The Unfinished Jigsaw Puzzle

Solve the jigsaw puzzle of your life.

In this post, I’m going to take you to a jigsaw puzzle table, into a forest fire, and to (but not on!) a roller coaster. This short journey you are about to experience will take some sharp turns and tangents, but by the end, I promise that the essence of this post will not be lost on you.

If you’re like me, you probably solve your 500-piece jigsaw puzzles like so:

  1. Dump all the pieces into one huge pile. Preferably onto one side of a large table, or onto a second, adjoining table.
  2. Separate pieces by color or pattern, lay them out flat and face-up as you go.
  3. Look for the edge pieces and begin forming the borders of the puzzle. This is the easy part and good for building your puzzle-solving confidence.
  4. Once the edges are done, you begin the heavy lifting. Focus on piecing together the similarly colored/patterned pieces.
  5. Focus on small sections at a time and take comfort that you have the big picture on the box to guide you.
  6. With commitment and stamina, you end up with a finished puzzle just like the image on the box.

Now try solving a 30,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with no box—no “big picture” to guide you. You begin with a huge pile of seemingly indistinguishable pieces. You can probably still figure out the edges fairly easily, but anything beyond that will require heroic levels of brain power and determination that you may just decide, after two hours of staring blankly at the table with bloodshot eyes, isn’t worth it.

That’s Life

Most of us live the entirety of our lives the same way—as unfinished jigsaw puzzles. We’re born as a pile of seemingly indistinguishable pieces, and our schooling/socialization processes sort out our edges. We are taught what a few of the inner pieces look like, but we aren’t really given strategies on how to put them together.

It is when we are finished with institutional learning that we are forced to figure out the puzzle on our own. The problem is, after 17+ years of finding and fitting edge pieces, we are conditioned to take what we have done and settle in as an empty outline of a puzzle. Most of us put in a good faith effort to continue solving our puzzle, but the “bloodshot eye” moment comes not too long after. Our habits soon override our ambition. We settle into life on autopilot and decide that figuring out a deeper purpose (completing the puzzle) just isn’t worth the effort. After a certain point, the puzzle ceases to be solved altogether and it begins collecting dust.

This all might sound dreadful, but the fact is, you always have the option to keep going. You have the ability to go out and find more pieces to your puzzle. And best of all, you are not alone. Everyone is walking around as an unfinished puzzle, some more complete than others. Even the ones who seemingly have everything figured out, just turn out to be good at hiding the unfinished parts of their puzzle. But don’t get caught up with looking at other people’s puzzles or you’ll sacrifice time for working on your own.

The closer you get to completing your puzzle, the more fulfilling your life will be. You can then take time to show others how you found and fit your pieces together. You will never quite finish your puzzle, but you will find satisfaction and joy in the progress you make.

How I Recently Found a Puzzle Piece

The power is in perseverance. By staying consistent to the process, every now and then you’ll find a puzzle piece that fits perfectly into the grand scheme of things. Each piece comes in the form of a lesson, an interesting peculiarity, or a fascinating characteristic you learn about yourself from the experiences you have. Each time you find a new piece of your puzzle, you open more opportunities to find new pieces, which then in turn, open you up to even more opportunities and more puzzle pieces to build upon.

The bad news is that you don’t have an image on a box to guide you, and you certainly don’t always have all the pieces right in front of you—each piece requires its own process of discovery. The good news? You have your entire life to figure it out, and you have plenty of help from the world around you.

Here is one example of how I recently found a crucial piece to my own puzzle:

Forest Fires

For much of the past week, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah have been shrouded in a massive and ever-widening cloud of smoke emanating from just north of the Grand Canyon. There lies over 600,000 acres of the Kaibab National Forest, 30,000 acres of which are now burning intensely.

While staying in the nearby town of Page, my girlfriend and I had the opportunity to see the devastation firsthand. Driving 90 minutes west on highway 89A from Page, the cloud of smoke, stretching for hundreds of miles in the distance, became so large that it soon blocked the late afternoon sun. (You can find pictures in my previous blogpost.)

