I bought it on a whim at Target. It came in a box of ten puzzles, each portraying a wizard/unicorn/flying ship image that one might expect to see on a Lisa Frank poster. Or on a fan art site. Or in the sketchbook of someone with a penchant for LSD. Use your imaginations, because I can’t find a picture of the box online.
This puzzle had 100 pieces. The image was one of the less trippy ones — a yellow-eyed tiger relaxing with three blue-eyed cubs. I wanted to see, if I left an unfinished puzzle on the table at work, whether people would work on it together.
Our office has developers, project managers, and designers from our company and from our client companies. We spend all day together: in effect, we have created a privately owned coworking space, not unlike 1871 or 1776 or New Work City. But we don’t spend a lot of time talking to people staffed on other projects. The puzzle, I figured, might change that for a day or so. And if it didn’t, it only cost $1. So, when my mother came to visit me over Thanksgiving, I took her on a tour of the office and had her help me assemble the edges of the tiger puzzle. We left it on the table, partway-finished, on top of a cardboard square with “FINISH ME!” written in Sharpie.
I did not anticipate what happened next.
A few of the developers finished the puzzle over breakfast on Monday, in what might have been a 15-minute span. The next puzzle from the box was another 100-piecer with pirates on it. They finished that one over lunch and over breaks. By the end of the day, the puzzle table needed yet another puzzle. Out came a 300-piece puzzle of an armed magical mermaid-warrior. We now needed a bigger piece of cardboard. That puzzle got finished the next day. So did another 300-piece puzzle with dolphins on it. So did part of another 300-piece puzzle with unicorns on it. The puzzlers didn’t need me to get them the next puzzle anymore — they found the box and started replacing the puzzles themselves. Six work days later, they had completed all ten puzzles — four of which, by the way, had 500 pieces. My boss, our office director, insisted that the puzzles needed to be harder. He brought in a 500 piece puzzle with fuzzy borders and more muted colors. I worried that this large, less exciting puzzle would kill the puzzling vibe. In fact, that puzzle didn’t even take the puzzlers two days. I never even saw it completed — they disassembled it as soon as it was done and stuck it in a bag with the other puzzles.
The puzzlers asked our happiness director for more puzzles. At first, the happiness director refused: he would not buy more puzzles until we had a plan for what to do with the puzzles that the puzzlers had already finished. The puzzlers began breaking down the puzzles and putting them in plastic bags along with their reference images “to donate.” This met the happiness director’s requirements — and by this time, he was getting so many emails about puzzles that he needed to do something.
So, in his infinite sassiness, the happiness director purchased a 654 piece puzzle whose pieces were all the same silvery color. He expected the puzzlers to get bored and frustrated and perhaps stop puzzling altogether. The puzzlers finished the entire border of that puzzle after work, the same day it came. They began sorting the puzzle pieces into separate piles according to their shape. They studied the box to figure out exactly which shapes of pieces went where. Meanwhile, one prominent puzzler ordered yet another tough puzzle: it portrays a rainbow color gradient when assembled, but each individual piece is only one color. The happiness director locked this puzzle in a cabinet and said he would not release it until the one-color puzzle was finished. It took a couple of weeks, but before the year had ended the happiness director had to unlock the cabinet and get out the next puzzle.
The puzzlers’ numbers have grown. At first, just a few seminal puzzlers — mostly developers — would gravitate toward the puzzles during breakfast and breaks. But after a few days, designers and product managers started sitting down at the puzzles. The happiness director himself got caught puzzling during an afternoon break. It’s not unusual to see six or seven people standing around the puzzle table after work, glasses of wine and beer in hand, studying a puzzle.
I never anticipated all of this, but in hindsight it makes sense. Puzzles are an excellent bonding activity for diverse groups of people. They are self-explanatory: no instructions. They are collaborative: everyone is working toward the same goal, instead of competing against one another. There are no turns: everyone can participate all the time without waiting for other people. Participants can also come and go as they please without feeling like they’ve missed an important piece of the action. And the minimum amount of time that a participant needs to devote at once is very, very small.
