What Completing a 1000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle Taught me about Life

Sometimes you learn from the most unexpected sources

Eleven weeks into the coronavirus lockdown and I’ve exhausted every means of entertainment I used to employ when free time was less freely available. I can have now full-blown conversations with Netflix characters. I’ve had to delete Instagram because refreshing the homepage 652 times a day was driving me mad. I’ve read, I’ve sang, I’ve cooked, cleaned, dirtied and cleaned again.

And yet, time keeps sprouting. There is more time to kill and no place to go. Amidst this angst, I came across a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle I had once bought ambitiously — saved for a rainy day (or month) like this one, and decided to give it a go.

Honestly speaking, if you look hard enough, you can find a metaphor in anything. So here are some metaphors I found in the hours and hours of toil, patience, pattern analysis that it takes to finish a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

1. I promise, you have all the pieces.

Before you start out, you segregate the pieces into sections with similar patterns. This one’s a tree, this one’s a cloud and this is a dark abyss that could be either the sky or a lake. So many pieces around, it seems like more than 1000. But once you start, and you’re looking for a particular piece. After trying so many and not finding a fit, you feel sure that it isn’t there. The manufacturing company messed it up — and forgot some pieces.

I promise, this is not the case. All the pieces are there. You have all the tools you need — all you need to do is trust the process.

2. There is no shortcut

Being overly organised, I tried many organisational structures to optimise piece-matching. I tried organising pieces by their shape, pattern, area and angle. Finally, I realised — It goes piece by piece. There is no short cut and no strategy. The only way to do it is to painstakingly pick a section and fit the pieces in one by one.

You can force a strategy in, like I did. But it only barely works. There is only one trick — and that is to do the work, piece by piece.

3. Trial and error... works

I don’t know if a lot of people relate to this, but I try very hard to understand things — mostly processes, best practices, and the like. I believe it keeps me ahead of the curve and I always try to optimise the efficiency of what i do.

But, the truth is, trial and error works. It may be inefficient, but it works. And sometimes it’s the only way, and no amount of reading can beat experience.

4. Sometimes the picture itself seems wrong

There were times through it all that I questioned the whole picture. This part is a printing error, the proportions are all stretched out, theres no way this piece belongs there.

But again, I was wrong. Time and again, the big picture proved to be correct. Even when it was hard to relate where I was then to what the goal was, the path always came. the inevitability of the picture remained.

5. If you have to ask “does this fit” the answer is probably no

Fit is King. There is such a thing as right and wrong pieces. And even if you swear it looks correct — look at the box! That has to be where it goes! — If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. Let it go. There is a piece that belongs there, and you’ll find it later.

There is something to be said about letting things be natural. Not forcing them in, and being organic. The best relationships and hobbies are the ones that don’t take a huge effort, they flow on their own.

Puzzle pieces are similar. If you have to force them in, even a little bit, it’s probably just the wrong piece. The right pieces fit in like gloves. Don’t waste your time forcing it and wait for the right piece.

6. You will inevitably have to unravel some of the pieces

Don’t be afraid to do that. It only leads to more harmonious fits in the future, and frankly you will never finish if you cling dearly to the ones you have wrongly fit.

7. Flip it over

Turn it around and try. Look at it upside-down.

8. The parts you expect to be the hardest are actually easier

When I started out, I steered clear from the pieces that had no visible pattern — the lake waters, the sky. They seemed like they had nothing to go on, and would be more time consuming.

Well, I was wrong. They turned out to be easier. Because when it came down to it, the pattern was actually a distraction. All I needed to do was focus on one thing at a time. In the absence of a pattern, fit was all that mattered. And that focus made things easier and faster

9. The corners are what determine where you fit

Every piece is unique. I don’t know how they do it, but they are. And yet, they all fit together to make a large beautiful image. That’s poetic enough.

10. You can join pieces without knowing where they go in the big picture

If the big picture doesn’t always make sense. You know it’s there, and you have to get to it eventually, but sometimes you can’t see that far.

It’s okay to pick up a bunch of pieces in the corner and fit them to each other. It only helps, and when you get to the main image, it will go faster because you have some blocks done already.

11. Once you get into the groove, it goes faster

The beginning takes the longest. It will take time for the picture to make sense. Everything seems unconnected in the beginning. But once you start seeing the big picture in it, and familiarise yourself with the little moving parts, things go a lot faster and smoother.

Stick with it. It gets more rewarding towards the end, when you can look back and see the road you’ve travelled. Feel proud, you’re allowed it.

12. Build a backbone and things will sprout from there

This is usually the case. But the truth is, you don’t need to know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Start somewhere. No matter how bad you are, the more time you spend on it, the more it ads up to something. It’s inevitable, let it happen.

13. If you’re stuck, the right piece is probably in the wrong place

Unravel ruthlessly. It’s the only way to go forward cleanly.

UX designer, Psychologist, Reader & Writer. I love to explore ideas in the intersection of design, business and the human experience.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store