Three Things Jigsaw Puzzles Can Teach Us About Problem-Solving

I often keep a jigsaw puzzle going on a side table when I’m working. I’ve got a 1,500 piece one sitting here right now, just finished—after five months. Working on the puzzle is a calming exercise when I’m thinking, or on hold, or taking a breather as I transition from one project to the next. Sometimes, the left-brain logic of fitting the pieces together is exactly what I need to kickstart the right-brain creativity I need for my work.

But soon after I developed this habit, a few years ago, I noticed something else. While jigsaw puzzles may take the prize for most over-used metaphor clichés, they do in fact have some profound things to say about the way our minds work. And these, in turn, can be helpful reminders for any sort of problem-solving. Here are three things jigsaw puzzles regularly remind me:

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you. But it has to come in its own good time.

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve sworn a piece must be lost. Maybe I accidentally knocked it under the couch! Maybe the manufacturers messed up!  One of the most surprising and yet familiar aspects of solving a puzzle is the way you can know exactly what the piece you’re looking for will look like, and still be unable to find it—until suddenly (maybe days later)—it’s there, right in front of you. “If it was a snake, it woulda bit you,” as the folksy saying goes. This amazing bit of magic happens again and again in puzzle-solving—just as it does in problem-solving. It resonates with me because it mirrors perfectly the moment when an answer I’ve been struggling to find in my work is suddenly there, innocently tapping its foot, right in front of me.

Problem-solving is a combination of dogged effort and sudden inspiration—along with a dose of luck.

Many puzzles I’ve worked on have areas that are nearly one vast color or texture. The only way I’ve found to “solve” these areas is to separate out every single piece of that color or texture, and then try them, one by one. Eventually, one fits, and I move onto the next spot. Sometimes this is a slow and tedious process. Sometimes, every piece I pick up is the right one—boom, boom, boom! As with any kind of problem-solving, you can hope it will go quickly, but you have to assume and prepare for a certain amount of tedious trial and error.

Never dismiss an answer before you have tried it out—the ones that work may surprise you.

Working a jigsaw puzzle is an exercise in the imagination. You look at the next place to put a piece, and you picture in your mind what that piece will look like, the shape and coloring. Then you hold that image in your head as you sort through the available pieces. Easy, right? Except I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried every piece that fits the image in my mind, and none works. Only to try, in desperation, one that I’m sure can’t possibly be right—it’s too fat or too crooked or too stripey—and to find that, somehow, it fits perfectly. Is there a better demonstration of how creative problem-solving requires an open mind?

Assembling jigsaw puzzles brings with it the immense satisfaction of solving any “real life” puzzle (along with a whole lot of the frustration). It also is a meditative task, that, for me at least, constantly proves the startling capacity of our minds to find answers while we are ostensibly engaged elsewhere—the “inspiration in the shower” phenomenon. These things I expected when I dragged in a table and emptied my first (grown-up) puzzle onto it. What has surprised me is the way the pretty little landscape that began to grow beneath my fingers so neatly paralleled the solutions I grow each day for my clients and myself.

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