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Thinking “Out of the Box”

Provosts have the pleasure of learning a lot about the methods of innovation within different sectors of society. They get to work with faculty on the cutting edges of their disciplines, inventing new ways to exploring their fields. They meet alumni active in start-ups and venture capitalism. They encounter leaders in the nonprofit sector inventing new ways of serving the common good.

To me, there are overlaps in the norms that the various groups seem to follow. Most all are looking at the current state of affairs with great skepticism. They see with unusual clarity the inadequacies of the status quo of their field. They become careful students of the traditional approach. However, they question each feature of that approach, seeking to invent a new way of proceeding. In their study, when they’re effective, they completely separate the “how” of what is done from the outcome being sought.

The result in the private sector is “disruptive” of the old way of doing things, and often results in fundamental system-level changes. Witness, for example, Uber, AirBnB, Amazon – all built on rethinking the current way of doing things. Indeed, some have equated entrepreneurism itself with disruption, asserting that disruption as a goal is a necessary prerequisite.

Disruption as a scholar, whether a humanist or a scientist, has many similar traits. While much science and much of art and humanities are incremental in their advances over the status quo, not infrequently are there large leaps that occur in ways quite similar to those in the private sector. Sometimes they are radical new interpretations of existing material, allowing us to see a moment in history or a school of thought in completely new ways. Sometimes there are mathematical proofs of conjectures that require themselves the development of new approaches. Sometimes there are discoveries of relationships of attributes that were never imagined previously.

In all sectors, it seems that the new approach is always initially viewed with skepticism. Witness the number of failed “pitches” of entrepreneurs attempting to obtain venture capital. Witness the stories about a manuscript with innovative style rejected by scores of publishers. Witness an article revealing experimental results conflicting with the current paradigm subjected to unusually harsh critique. Witness a new social welfare organization providing services in novel fashion met with opposition from traditional providers.

So scholars pursuing an innovative path, entrepreneurs starting a novel business, and scientists challenging the existing theories all need other attributes to be successful – perseverance and resilience to failure. The business entrepreneurs have fully and loudly embraced this, with their touting of the value of repeatedly experiencing failure. The scholar entrepreneurs are less vocal in espousing this trait, but will admit that their rate of success when they are seeking real breakthroughs is very, very low. Artists and scientists often have hundreds of failures for every success. They persevere because they are passionate about their search for truth, whether it be the truest way to organize words for a thought, to place paint strokes on a canvas, or to observe interactions of molecules.

For all of these groups, the hunt, the challenge is paramount. Once one hunt is completed, in failure or success, the next begins with equal fervor.

4 thoughts on “Thinking “Out of the Box”

  1. As an adjunct professor in the Culture, Communications and Technology program and a small consultancy owner– that is, as someone with one foot in the academy and one in the private sector — I would like to see continuing innovation in the ways that these arenas nourish and learn from each other. Although I think much faded in recent years, mutual disdain and challenges translating scholarship (especially in the humanities, e.g.) to the world beyond are still afoot. More learning through innovative boundary crossings!

  2. Thanks for the reminder to be resilient. I’m working on a project that I don’t have the traditional qualifications for, but … I like my novel angle and I’m going to keep pounding.

  3. The box
    The box is a square, it’s got six sides. Each side is a block, a hurdle, an obstacle, a series of preventative measures to keep you inside. The sides are as follows:
    1: Your parents.
    2: Your 18 years of schooling.
    3: Your religion.
    4: Your government.
    5: The inherently stupid public at large.
    6: Your television.
    All these represent the six sides of the square you’re trapped in. That’s why some people fuck with your mind when they tell you to ‘think outside the box’. Remember, they don’t ask you to do it, they tell you to do it, like they’re helping you out.
    Well, I just tell them, ‘I’m sorry to have to inform you, but, I’m outside that box to which you refer, and, as a result, it’s obvious to me that you will not be able to understand what I may have to say, and I may also have to make copious amounts of analogies to make my meaning clear, and the chances of you getting an idea of what I’m saying to you is probably nil, because you are trapped inside that box. I can’t help you, you’ll have to do it all by yourself.’
    Which means, however, that the sides are not completely sealed. There are weak links in the chain, as it were, and once you get a glimpse of the outside, it’s up to you to keep that pathway open before it slams shut. Each side has its multitudes of gatekeepers, and they come in all shapes and sizes and denominations, so, be advised, bring something back to use as a thinking tool to keep you vigilant and always ready with a question.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

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