The Art of Puzzling

Over the holiday break, I visited one of my oldest friends. By oldest, I mean that our friendship is the longest I have, not that she is the oldest by age.

My friend and I are different in many ways. She has a scientific mind: when faced with a question, she reaches for science, for experimentation and data, to make decisions. At one point, reflecting on a box of assorted teas, we recognized simultaneously that each strain of tea recommended a different water temperature and brewing time. My thought went to how difficult people might find it to remember to brew each type of tea a different time. Her thoughts went to what chemical compounds might be released by the different temperatures.

At another time, I was idly scrolling my newsfeed and read a headline about mental health that I thought was cool. “I’d like to see the data on that” she remarked, and I knew she meant sample sizes and P-values and that shit. And then my brain crapped out. I was less interested in the details of the data and more impressed by what the data might imply about how people learn and how I might apply that to change behaviors.

And that is what she noticed: that I was constantly thinking about the people angle. When she told stories about her interactions with people, I wondered what might be behind their behavior. She grew up, as she tells it, in a family of geniuses. Her undiagnosed ADHD made it hard to concentrate and keep up with them, and she always felt like the dummy in the family. But, when she shared stories about her siblings, my first thought was to wonder if neurodiversity ran through her entire family. How what she took as brilliance in an older sibling – who at the same time, seemed so out of touch with the emotions of those around her – might have been undiagnosed Aspergers. When I wondered this thought aloud, she paused and remarked on how I saw the world through a human lens.

Yet, when we sat down together to do a jigsaw puzzle, our techniques were remarkably similar. Yes, we both started with the edge – to not start with the edge would make it too challenging for most of us, although I am sure there are those who do not. We weren’t completely alike: as I’m picking out the edge pieces, I like to sort the other pieces by color or texture; she left them in a mixed up pile in the middle of the puzzle space. But we both had the technique of staring at the pieces, picking one up seemingly at random, comparing it to the box, then unerringly placing it in the correct spot.

A technique that drives my husband crazy.

His technique, after securing the edge pieces and sorting the others , by color or texture, is to sort them again by shape, so that all the little men are together, separately from the four-foots, and the three-foots. Far sooner than I do, he tries each piece methodically around the edge: does this head fit in this hole? No? How about the next one and the next and the next. I use this technique, too, but mostly towards the end of the puzzle when all I have left is blue sky or black water.

Lately my husband has developed a new technique: he’ll point to a spot where a specific-shaped piece is missing, and say, “Find me the piece that goes here.” I then pick up a piece and hand it to him. And most of the time the first one fits.

“Stop doing that,” I told him last night.

“But it works,” he replied. “Hand me the piece that belongs here.”

And I did.

Jigsaw puzzles, are for me, sense-making. They appeal to the part of me that likes making order out of chaos. When I am at work, this is what I am doing: looking at chaotic processes and systems and trying to figure out how to visually tell their story.

There’s an art to it: you need to allow a certain amount of chaos because that’s where change comes from, new ideas, friction that drives people to think differently.

But it helps to define the edge around the chaos, so that it doesn’t spin endlessly out of control.

And, at some point, you have to begin sense-making with the pieces. That shade of black may be the cat’s coat or dark wood or the night sky, but which is it? And how does it connect to everything else going on around it? And where is the piece that goes there?

Some people have a bias towards action. It serves them well, because they activate people around them to get started, to move towards change. This bias can also cause them to go off half-cocked, to rush towards change without having a clear destination in mind. And, once things are in motion, they sometimes lack sticking power, moving on to the next change they want to implement, and the next.

I have a bias towards clarity. It serves me well, because I help people connect ideas, understand how their role fits into the larger context, see a picture of the future in a way that allows them to plan their next steps and move forward. I can also help them recognize simpler, easier ways of doing things.

My bias can also cause me to spend more time than people are comfortable with, staring at the pieces, nudging them gently around. I connect a few pieces of a teapot or a globe or a fence, set it aside. I connect a few pieces of the cat, or a tree, set them aside. Until finally they all come together and connect right there, and then whole thing becomes clear. And sometimes I want to understand everything – maybe there are a few pieces here that don’t belong, but you never know – you may want them later…

That is what I do at work all day, while my oldest friend is advising start-ups on biogenetic patent law: I put people and process puzzles together.

Sometimes it amazes me that I get paid for this.

And then I think of that Picasso anecdote, the one where he is sitting in a café alone, idly doodling on a napkin. A tourist nearby notices and asks if she could have the napkin. He offers it to her for a price.

“But that only took you five minutes!” She exclaims indignantly.

And he replies, “No, madam, that took me a lifetime.”

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