Lesson from a Jigsaw Puzzle

Life in pieces

The jigsaw puzzle piece

The Backstory

There are many ways that the brain can be given a work out. For me, I need to exercise seeing big picture things come together. It’s what I do every day… there’s a goal that needs accomplished with a lot of pieces in play.

Back in 2002 just before I started my MBA at Ohio University, I needed a non-technical way to get ready for a year of intense, accelerated work. I found some old games, and in the pile were a few boxes that caught my eye. So, I began to warm up for graduate school by tackling jigsaw puzzles.

The Object

I opened the box on the kitchen table, and the smell of old cardboard filled the room.

In the box was a photo that was cut into 500 jigsaw puzzle pieces. The challenge… put it all back together.

As I sorted through the edge pieces, color patterns, and angles of the shapes, it didn’t take me long to finish.

All-in-all, I completed 4 puzzles over 2 months before the school year started. And then… school, life, a career, and distractions took over, and I didn’t touch another puzzle for 12 years.

A puzzle drought is lifted.

In 2014, it was deja-vu, as I was going through old boxes… I found a puzzle that wasn’t completed. Immediately, I opened the box and got that whiff of old cardboard (at the time, all I had was old puzzles, ha!).

I turned our old dining room table in the basement into a puzzle table and kept going. Over the course of 2014, I completed 10 jigsaw puzzles by leaving it open on the table just outside of my office. Every time I walk by, I glance at this unfinished mess staring at me — begging to be completed.

My first 2,000 piece puzzle. High quality, Buffalo Games brand puzzle.

A puzzle snob is born.

Over the last two years, I’ve completed over 30 jigsaw puzzles, and I noticed the development of some deeper and more specific preferences.

  • I prefer glass table tops. Who knew! I was using an old wood table, and when I upgraded to glass in 2016, there was no turning back. The pieces slide around much easier, and being able to see through the table provides a comforting depth when puzzling.
  • Poorly cut puzzle pieces are really annoying. It bugs me when the paper of the pieces comes apart, or the pieces don’t fit together cleanly.
  • The image I am putting together needs to be interesting. I guess this is the whole point… I want to put together something that encourages me to see the finished product.
  • Artistic style and intrigue matter more than piece count. Good use of light, dark, and patterns are more fascinating to work with. Like a good book, it has to keep my interest. If a 500-piece puzzle tells a good story, has bold colors, and is of good quality, then it’ll be fun to do.
  • I am a traditional puzzler. I didn’t know this going in… I’ve done my fair share of 3D puzzles and such, but those double-sided, image-changing puzzles block my interest like there is no tomorrow. It’s right up there with puzzles that have huge areas of the same color. Mind-numbing.

I only do puzzles one time.

Every puzzle I have ever completed is saved in whole… all put together. I know some folks prefer to take puzzles apart and do them again later, but I just can’t do it! Once I accomplish or fix something, it’s a pet peeve of mine to do it again… at work, at home, and definitely with puzzles.

An Eric Dowdle puzzle. Folk Art style. These are fun and quick to put together!

A completed puzzle is like a trophy and a story that can be revisited. There is a grand sense of accomplishment when I brush my hands over a freshly completed puzzle… I can’t bring myself to destroy it. That would be like throwing away hours of effort and have nothing to show for it.

I tend to stay away from the glues and laminates to preserve puzzles… I use Duct Tape. No kidding. It’s cheap, easy, and works. I flip the puzzle over and blanket the back with Duct Tape, until every piece is covered. A trick for flipping big or flimsy puzzles… Press’n’Seal wrap.

What’s cool is that my daughters enjoy puzzles, and they write their own names and ages on the back with my name, date, and piece count. It’ll be a neat way to capture them growing up and a good walk down memory lane when they get older.

My second 2,000 piece puzzle from Buffalo Games.

The Lesson

The jigsaw puzzle is the perfect analogy for so many concepts of life, business, and strategy. Like a huge game of memory, I can immerse myself in looking for patterns, trends, and piece together a fragmented story.

Panorama puzzle of Ohio Stadium in Columbus.

Perhaps this explains why I consider myself a turn-around leader… I seek things that are broken and fix them… or don’t exist and build them. Establish organization; restore order.

The Take-aways…

  • Spend energy on things that encourage you to finish.
  • If a piece doesn’t fit, don’t force it.
  • Don’t underestimate the need to have a functional and efficient space to get things done. It’ll change the way you feel about work and play.
  • Open old boxes… you never know what you’ll find inside.

Much like the need for the puzzle to keep me interested in finishing, so does my work at home and my work with my employer. So, I put down my phone, stepped away from the computer, and started to change the way I think.

I puzzle to escape. #IAmAPuzzler

BONUS: I wrote the next chapter where I moved beyond the “why” and wrote the “how to” steps I use to build a jigsaw puzzle, Lesson from a 2,000 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle featuring Buffalo Games “Star Wars: Rogue One — “Rebellions are Built on Hope.”

Written by Shaun Holloway.