Eventually, we found ourselves in the untouched portion of the forest. It was a truly surreal scene to which no picture can do justice. The air smelled of burning wood, the sky turned a pinkish hue, and the tension in our nerves became palpable. It was at that point that my curiosity took over (to the chagrin of my girlfriend), and we ventured closer to the source.

We eventually got within 100 feet of the fire. If you’ve never seen a forest fire in person, it is a moment you will not soon forget. The fear, the sadness, the awe, and every other emotion you feel from the billowing smoke and the raging fire is something that sticks with you. It’s a risk probably not worth taking again, but it certainly taught me something.

Roller Coasters

Shortly after leaving Arizona, we headed on a circuitous path that took us north to the Bonneville Salt Flats (highly recommended) and then south to Las Vegas. As I have come to learn, Vegas is not only the old home to degenerate gamblers and the new home to the Raiders. It is also home to some of the coolest, most unique roller coasters.

As we drove past the Big Apple roller coaster that surrounds the New York-New York Hotel, my girlfriend sparked a discussion about our love/hate for rollercoasters. She has a passion for rollercoasters. I have a passionate dislike for rollercoasters and try my hardest to avoid being trapped on one. She asked why I’d rather go into the heart of a forest fire instead, and it really got me thinking…

A Critical Piece of the Puzzle

I have always been the type to push boundaries and take risks. But what I haven’t known are the underlying motivations for that mindset. What would make me want to go into the heart of a raging forest fire, yet cower in fear of the Big Apple Rollercoaster? After some time to think deeply on the latest leg of the road trip from Vegas to Los Angeles, I began to realize that maybe it all comes down to trust and control.

Here is my experience on a rollercoaster: I have no control over my fate. I am being enclosed and forced into an unpleasant situation by the unyielding and totalitarian over-the-shoulder restraints. Every second of the slow and agonizing ascent to the top serves as a constant reminder that I have given up all of my freedom for some bit of safety I was promised. The inevitable drops, twists, and turns are not very enjoyable and by the end I am relieved.

Here is my experience in a forest fire: I have (almost) complete control of my destiny. I am in the driver’s seat, with full autonomy to decide my next move. I can choose to get closer, I can choose to leave whenever I want through whichever paths are available. It represents a challenge—a novel experience for which I have strong inclinations, and it is also a great way to gauge my tolerance for such risks.

Yes, a forest fire is a hell of a lot scarier than a roller coaster, but the aspects of trust and control play a significant part in my approaches to each. Put simply, I trust my judgement and my abilities more than the over-the-shoulder restraints of a roller coaster. I like options. I like freedom to make my own decisions. I like being accountable for those decisions, and I dislike leaving my fate in the hands of others.

Putting the Puzzle Together

If we never embarked on this 3000+ mile journey across America, I wouldn’t have had these experiences. And if I never had these experiences, I probably wouldn’t have had this realization any time soon.

This example is the four-pronged puzzle piece. It is a piece that connects to and completes many other pieces, such as why I have little tolerance for boring office jobs, little use for institutional education, and a proclivity for living life off the beaten path.

Your life is an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. You don’t have the pieces right in front of you, and you don’t have an image on a box from which to guide you. You have to go out and find each piece. Each piece is a lesson you learn about yourself—a derivative of your experiences. In order to move closer to solving the puzzle of your life, you must strive for new experiences, push your boundaries, challenge your assumptions and be willing to put in the hard work. Obtaining each piece will be time-consuming and is predicated on your openness to venture beyond the cozy boundaries of your comfort zone.

Not every puzzle piece is as complicated to discover, but many can be much more complicated. From each new experience comes one or more new pieces to your puzzle. After years and years of cultivating the habit of seeking new experiences, you will begin to form a more complete picture of yourself. But your willingness to extend beyond your comfort zone is the only way to ever make meaningful progress in self-discovery.

I challenge you to adopt this mindset in your life. View your life as an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. You don’t have to go into a forest fire, but make a promise to yourself to do everything in your power each day to piece together the puzzle of your life.

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