Think Outside the Box, Milk Inside the Cup
How creative thinking can improve your life — Going with the crowd vs thinking on your own illustrated with simple examples.
If you are reading this it’s safe to assume you’ve seen milk before. It’s a great substance, nutritious and tasty. But, are you able to pour it into a glass without splashing it all over the place? Neither could I until recently.
Humanity has accomplished a multitude of ambitious endeavors through history. We have traveled to the Moon, created the Internet, produced as many Star Wars movies as galaxies are in the universe… But one thing we still can’t do comfortably is to transfer milk from a carton to a glass.
Most people pour milk wrong! Check the image below to see what I mean.
This supposed optimal milk pouring strategy is based on physics. Milk flows in a smoother manner when less pressure is applied to fluid passing through a small orifice. Still most people do it the wrong way. Why don’t we learn?
This short milk story is important because it illustrates a crucial component of human behavior and decision making:
Many times we do what others do without really knowing why.
We pride ourselves in being creatures of reason, entities that utilize the scientific method to analyze any problem and come up with logical solutions. That’s not true! Thinking hard all the time is exhausting! We often take mental shortcuts — reacting to situations instinctively and fast.
Many will think, “Yeah right, that doesn’t happen to me”. Yet research indicates we’re all prone to this effect. I recommend reading Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant book Thinking fast and slow to dig more into the topic.
Going with the crowd makes it easier for us to navigate through the difficult decisions of life. However, thinking outside-the-box often produces better outcomes. I would like to illustrate the point with 3 simple examples. Can you find creative solutions or apply your own thinking to other situations?
1. Queuing up to board a plane in the airport
Every time I visit an airport I see people queuing up. This effect is most notorious in the UK, the country that apparently likes queues the most. I.e. enduring hours of mild discomfort whilst politely complaining about it.
There may be benefits of queuing up for some people, such as ensuring you sit together with your family or securing baggage space with certain airlines. However, what’s the benefit when seats are pre-allocated to passengers?
Many times there is absolutely no benefit on waiting in a queue, especially if you travel alone. You can stand in the queue, but you can also sit and relax until there is no queue to board the plane. Everybody is going to reach the destination at the same time, regardless of being first in the cabin or not.
What happens is that we fall for a mental trap. We see a group of people queueing up and assume that’s the right thing to do. Maybe they know something we ignore, what if I miss the plane? Surely being part of the larger group will protect me.
Whatever the explanation you tell yourself, it is most likely part of the post hoc rationalization process. We enter the queue automatically because others did, and we convince ourselves afterwards that there was a reason to do so.
Doing what others do is comfortable because it removes the burden of thinking. You don’t need to be alert to take any actions, the group will take care of it. In this simple example, it is at the small cost of your comfort.
Think outside the box — Don’t do what everybody else is doing without considering why. Sit and read a book instead of waiting in a queue.
2. Publishing a book (or landing a job after an interview)
It’s difficult to publish a book being a first time author. That is because a publisher is judging you and your work with very limited information. A short summary and conversation cannot convey all your worth. It’s hard to predict wether a book will be a best-seller or not, and most of them are not. Publishers hate risk, and they don’t want to say yes unless they are sure.
On the other hand, established authors have it easier because they can build an audience of readers that love their work. This makes it easier for publishers to forecast sales and say yes to new titles. Wouldn’t you say yes to publishing 5th book of Harry Potter after the massive success of the previous 4? This is a no brainer! Everybody would say yes!
It wasn’t always such an easy decision though. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers. Most thought there is no money to be made in children’s books. What happened here? Were they unable to see the potential? What would you do?
What happens is that it’s risky to say yes first, so the first publisher says no. Then, the second publisher thinks “Ummm, what a tough decision, I’m not sure. The first guys said no, and those are very smart guys, there must be a reason. I’m going to say no too, just in case”.
Every rejection causes the next publisher to see the book in the light of a book that has been rejected by a bunch of people already. The error in reasoning is in assuming that those rejections matter at all. Sometimes this can be the case, but not always. You still need to review the book objectively.
Assuming that others have done the job for you previously is dangerous. In this example, it costed several companies the opportunity of publishing Harry Potter — probably a decision not to be too happy about today.
This line of thinking applies to interviewing candidates for a job offer, and many other examples. The prospect’s past history can bias your decision and make you miss on a lifetime opportunity.
Think outside the box — Don’t take difficult decisions quickly assuming others have done the thinking for you. You’ll miss on Harry-Potter-scale opportunities.
3. Getting a promotion at work
How many times have you seen someone working really hard in a company, but then the promotion goes to someone else who apparently doesn’t deserve it that much. Perhaps you’ve even been yourself in this situation.
In my past experience working in a large corporation I’ve seen this phenomenon happening over and over. I’ve met many people that were frustrated because they were pulling all the weight, but didn’t feel rewarded.
Why does this happen? Isn’t on the best interest of managers and bosses to reward those who work the hardest?
The problem is not that the managers don’t want to promote those who deserve it most. The problem is that it’s often difficult for them to judge who is more meritorious. They don’t know everyone well (or at all) and many subjective factors are at play.
In university, there is a clear correlation between effort and results. Working harder almost always improves your grades. That’s because everyone is judged against standardized exams at regular intervals. Universities face pressure to produce as accurate and objective as possible grading systems.
In contrast, just focusing in your role and working extremely hard may not be the best way to get a promotion in a corporation. Yet it seems this is the strategy most people attempt — resulting in frustration. Hard work correlates with reward much more strongly in university than in corporations.
In corporations, there are no exams, no standardized rankings. The person responsible for deciding your promotion may have 2,000 employees. This type of people are very busy, they can’t elaborate an accurate and objective report of who deserves a promotion the most amongst so many candidates.
If you want a promotion, you need to include extra elements in your strategy apart from working hard. This includes, choosing a team where the budget is large enough to accommodate increasing salaries, and ensuring the people that make decisions know you — Being in the right place at the right time.
You won’t be promoted even if you’re the best if nobody knows you exists. Doing what everybody else is doing probably will result in the same outcomes everybody else is achieving.
Think outside the box — Don’t just apply the same strategy everybody else is using at work. Take the initiative and be unique if you want to be noticed.
Following what the majority of people is doing is easy, it removes the pressure of dealing with difficult decisions. However, choosing to face your life in this way comes at the cost of often missing the extraordinary.
If you want extraordinary things happening to you you’ll probably need to act in unique and ingenious ways. Think outside the box, your kitchen will be cleaner.
If you enjoyed reading I would really appreciate it if you recommend ❤ and share this story. You can also follow me on Medium at Diego Oliveira Sánchez to read more stories. Finally, you can check Foodswiper out if you want to see the project I’m currently working on.
If you want to read more of my work I recommend this story: