The Beginner’s Guide to Thinking Outside the Box

flight 1549 landing in Hudson River

On 15th January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia Airport bound for Charlotte, NC.

While ascending, a flock of birds struck the engine. Within minutes both engines were dead. The plane was at 3,000 feet and began descending rapidly. The pilot, Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger reached out to Air Traffic Control (ATC) and began looking for a place to land.

His first thought was to return to LaGuardia. But given the plane’s altitude and distance from the airport, he quickly determined that such a move would prove catastrophic not just to everyone onboard, but also to people on the ground.

His next thought was Teterboro Airport. But quick mental calculations made him figure out that it was too far as well. Based on experience and looking outside the window, Sully realized that his only chance was to try for a landing in the Hudson River. But this would not be easy either. Only a handful of pilots had ever accomplished what he was about to attempt.

Three-and-a-half minutes after being struck by birds, Flight 1549 landed safely in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew members were safe.

How did Sully know that he could pull it off? Actually, he didn’t. But he knew he had to land the wings exactly level with the nose slightly up, at a good speed of descent. And he needed to make all this happen simultaneously.

How on earth did Sully know all this? How did he make rapid calculations to eliminate dead-end options and choose the most plausible one by looking out the window?

How Sully Thought Outside the Box

Captain Sullenberger learned to fly at the age of sixteen. After enrolling in the U.S. Air Force Academy, he received glider training and became an instructor pilot. In the air force, he spent five years as a fighter pilot, a training officer, and a member of the aircraft accident investigation board.

After leaving the air force, Sullenberger accumulated tens of thousands of hours in flight-time as a commercial pilot. He developed safety protocols and training courses for flight crews, started a flight-safety consulting business, and stayed involved in accident investigations for the air force and National Safety Transportation Board.

Thus, Sullenberger didn’t have a “light-bulb moment” to land in the Hudson River. The answer didn’t fall in his lap. He didn’t think outside the box. Instead, he thought inside a huge box he painstakingly built over 40 years. His expertise enabled him to quickly recognize patterns and apply his deep skills.

There’s nothing outside the box. It’s just a vacuum. Creative, “out-of-the-box” thinkers actually think inside a huge box which is a repertoire of deep skills. Rarely do we come across someone who solved an impossible math problem without knowing the underlying concepts and formulas.

A big mental box gives you a huge advantage in the workplace today. Here are three ways:

1. You build metacognitive skills.

A repertoire of useful skills helps you connect seemingly unrelated dots, think critically, and make better decisions.

Such skills are not just handy in life-and-death situations. They’re also useful to help you find the Archimedes levers that result in innovation and better output. The MagSafe, reusable rockets, and even camera phones were results of thinking in a really big box.

Is it any surprise that these skills are in huge demand in the corporate world today?

2. You master hard things quickly.

Today’s intelligent machines that help businesses achieve their goals are complex and hard to master. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea.

The people who thrive in the new economy have the ability to master hard things like these machines. And since technology changes rapidly, they keep learning new tools and increasing the size of their box.

The bigger your mental box, the easier you find it to master such tools and turn into an indispensable asset for your employers.

3. You boost self-confidence.

The corporate world is rife with petty politics and people fighting to hog the spotlight. These “games” are not fun, are they?

Most people play them because sycophancy is the only “skill” they possess. As a result, they stay at the mercy of their bosses and organizations.

But building metacognitive skills gives you confidence in your own abilities. It makes you a sought-after person and puts you in control of your career.

6 Ways to Build a Bigger Box

In a previous essay, I had written about five important skills you need (along with technical expertise) to advance your career. They are Negotiation, data analytics, accounting, management, and economics.

There’s no doubt that applying these skills at work will expand the size of your box. But a mere theoretical understanding of them is not enough.

The best way to learn them is by applying.

The phrases learning something new and practicing something new may seem similar, but these two methods can produce profoundly different results. Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skills. — James Clear in Ultralearning

What separates the best from the rest is their ability to generate results by applying their knowledge. Here are six proven ways in which you can learn skills the right way.

1. Develop Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI) helps you understand and regulate your emotions and influence those of others. It helps you build stronger relations and makes you aware of your strengths and improvement areas.

(EI) is a prerequisite for growth. When you step outside your comfort zone, disappointment is inevitable. You’ll witness diminished returns, feel stressed, and head in the wrong direction. EI will help you turn each of these setbacks into learning. This is why emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of workplace success, according to World Economic Forum.

Consciously monitoring your emotions during the day will help you figure out ways to strengthen your emotional balance.

2. Plan Your Actions

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” — Lewis Carroll

It’s one thing to act. It’s another to act with intent. The former makes you amble aimlessly and feel confused and demotivated. The latter makes you pursue a goal that makes sense to you, track whether you’re headed in the right direction, and make adjustments accordingly.

Take time to determine your “from/to” path. This comprises of two steps, according to Harvard Business Review. The first is to evaluate where you are today. The next is to focus on your next big—but not ultimate—goal.

This exercise will help you identify the skills you need to develop in order to progress in your career. It’ll offer clarity on the actions you should take and improve your earnings trajectory as well.

3. Take Initiative

“I don’t believe that old cliché that good things come to those who wait. I think [they] come to those who can’t sit still.” — Ashton Kutcher

The corporate world overflows with the “not-my-problem” type of people. They stay in their comfort zone and avoid adding work to their plates. Then they complain when they don’t get promoted or get laid off because their skills turn obsolete.

Taking initiative lets you learn skills hands-on. It also makes you appear like a proactive employee. Research shows that initiative is one of the top five traits that best performers exhibit.

The simplest way to take initiative is to take a leaf out of Sullenberger’s book. Offer to write manuals and/or train new people. This will help you understand your work better because the best way to learn is to teach. It’ll also strengthen your communication skills. Plus, you’ll discover more ways to take initiative, make life easier for your boss, and prepare yourself for the next career move.

Sitting still is a recipe for disruption, not just for companies but for individuals as well.

4. Grow Your Network

Networking within and outside your organization can not just accelerate your career, but also provide you with broader knowledge and potential to grow.

Use Twitter and LinkedIn to reach out and offer value to people. When you give before asking, you stand out. You get a lot in return, like insights into the latest trends in your field, insider information on job openings and movement within the company, and a chance to sharpen your skills through practice.

Your success depends on the quality of your network. I learned this lesson quite late. You can avoid repeating my mistake.

5. Advocate for Yourself

We would love to live in a perfect world where everyone notices and appreciates our effort. But you already know what I’m about to tell you—that the world is far from perfect.

In the corporate world where everyone is busy dousing fires and dealing with emergencies, it becomes impossible for managers to keep track of everyone’s initiatives. Your career is your responsibility, which is why you should also be your own best advocate.

Highlight how your contributions benefitted the workplace when you want to talk about a raise. Inform your manager about educational or career training options you’re pursuing. Keep your manager in the loop about updates on important projects before you get asked.

Thus, you can advocate your work without thumping your chest.

Related: How to Become a Person Who Can Get Things Done at Work

Summing Up

When asked for an explanation for his heroic performance, Sully said, “For 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

He made a huge withdrawal all right. One that saved the lives of at least 160 people. He also proved that critical thinking and decision-making are not inherent skills. They can be learned.

The above steps will help you build these critical skills too. Your experiences will also multiply and become more diverse, making you a better person.

You came on this earth for a purpose: to live the best version of your life. Take control of your career and life, and you’ll fulfill it.

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