Think Outside the Box – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to tell someone to think differently? If so, you could use the expression “think outside the box.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


The meaning of the expression “think outside of the box” is to challenge conventional thinking and methodologies. It’s a way of telling someone they need to change their thinking if they want to solve a problem. You could use it in class, in your career, or at home to tell people to think differently.

When people “think outside the box,” they look for thoughts that inspire innovation and creativity. Thinking outside the box involves avoiding the conventional framework of problem-solving, using the opportunity to create a new approach to problem-solving.

Example Usage

“I’m telling you guys, we need to put our heads together and think outside the box. We need something truly unique for this project.”

“Take a minute to think outside the box and see what you come up with; the answer is easier than you think.”

“Why did my teacher tell us to think outside of the box with this math problem? Does she think we’re the next Matt Damon or something?”

“You really need to think outside of the box with this problem. The person who brings the most original answer will win the prize.”

This year’s competition will award those applicants that show they have the tenacity to think outside the box and bring fresh, real solutions to the market.”

“Think outside the box when you approach the problem; that will make all the difference in the end result.”


The saying “think outside the box”: originated in the United States in the late 1960s or early 1970s. There is no clear evidence on who is responsible for coining the phrase. Many authors claim they are responsible for the first use of the expression in writing, but no one can confirm any of them.

The earliest use of the saying in print comes from the management consultancy industry. It appears in a weekly publication of the US aviation industry, “Aviation Week & Space Technology.” The saying appears in the July issue in 1975 as the following.

“We must step back and see if the solutions to our problems lie outside the box.”

Phrases Similar to Think Outside the Box

  • Look at things from a different point of view.
  • Innovate, don’t imitate.
  • Be unique in your thinking.

Phrases Opposite to Think Outside the Box

  • Herd mentality.
  • Group think.
  • Mass formation.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Think outside the box.
  • Thinking outside the box.

Ways People May Say Think Outside the Box Incorrectly

Some people may use the phrase when telling people to change their thinking and behavior. It’s important to note that the saying doesn’t have anything to do with behavioral changes.

For instance, if you’re asking someone to quit smoking, telling them to think outside the box and imagine themselves as a non-smoker would be incorrect.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Think Outside the Box

You can use the expression “think outside the box” when trying to tell people to take a different approach to their thinking.

You’re asking them to wander off the path of conventional thinking and explore alternative methodologies. It’s a way of telling people to innovate and challenge old concepts to create new, fresh ideas.

You could tell your colleagues to think outside the box with their sales strategy. Or you could tell your friends to think outside the box to figure out what you plan to do when you hit the town later that night. It’s a versatile saying, and you probably hear it all the time.

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