Nine dots, four lines; A challenge for 2020

Below are nine dots arranged in a set of three rows. Your challenge is to draw four straight lines which connect to each other and go through all nine of the dots.

Here’s a clue. Think outside of the box.

In fact, this challenge was responsible for popularizing the concept of thinking outside the box. In the early 1970’s psychologist JP Guilford asked subjects to work out this puzzle that had been around for about a hundred years prior to his work. If you haven’t seen this puzzle before and don’t see the solution right off, don’t worry only about one in four or five people do – even when given the clue to think outside the box.1

Out of the box thinking implies creativity but presents a paradox. Rules help guide us to better decisions and keep us safe. Rules also feel confining. Often, we do things because that is how they have always been done or because we were taught to do something one way and haven’t tried doing that thing another way. This doesn’t only apply to things that are imposed on us from outside as in how to create and file a report at work. Rules are all around us and apply to all kinds of things that we do so if we really think about it a creative solution is really only possible by using the tools we have with us inside our boxes. How can we combine different elements to find solutions?

My inclination to provide an example is to describe a racetrack. It’s rather like a blank piece of paper. You can drive anywhere on it, but there is really one quickest way around it. When I am at the track, however, I like to use other analogies like cooking. Let’s take some spaghetti. There’s only one way to cook it. It must be boiled. However, it doesn’t taste very good unless it is flavored with a sauce. You might be thinking of a tomato sauce, but almost anything can be used to make a sauce, and almost everyone’s pantry probably has some ingredients (tools) that can be used. Combining these “tools” can yield great, and unexpected, taste profiles. (I know there are fans of it, but straight up ketchup is out of consideration for me.)

Let’s go back to the connecting the dots challenge and the box we are trying to think outside of. Let’s think about all of the different boxes we are in. Each one of them has rules and tools. There could be a box that we are not happy to be in (read crappy job.) It might be a good idea to leave one box behind because we are unhappy. That’s a box worth getting out of, but unless one of us hits the lottery most likely we will have to enter another box (job) with a variation of the rules we left behind. Rather than trying to escape all of our boxes, all of the time, I suggest thinking about the tools in the pantry (even the ketchup) and wonder about applying one or more of them in a different way. (Maybe some butter, garlic, Thai fish sauce and red pepper flakes can tune up the ketchup…)

I'm not big on new year’s resolutions but would like to challenge you to stop trying to solve challenges by trying to think out of the box. Instead, try inside the box thinking like this FedEx kid.

Good luck to all in 2020!

  1. To read more about the nine dot puzzle and its solution see pages 19-22 of by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenburg, or ask me and I’ll share it!