Outside the box

The Test

Several men went to the Royal Palace and requested to become Emperor Akbar’s Royal Advisor. Akbar told them, “Only the person who passes my special test will get the job.”

He then took off his coat and put in on the floor. “Cover me from head to toe with this coat,” Akbar commanded.

All the men tried, but one by one they failed. When they covered his lower body, his upper body remained uncovered, and when they covered his lower body, his upper body remained uncovered.

Then Birbal entered the court, and Akbar asked him if he could complete the task. Birbal paused for a moment, and then politely asked Akbar, “Could you pull up your knees for a second?” Akbar did, and Birbal easily covered him from head to toe with the coat.

—This folktale from India reminds us that we shouldn’t allow our thinking to be boxed in by artificially imposed boundaries, or what has come to be known as “thinking outside the box” or “lateral thinking.” The men in the story are trapped by conventional thinking. They believe it’s the size of the blanket that is the problem. Then Birbal shows up and switches expectations by seeing the Emperor’s size and shape as the problem and not the dimensions of the blanket. In other words, instead of worrying about the size of the blanket, Birbal sees it’s the Emperor’s dimensions that need to be adjusted to fit the blanket’s dimensions. It’s a thought process that may be more familiar to you in the form of word puzzles: a Man rides into town on Friday, stays overnight, and leaves on Friday. How? Friday is the name of the horse he rode in on.


Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.