Like Doing Puzzles? Life is Full of Them!

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, my family decided to resurrect an old tradition of putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Not just any puzzle, mind you, but a thousand-piece puzzle based on Hostess snack foods (see the attached photo). It seemed simple enough – lots of different foods, brand names, colors and shapes, and of course multiple Hostess logos throughout the scene. The more diverse the images the easier they’d be to fit together – right?

Well, as Coach Lee Corso says. “Not so fast, my friend!” It took several people over 3 hours just to find all the external edge pieces and then fit them into place, forming the frame of the design. In between the fantastic holiday feast, the football games and holiday movies, and catching up with family members, we somehow found time to gradually work on the puzzle project. Six different family members spent close to 20 total hours taking turns trying to find homes for the remaining 900+ pieces of Hostess goodies in the picture.

Soon, it was the last night of our get together and still almost a third of the puzzle was scattered on the table. I am a creature of habit with a burning desire to finish tasks, living every day trying to check off the boxes of my To Do List. Uncompleted tasks make my skin crawl. The puzzle had become a nemesis for me, and I was going to do everything in my power to finish it before the holiday gathering was over. I sat down at the table around 10pm, determined to find homes for all the wayward puzzle slices.

Soon, my son and daughter joined me at the table. My wife jumped in as well. They know me well and realized that I would not go to bed until the puzzle was completed. We took turns battling with the 300 or so pieces left to place on the board.

I quickly noticed that each of us had unique skills when it came to placing pieces correctly into the puzzle. My daughter saw shapes clearly and could look at a spot, see the outline of it and then quickly find it on the table. My wife and son saw themes – words that worked together or colors that should blend together well and each would start placing five to seven pieces at a time based on the remaining holes in the puzzle. My method was a bit more plodding and methodical – I worked outside in, using the shape and color of the next piece needed, then searching for it in the unplaced piece pile.

Within a couple of hours our newly formed team had cut down the task to about hundred pieces. My wife got tired and headed to bed, my daughter got a little bored and stepped away from the table occasionally, while my son and I plowed ahead with the process. In another half hour, we were down to 20-30 pieces – we knew we were going to finish it! Our enthusiasm got us through the next 15 minutes and when my son plopped the final piece in place, we celebrated with a high five and a quiet yell of approval (didn’t want to wake up the whole house)!  I took several pictures of the completed masterpiece, knowing it would be destroyed the next day and put back into the box.

We were each proud of the accomplishment and chatted about it the next morning over breakfast. Then it began to occur to me that putting the puzzle together was quite a metaphor for teamwork, strategy and problem solving. Several family members contributed to getting the puzzle 70% completed but it took hyper focus, determination and a recognition of individual skills that led to getting it fully assembled. All of the answers to our test were on the table in front of us – we didn’t need special tools, a handbook, an outside advisor, or a YouTube video. Everything we needed was in front of us. We just had to use our individual talents, help each other when needed, and stick to the plan.

During the process, team members occasionally changed sides of the table to get a new perspective on the situation. We took breaks and recharged with snacks or beverages. And we encouraged each other and tried to make the task fun. The end result was worth the effort and concentration it took to achieve the goal.

Similarly, each of us encounter “puzzles” in life on a daily basis. My daughter is graduating from college soon and is focused on contacting potential employers and navigating the landmines of the interview process. My son is writing, producing and performing original music – he is always on the lookout for the right collaboration or connection that will help him grow as an artist or expand his universe of listeners. My wife is a realtor and is having the best year of her career in the middle of a pandemic. As for me, I constantly push myself to learn more, do more and be the best I can be – specifically so I can share that knowledge with others. I am a teacher, coach and trainer at my core.

Each member of my family, me included, has the answers to the next test right in front of us. The key is to recognize what the challenge really is – without emotions getting in the way. The puzzle we worked on didn’t care if we solved it or not. Getting frustrated, or tired, or angry at the pieces didn’t change anything about the process needed to fit them together. My Dad always said, “If you can’t solve the problem, change the problem.” That’s what we were doing by changing sides of the table or taking a break or grabbing a snack. The problem was not with the puzzle – it was within each one of us. If we had allowed emotions to rule, I guarantee the puzzle would not have been completed.

The simple point is this – take the next puzzle in your path and break it down before trying to solve it. Organize your thoughts the way we did with the pieces. Put your emotions on hold and let your real skills take over. Involve others who may have a different perspective and learn from what they see or can add to the process. Don’t be afraid to change your thinking to get clarity on the solution needed. And finally, believe that you CAN and WILL solve the problem in front of you. Your mindset will rule your ability to succeed or fail – especially with a thousand-piece, adult size, real life puzzle in your way. Embrace the challenge as an opportunity to learn, grow and develop your skills. Practice this method and soon that huge, crazy, untenable puzzle will look more like a child’s game than a roadblock to success.

If you need help getting your puzzle plan together, I’d be happy to chat with you about it.

Much success!

Brad Raney