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Posted by Philip on 13 April 2014, 2:01 pm in , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thinking about the box, rather than outside it

box with question marksWe often hear people utter the mantra, “Think outside the box.” It’s become the hold-all for creative thinking, problem solving and even good leadership.

But how often do we often think about the box itself? How often do we consider that, by thinking outside it, we stray away from the box — even ignore it completely — and miss the truth of the matter:

The box is the problem. It’s too big, too small, the wrong shape, the wrong colour.

Actually, the box itself may even be the wrong container. The box may be more efficient were it a bag, a bottle, a tin can. Or perhaps, we’d be better off without the container altogether. There have been many instances in my life where I've realised I needed to get rid of the box, rather than thinking outside it.

Perhaps the first box I got rid of was my entire adult life. That was when I was 19 and I realised I was — and still am — not heterosexual. I deliberately avoid the word gay, because that’s another box I've been thinking about lately. I’ll come back to that camp little one later.

When I realised I wasn’t attracted to women, a strange thing occurred. I saw the trajectory of my whole adult life crumble before me. Suddenly I realised that, unconsciously, I had assumed I'd fall in love, get married, have kids, then grand kids, then I'd get old and sit in a rocking chair with my wife watching TV until we died.

At first, the realisation that this wouldn’t happen caused me some grief. This safe, usual journey into and beyond the rest of my life had evaporated into thin air, almost overnight. It was quite scary. However, over the next few days and weeks, something new occurred to me: how free my life could now be. I could do and be whoever I wanted.

As I started dating men — and it’s here that I will bring back the camp gay box, first coloured pink and then rebranded a rainbow — I realised that being “gay” was simply thinking outside the straight box. Back in my twenties you could only fall in love and wait to die together in front of the TV, but over the years, non-straight couples began having kids, then getting civil unions and finally, the ultimate in straight, monogamous, happily-ever-after stories — getting married.

There was a time in my twenties when I realised there were a lot of men that wanted to gather me up, take me away to house by the sea and look after me until watching TV killed us. The thought of it was abhorrent. A few weeks ago I read a blog that explained this: I have a very low “engulfment threshold.” According to the author, most couples swing between two places in their relationship: feeling lonely and isolated in their relationship, so they seek attention from their partner; and feeling overwhelmed and engulfed by their partner, so they push them away in order to regain a sense of individual identity.

So, because the mere thought of being coupled until death do us part watching Coronation Street sent me running, screaming in the other direction, I learned to enjoy being single. Not celibate, just single. I’ve never had a relationship last more than nine months — which nearly broke me — and I enjoy the things that being single brings: lying diagonally in the bed, not having to consult all the time, and being able to be attracted to other people.

I don’t mean to be cynical — monogamy, marriage and all their trappings — work for most people and that’s great. I simply wanted to start with a personal example of thinking about the box rather than outside it.

Now I want to discuss three other boxes that I think we have to think deeply about, rather than outside them: they are capitalism, diversity and accessibility.

Capitalism. If I asked you to imagine a world without money, you’d probably realise you’d never considered it before. Then you’d say it wouldn’t work. I’d ask why and you’d say because people are greedy, it wouldn’t be fair and besides, what would be the point of working if you didn’t get paid. The reality is that capitalism is the cancerous box that sits inside the “barter box.” Not only is capitalism cancerous because it is continually growing and destroying people’s health, it’s also highly addictive: some people never have enough money and the more they have the more they want.

There are two things to consider: firstly, capitalism relies on scarcity and debt. Scarcity is how we learn to be greedy and debt is how money addicts get their added fix: through interest. Money itself is useless — you can’t eat it, run your car on it or grow a tree on it. Money is simply the most common form these days of barter and barter is how we as humans keep tally on who has what and make sure everything is fair. Tit for tat. If I give you this, you must give me some symbol of equal value in return.

The thing to think about the capitalism box is this: every social problem we deal with — crime, domestic violence, third world hunger — is a direct or indirect result of wealth inequality and poverty — yet we continue to try to find money to solve them. That’s just fighting fire with fire.

Alternatives to capitalism, like green dollar exchanges, time banks etc, are simply other ways to barter and make things fair. So what we need to think about the barter box is, does everything we do or give need to be balanced with something of equivalent value? What would a gift economy look like?

Diversity. In the sixties and seventies a few British academics thought they’d think outside the disability box. They decided disability wasn’t in the person, it was in society, and they called it the social model. It was such a successful outside-the-box thought that they created a movement. Now half the population of people with impairment think they are disabled by society. The movement then became a reality — thinking “I am disabled by society” created a self-fulfilling prophecy that has left a lot of people feeling pretty powerless. Waiting for society to become less disabling takes a hell of a long time.

About seven years ago I realised the disability box was pretty negative, whichever model you subscribed to. So I created a functional diversity net, which turned into an experiential diversity cloud. I turned normal into common and abnormal into unique. Then I began to wake up every morning wondering what my unique experience would be. It changed my life.

My definition of diversity is the synergy of uniqueness and commonality. The diversity talked about by most is actually categorisation, labeling and representation. It may create awareness but it does little, in my opinion, to create cohesion and understanding. Rather, unfortunately, labeling and representation does more to divide and create ‘others’.

Finally accessibility. What I've been thinking about the accessibility box is this: we are focussing on changing environments and attitudes. But what about technology? The field of robotics is developing at an amazing pace. People can control robots from their computers and interact with people across the world via the internet, two-way cameras, microphones and speakers. Some robots can even fly. Laser treatment is stopping people losing their sight and even restoring it in others. Hearing aids and cochlear implants are restoring hearing. Exoskeletons are allowing people who are paralysed to walk. There’s even a Cybathlon planned in Zurich in 2016 where people will use technology to compete with each other.

Who knows what other advances in technology we’ll see in the next 10 to 20 years. Brain surgery to regulate mood or to enhance intellectual or social comprehension? Who knows? These are controversial ideas but until we dare to think them they will never be considered let alone realised.

When I think about the accessibility box I wonder, what if my wheelchair had legs? What if I could walk up stairs in my legchair, rather than needing a ramp or elevator? What conversations would I have with people about my cool legchair and, in doing so, what attitudes would I change? When I think about the accessibility box I wonder where technology fits and how much investment could be put into it as an alternative way to create accessibility.

The courage, commitment and persistence needed to question boxes becomes particularly sparse in politics around an election, when politicians just stand on either side of a box and argue vehemently that theirs’ is the right side. You’ll notice personality boxes, trivial issue boxes, house price boxes, all sorts of boxes, none of which really get to the heart of what is needed in political leadership. I’ll be honest with you that, right now, I'm not even sure if I'll vote this year, because I'm not sure if any one party is remotely close to thinking outside any boxes, let alone about them.

Leadership carries the responsibility to think, converse and take action to create change. Thinking outside the box is important but thinking about it is crucial. It’s not easy though — people guard their boxes fearfully, and questioning them can be challenging, alienating and lonely. It takes very real courage, commitment and persistence to think about the box and, if necessary, contest its very existence.

In the end though, if we’re thinking outside a box that would be better changed or even removed completely, we may just be wasting our time.

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