What I Learned From Solving a 750-Piece Puzzle

This past Christmas, a parishioner of ours gave my kids a puzzle, a traditional gift she gives because she is an educator and sees the value in solving puzzles. As the kids have gotten older, the number of puzzle pieces has grown as well. This year, it was a 750-piece puzzle with no less than six wolves, surrounded by tall trees, colorful leaves, and plants… lots and lots of plants.  Truth be told, I have never had the desire to even attempt making any puzzles, especially one with so many pieces and a complicated background. However, with the long Christmas break, I thought it would be a good use of time and encouraged (begged, actually) my kids to puzzle away.

One of them took me up on it.  My eldest had the strategy that most tend to use – start with the edges first and work your way in. To his credit, he managed to get most of the frame done as well as a portion of the bottom, and then he lost interest. It was too hard. I picked it up from there and found, to my great surprise that putting together a puzzle can be addicting! I started strategizing, grouping pieces together by color, and making connections. Sometimes it took a while, but the feeling of finding a piece that fits right in its place was like a shot of dopamine, that “feel good” neurotransmitter. It kept me coming back for more and sometimes staying up past midnight to fit as many pieces into the growing picture as possible.  Throughout the process, I found that solving puzzles can teach us a lot about ourselves and about life. Here are five connections I made:

  1. Have grit, don’t quit. Accomplishing difficult tasks takes time.  Solving puzzles allows us an opportunity to practice the virtue of patience, something we lack in a world where we are so used to instant gratification. There were a couple of times I thought about giving up and putting the puzzle back in its box, overwhelmed by the task ahead. I thought to myself, “This is going to take forever!” I wavered between wanting the satisfaction of the end result and hesitating to invest the work and time that would require. Today, we are so used to getting what we want, when we want it. No need to go from store to store anymore; whatever we want is literally at our fingertips, and Amazon can deliver it tomorrow. The puzzle causes us to reflect; are we the kind of person who gives up quickly, or are we willing to struggle and wait for the reward? This is grit, the MVP characteristic that almost all successful people in any field have in common.  In essence, with grit, we learn to enjoy the work part of it as much as the end result.
  2. Keep the big picture in mind. When you want to accomplish a goal, it is good to heed the advice Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and “begin with the end in mind.” When solving a puzzle, referring to the picture on the box is essential. You have to discern which piece goes where, and often times it can be confusing (especially when so many of the pieces involve animal fur)! Keeping the image in mind as a motivator and helper simplifies the task. Otherwise, you will have a very difficult time figuring out where the pieces belong. As Christians, we have our ultimate goal, to get to the Kingdom of Heaven. The image on our ‘box’ is that of Christ. Holding the ‘pieces’ of our lives in our hands, we ask, “Is what I am doing or saying matching the image of Christ?” We keep His image in our mind as a motivator and helper so that “whatever we may undertake to do, we may do so faithfully and diligently, according to [His] will” (Orthodox prayer before commencing a task).  Throughout our struggles to walk the walk, we are constantly having to discern God’s will. When we do what He wants us to do, it fits.
  3. Don’t force things.  When solving a puzzle, it’s super important that we not force a piece to fit, as much as we would like it to. In the end, that forced placement will be revealed and the mistake may be difficult to fix. There will indeed be some undoing. In life, we should be careful not to force things if we know that something just does not fit. Fasting, prayer, reading books that enrich the soul, attending divine services, seeking spiritual council, struggling… all of this helps to aid us in discerning God’s will so that we do not force our will and have some “undoing” to do in the future.
  4. Change your perspective. In puzzle making, sometimes you have to change your perspective in order to make the pieces fit. Turn the piece you thought was upside down and you may discover that it is now right-side up. In life, be willing to turn things around and see a situation in more than one way.  Don’t get stuck looking at something one way, because it can be completely wrong.
  5. Ask for help.  At one point, I was really ready to put the pieces back in the box, but I left it on the dining room table and made a little “help wanted” sign, hoping to get a taker or two at my mom’s birthday party we were hosting. To my joy and surprise, more than a few of my family members gravitated to the dining table and were hooked! My sister said she was glad to see the sign asking for help because she loves to solve puzzles. In life, we can’t be afraid to ask for help. So many people are ready and willing to help if we just ask. This is especially true when it comes to matters of the soul.

It was exciting to finish the puzzle and get to step back and enjoy it… but just for a little while. After a time, I put the pieces back in its box for others to enjoy. New puzzles await, and maybe next time, it’ll be a 1,000-pieces.