How Many Ways Can You Use a Cardboard Box?

Published: August 21, 2023

by Justin Difazzio

A few weeks ago at our weekly creative meeting, Creative Director Brian surprised us by telling us to get a pen and paper. Usually we just talk at the meetings, but today was different. He wouldn’t tell us what was up, but when we were all ready, he said we had 30 seconds to list answers to a simple question.

How many uses can you think of for a cardboard box?

wiener dog in a box

At the end of 30 seconds, we all had a list, and almost everyone had hit a wall somewhere around a dozen items. We started sharing our lists, checking off common items like cat forts, storage, and building a robot costume. A few people had unique items on theirs, but for the most part, we’d all had the same ideas.

We could have stopped there, chalked it up to the meeting being too early, not having enough coffee, or just being uninspired at the time. But Brian offered us this question:

If we did this again, do you think you could generate more or fewer ideas?

Obviously the answer is fewer ideas, since we were tapped out from the first run.

So we ran the experiment again. Thirty seconds. Pens to paper. No repeats. Go!

person holding pen to paper

At the end of that second wave of ideas, we almost all had more ideas on our paper than during the first wave. What happened? How had we all been so wrong about our creative potential?

Looking back, it’s easy to see how many ideas and iteration something went through before it became what we know of today. Look at Edison. While famously curmudgeonly and possibly a thief, the lightbulb went through hundreds of materials that didn’t work as a filament until landing on the one solution that did. Persistence is the key to creativity in many, many examples throughout history.

Everyone has thought up a better comeback to an insult or a better counterargument to a long-finished argument hours after it could be useful.

So why do we think that our best batch of ideas come first or not at all?

It turns out we’re sort of wired that way. Despite successful creative careers, many of us think that we’re on the edge of running out of ideas, jokes, solutions, or designs. It’s simply not true. Time after time, we prove ourselves capable of creative solutions again and again, improving our ideas over days, weeks, months, and even years!

Think about a rusty tap. You’ve got to let that rusty water flow out before clear water will come. You have to churn through the bad ideas before you can get to the better ones. If we’re stopping before we reach our full creative potential, we’re just drinking a glass of iron-rich, orange water, and we wouldn’t recommend that.

a rusty old farm water pump

The next time you’re feeling tapped out, take a short break and come back. Just don’t quit before your best ideas have had time to come to the surface. You never know what could be your lightbulb moment—or your cardboard-box-as-floor-pad-for-office-breakdance-competition moment!