, dogmatic box. And all to often, this leads to a three-layer mudpie of muddled ideas and half baked concepts.
And this is why for creatives, what is inside the box is, for them, outside the box. The world of order, rules can seem alien from a world that has no such things. Consequently, an offbeat piece of writing that has clarity and structure can seem, strangely enough, downright revolutionary.
Thus it is that I’m grateful for my friends who may spend a bit more time in their left brain than I spend in mine. Yes, it is wonderful to venture outside the box, where there are vast deposits of fuel. It is good, however, to have an engineer remind me that if I want that fuel to send my writing to space, it is necessary to also spend some time in the box, where I can learn some metallurgy so as to fashion a rocket, and then obey the rules of calculus so as to best figure out how to send that rocket to the exact place I wish it to land.