How puzzles taught me to be a better person

I didn’t really socialize with kids my age in elementary school.

My dad was in college, and I basically lived on a college campus, where most of my extracurricular, non-family interactions were with visiting students for my mom’s Vietnamese food.

What were the results of my premature collegiate associations, you ask?

  1. My teachers said I was “very mature for my age” and my consequent “Oh-God-I-am-the-teacher’s-pet” complex.
  2. Me reading books gifted by said students that flew over my head. (The only thing I remember about “East of Eden” are the farms and lots of names.)
  3. Puzzles.

I don’t know how it happened (probably a student gave me one for a vacation), but I quickly developed a love for puzzles. The small table in our sitting area was dedicated to my puzzling endeavors. Maybe it would have been a brief phase if not for the fact that our college visitors often did the riddles with me. A 20-year-old doesn’t have much to talk to an 8-year-old, so the kind silence that building a puzzle brings was a workaround for awkward interactions.

So I built a lot of puzzles over those years, sometimes by myself for my college “friends” to be impressed when they next visited, sometimes with them as we waited for dinner.

This went on for a few years, and by the end I had gone from 500 piece puzzles to my crowning glory: a 3,000 piece with safari animals around a waterhole in a beautiful animal unity scene. I was so heartbroken to tear it up that I moved the finished puzzle to a large board and kept it untouched for a few weeks.

But eventually my magnum opus was dismantled, my family dropped out of college, the little table became a storage space for my family’s stuff, and I stopped playing with puzzles.

Almost a decade later, I haven’t really thought about puzzles since. I don’t think most people think about puzzles, ever.

But I began to feel nostalgia for my confusing years. It’s not your standard “man, be a kid again” reminiscence. I long for the version of me who could spend hours staring at oddly shaped little pieces of cardboard, placing them in appropriately spaced orientations, and be thoroughly entertained.

I now live in a world of fragmented attention, constantly jumping from one task to another, from one form of entertainment to another. There have been so many times I opened my phone to send a quick text or email, only to find myself, an hour later, clicking on yet another YouTube video or scrolling through yet another photo Instagram that leaves no impression. on me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at an Instagram photo I liked before, only to realize I couldn’t remember ever seeing it before.

It’s not that I hate our current entertainment landscape. I just have a problem with the insane, meaningless, time-consuming way to consume it. Especially when the experience itself can actually be quite boring, and so I open up another form of entertainment to simultaneously watch in the same mindless, meaningless, time-sucking way. I guess I just miss being someone who doesn’t need to be bombarded with 1,000 flashy external stimuli to be entertained.

Although I have lost this part of the puzzle, all the vestiges of these years have not left me.

I think most people consider puzzles to be rather boring and laborious. They wouldn’t be entirely wrong. It’s just sitting down and working on it. There is no way to solve it intelligently. Essentially, it’s not a test of skill, but of stubbornness. Either you do the puzzle or you don’t.

It’s easy to admire outright skill. Aren’t we always more impressed by the athlete who masters a gesture the first time than by the one who masters it after years of training?

There is nothing wrong with that. What I take issue with is that while most people agree that talent and hard work are both necessary, we are more impressed by a lot of talent than a lot of hard work. It’s almost assumed that hard work is something anyone can do, whereas talent is only for the chosen ones.

Let’s say there were two organic chemistry students. One doesn’t study much, but still does well, while the other studies a lot and does about the same. Naturally, we praise the former, place them on a pedestal that “normal” people cannot climb, and hope that they will be successful in this course and in the field. About the second, we almost think, “Well, it would be kind of sad if they spent all that time studying and they didn’t do well.” I say we, but I’m really talking about me. I do that. All the time.

But at some point, you can’t just foil your way to success. Maybe it won’t be in that first organic chemistry class, or even in graduate school, but at some point this very talented student will be faced with a problem that he just can’t immediately solve.

At some point, in our classes, our extracurricular activities, our personal lives, we too will encounter a problem (probably problems) that we cannot solve right away. Either there is no simple solution that we simply need to achieve, or this simple solution is not easily achievable. There’s not much to do but sit down and put the pieces together, deliberately and patiently.

I’m not saying that anyone who wants to improve their media consumption and have a healthier view of success needs to do puzzles, but, at least for me, I think a puzzle or two would force me to be another version of myself- even, a less fractured and impatient, if only for a few hours.

When I get home over the Thanksgiving holiday, I think I’ll rummage through the box of old toys hidden somewhere in our basement.

I might find what I’m looking for.