Why do we love puzzles? As frustrating as a difficult puzzle may be, there is something intensely gratifying about imposing order upon chaos, about watching clarity emerge from confusion. The gradual completion of a puzzle reassures us that we can find order amidst the chaos of our lives as well.
But puzzles also have lessons to teach us. By learning them, we prepare ourselves for confronting the bewilderment of daily life.
With puzzles, some like the extra challenge of not looking at the picture on the box cover. But in life, you need a clear mental image of what success looks like. Without one, you’re much more likely to fail. As Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”
You can look at the picture on the box from today till tomorrow. But until you begin the determined search for patterns and connections, you’re no closer to recreating it. Whatever the job, all the affirmations and positive thinking in the world won’t substitute for good, old-fashioned hard work.
All the information you need to complete the puzzle is right in front of your eyes. So what’s the problem? The same problem you face when you get 11 millions results from a Google search. Randomized information is little better than total ignorance. This is why we start by assembling the border pieces. Once we being to impose order upon chaos, then we can start to make sense of the ocean of data that lies before us.
The colors match. The shapes match. But when you go to put the piece where you know it ought to go, it doesn’t fit. Even worse, it fits but doesn’t belong. You glare at the puzzle, demanding an explanation of the injustice. But there’s no arguing with a puzzle, just as there’s no arguing with computers or bureaucrats. Unfair or not, the rules are what they are. Deal with it and move on.
You overlook the same piece again and again, certain beyond certainty that it can’t be the one you need to fill the empty space that defies you. Until, out of ennui or because it’s the last piece remaining, you put it in and voila! How often do we refuse to exert even a modicum of effort because we’re convinced that it won’t pay off? How many opportunities slip away from us because we just know that what we’re looking for lies somewhere else?
You feel like you’ve wasted 15 or 20 minutes staring at a kaleidoscope of confusion with nothing to show for it. Then, all of a sudden, you find a piece that fits! Then another… and another. You’re on a roll. And then it ends, as abruptly and inexplicably as it began. Progress is not a smooth, steady grade. It’s a series of starts and stops, an irregular pattern of bitter frustrations punctuated by dazzling victories. Wisdom is the ability to recognize that the real work happens during the periods of frustration and that, without them, there would be no victories.
Optical illusions trick our eyes by creating false associations. The mind longs for order and pattern, and the eye accommodates the mind by fabricating the illusion of regularity. This is why people refuse to believe that Caracas, Venezuela, is farther east than Boston, Mass, that San Francisco is farther south than Lisbon, and that if you travel through the Panama Canal from the Pacific side you come out farther west than where you entered. A splash of color looks completely different strewn across the table than it does as part of a bigger picture. So too, the moments of our lives appear random and disconnected, until time and distance provide the perspective that reveals how they all fit together.
Have you heard the joke about the congressman whose secretary heard him laughing and laughing from the outer office? She hurries in and asks what’s so funny. “This puzzle,” the congressman replies. “I finished it in four hours, and the box says 3 to 5 years.” Why do we insist on doing puzzles with a thousand pieces rather than a hundred? Because without the challenge, there’s no point in doing the puzzle at all. If so, why do we want our lives to be free from challenge? What pleasure would we take in our accomplishments if they come too easy?
The thrill of putting in the last piece almost immediately turns to disappointment. Without purpose, we wither away. We need victories and conclusions to keep us going. But even more urgently we need every victory to be followed by the question: what’s next?
Once we finish a puzzle, we wonder what to do with it. Do we glue it together and put it in a frame? Do we gentle fold it back into the box so we can reconstitute it some time in the future? Do we crumple it up so we can do it again, or do we sell it to the thrift shop and buy another? We can try to hold onto the moments of our lives, but they pass us by, like water in a stream. Memories make us who we are, but living in the past drains the color from our future. Savor the good times, then leave them behind and look forward.