Boxed in

Imagine a fish raised in a fish bowl. Its entire existence is enclosed in about one cubic square foot of water. In this environment the fish is content to live out its life, unaware of the world outside. The fish is limited by walls. This is the box we need to escape from if we want to excel.

When we think outside the box, a million-dollar idea can seem so simple. We have to reach beyond our self-imposed walls of limitations. If we don’t, we’ll get left behind.

Think about how the first airplane was invented. While airplanes have only existed since the beginning of this century, the technology has been around before man. The Wright brothers imitated the balance and aerodynamics of a bird’s wing in their design. They were one of the first to look beyond mankind’s self-imposed limitations, and to see the relationship, and possibilities, in applying nature to industry.

In 1954, as a 52-year-old milkshake machine vendor was visiting one of his restaurant customers in San Bernardino, Calif., he witnessed a unique food assembly line system that two brothers had developed. Immediately recognizing the potential of their idea, he offered to pay them a percentage of their gross receipts. The brothers agreed, and the vendor set up a copy of their restaurant in Des Plaines, Ill., on April 15, 1955. That year, he opened two more restaurants, and within the next six years he had opened 228 more stores. The brothers, Maurice and Richard McDonald, and the milkshake machine salesman, Ray Kroc, have permanent places in U.S. history. The lesson? Sometimes all it takes is a simple idea to make the difference between minor and historic success.

I recognize that thinking outside our walls can be difficult. In today’s fast-paced environment, the one thing that most people lack is time. We’re always rushed to make decisions, and the urgency of accomplishing the immediate naturally rises to the top of our priority list. What we don’t realize is that this mentality encourages us to act like gerbils on a wheel, spinning in circles but not really going anywhere. Therefore, it is important to be able to take ourselves outside of the picture at times to look at things objectively. When we train ourselves to be more open-minded, we open doors to Ray Kroc’s level of success.

I’ve found from experience that continual learning helps maintain an open mindset. We need to remind ourselves to invest time in learning, no matter our age. For example, history has a marvelous habit of repeating itself. By reading about history we gain various perspectives on how people respond to certain situations, and we can learn from their successes and mistakes. I, for one, read the Bible. It helps me broaden my perspective on life, and it provides a personal resource for me in finding new-yet ancient-ways of viewing and responding to situations.

There are other resources that can aid us in tearing down our walls. A source we deal with in business each day is our vendors. When you think that those vendors are probably dealing with six or seven other businesses like yours on a daily basis, they suddenly represent a great resource. They see and hear all the latest innovations taking place in our industries. How do you treat these people? Are they like flies waiting to be swatted, or do you see them as valuable team members?

Maybe the next great idea you’ll encounter will come from one of your employees. How are you treating them?

Our attitude can be the direct cause of failure or great success. Treating people respectfully is one way of breaking down our walls. And it’s an easy way to start climbing out of our box.

Fred Koury is CEO of SBN. He welcomes your comments at