Around the puzzle table, there are watchers. Two product owners for an airline company — both in their fifties — have a friendly bet going on whether or not the puzzlers will finish the current puzzle. Others like to look at the upcoming puzzles and ooh and ahh at their difficulty, or laugh about how quickly they would give up on the puzzles. One client architect has asked if he can frame the silver puzzle. A few of the finished puzzles, instead of being broken down, have been carried off to decorate various work areas around the office. The mermaid one sits on the marker ledge of a whiteboard next to a health insurance app project. The little tiger puzzle sits on a credenza, leaning against the wall, in the room that we use to scope new client work. It silently watches chaotic, nine-hour, twenty-person brainstorming meetings.
I have the dolphin puzzle by my desk. It watches me write code. For my job, I write software in teams with other people. Writing software in a team is different from writing software as an individual. As an individual, you can do any visionary thing you want. You can experiment and follow ill-conceived ideas. In a team, that’s costly. If other people don’t understand why you’re making the changes you’re making, they will resist those changes or struggle to implement them later.
For this reason, I sometimes finding myself putting the kibosh on my teammates’ Amazing IdeasTM. See, developers tend to think they’re geniuses. Sometimes, they come up with brilliant ideas that show off or challenge their genius and skill. The problem with this is that those ideas sometimes don’t make sense to anyone except themselves. There’s two schools of thought on this, as far as I can see. There’s the school that I came from, which says that if your Amazing Idea makes the code harder to understand, then it’s not an Amazing Idea in the context of a team project. Then there’s the school that says developers should educate themselves on a wide variety of design patterns, and if new patterns don’t make sense to a developer, then it’s because they are not sufficiently familiar with design patterns. I understand that the real answer probably lies somewhere between these two, but I’m not sure where yet. If you have thoughts on this, or if you’ve seen something similar working in teams in some other field, I’d love to hear about it.
In general, though, I’m coming around to the idea that genius, by itself, is not all that important in the context of making an impact.
I’m happy about this because genius, for the most part, is a hereditary characteristic that people don’t do anything to earn. So it’s pretty ridiculous that we praise people on their intelligence like it’s some kind of merit, when they haven’t actually done anything to merit their intelligence at all. So that’s thing one.
Thing two is that intelligence, as we envision it, only encompasses a very small set of skills. For example, if a person is brilliant at connecting with other people but can’t whip out mathematical proofs or argue with their friends in the classical socratic style, we’re less likely to label them a genius than someone who can do those things, but who can’t even manage to carry on a short conversation without saying something ruinously offensive or awkward. And which of those things is more important? It depends on what you’re doing, I guess, but the way we praise intelligence, we accidentally place way more value on the logical abilities than we do on the interpersonal ones.
Thing three is that, even if we narrowly define intelligence in the context of logical capabilities, those capabilities don’t seem to mean much after some baseline level is reached. So, for example, if someone has an IQ above 120, IQ no longer seems to be a predictive factor in personal success. I wonder if this is exactly because genius people have trouble working in teams, and most people need to be able to do that to advance to the highest echelons of whatever it is they’re doing. How do you work in a team if your ideas are too hard to grasp and your communicative abilities are too rough to make the ideas easy to grasp? This isn’t always the case — renowned genius Richard Feynman could explain complex ideas in comprehensible ways, and it contributed to his legendary status as a physicist. But plenty of smart people don’t have those communicative skills, and they don’t work to develop them because they believe, and are encouraged to believe, that the genius they already possess is more important than communicative skills anyway.
As much as I hate it, I think that this bias favoring “smart” activities partially explains why I doubted how popular the puzzles would become.
After all, who would want to do a stupid puzzle? It doesn’t take any genius to understand how to do a puzzle. And wouldn’t puzzles get boring after, I dunno, the eleventh one? And wouldn’t a puzzle without an image be even more boring? Sure, there’s a little bit of logical ability involved in puzzling, but it certainly isn’t a mental stressor. There must be something else going on here that makes the puzzles so compelling.
Maybe it’s the interest in making something. Maybe it’s the friendly, social aspect of puzzling. Maybe it’s the low barrier to entry. Maybe it’s just something to do — a mental break from the rest of the day.
Or maybe it’s a chance for people to connect with each other in some context other than a genius pageant. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m only mediocre at puzzling, and that’s okay with me because the stakes are low. So once in a while, after work, I’ll sit down with my bottle of BCAAs (I’m not much of a wino) and fit a piece or two before taking off. In a job where I spend all day building things together with other people, the opportunity to relax and puzzle together feels decidedly different. I haven’t figured it out yet. As always, I’ll let you know if I do.