What Sort of Puzzle Person are You? (Essay)

Jan 03, 2022 by Mike Magluilo

“Enough with the edge pieces, Dad. Let’s do the fun part!” 

I learned a lesson last weekend on how to embrace the messiness of life, courtesy of my nine-year-old son. 

I have failed to complete 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles more often than I have contributed to the family swear jar over the past year. Like pickled herring, midnight mass and pleated trousers, my mom retains a false memory of my love for them. Once again this Christmas, she gifted me a painting of a beautiful winter scene in Central Park - packaged into 1,054 fragments like some Ikea bed frame. 

I’m the sort of person who attacks a jigsaw puzzle border first. There is something secretly comforting about working with the edge pieces. They’re easy to identify, you can figure out their general placement from the picture on the box, the potential combinations between one hundred twenty-six edge pieces are manageable, and if modestly committed, you can complete the border in a single sitting. 

Insisting on completing the border first is a metaphor for any ritual that helps you make sense of the world before charging ahead. For someone like me, the edge pieces provide a sense of order and control along with a steady drip of dopamine as I discover one combination after another with only short intervals of self-doubt in between. 

In contrast, your brain can’t hold the nine hundred twenty-eight non-edge pieces in your head at one time, which makes it a chaotic endeavor with virtually infinite possibilities. It’s not the sort of activity you can complete in a single session, and there will be sessions where little progress is made. How the pieces fit together and the role they play in the larger picture won’t be clear for a while. A guide exists, but so many pieces look like the others, it’s impossible to know if you are working with a piece of the yellow taxi or the hot dog cart. 

While my son wanted to get to work on the horses, people, trees and buildings (and the hot dog cart he kept referring to as “the ice cream stand”), I insisted on picking out all the edge pieces from the pile of cardboard rubble on our kitchen table before getting distracted by the inner pieces. Frustrated with my stubbornness, he left me to sort out the border alone. Hours later I realized it was unfair to think of him as a quitter. Instead, he tried to tell me that working on the inner pieces of the puzzle is a metaphor for anything that scares us just enough to make it worth doing.

Over the weekend, a few other examples came to mind: 

  • Committing to a friendship vs. flitting among multiple acquaintances
  • Taking on a project vs. keeping busy with tasks
  • Approaching your professional life as a career vs. your current job
  • Training for an event vs. exercising when you have time
  • Reading a book vs. watching a movie
  • A discussion vs. a tweet

Really, any challenge requiring consistency, intention and attention over a period of time fits the metaphor. Projects with no clear deadline. Self-directed pursuits in which autonomy brings the responsibility of being accountable to no one other than yourself. The equanimity to accept there are no easy answers - life is nuanced. This is not the land of instant gratification and continuous feedback. Many days will be unproductive. You will have to accept some bad with the best of the experience. You will fail along the way. 

As much as I enjoy working on the edge pieces, I know they are just the clean and orderly beginning. The world needs edge builders. Structure and order organizes the whole endeavor that awaits, placing safe constraints on the messiness inside. Clearing the edge pieces from the rubble eliminates distractions from the bigger task at hand. Once the border is in place, you know how much of the kitchen table is off limits for the next several weeks.

As I worked away on my border, I realized for most of my life, I have focused on the edges, regularly abandoning opportunities when faced with the messy bits inside. Academically, that meant pursuing the easiest path to a paycheck and selecting the easiest classes in college to get me a degree. Professionally, that included switching jobs when I struggled to breathe under the weight of responsibility or when success and a perfectionist mindset bred a fear of failure I couldn’t handle. Personally, I was a consultant father, husband and friend - dropping in when convenient and never staying long enough to get stuck in the mud. 

Embarking on a second career last year as a writer has removed the border around my career and closest personal relationships. It’s left me with nowhere to hide. I now live in a world of infinite possibilities. While a lack of constraints is liberating, the lack of rules and checklists can feel terrifying at times. As my son expressed this weekend by refusing to be constrained by the safe stuff, beauty is in the messiness of life, work and relationships. Show up consistently and persistently with intention and attention, and you’ll not only end up with something you can share with others, but you’ll discover the beauty of what resides inside.