Life Lessons and Jigsaw Puzzles
It seems that throughout my life when anything terrible happened, people have tried to comfort me with words like “things always happen for a reason.” While these words can bring a sense of calm by reassuring people the world is not random, I have never found comfort in this idea. I honestly can’t believe there is a reason why a young person gets seriously ill or why certain people have extraordinarily challenging lives. While I choose not to believe in this sentiment, I do believe there are lessons to be learned from everything that happens. When we learn those lessons, we honor the experiences we have in a profound way and we ensure they didn’t happen in vain.
This past year, we have all had experiences we would have preferred not to have, and I believe there are lessons to be learned from each. During this seemingly endless time at home, there have also been bright spots – time to reflect on what we hold dear or new skills and hobbies we’ve acquired. For me personally, I have accomplished something that until this past December hadn’t even been on my radar – competing 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. Until now, I had no interest in partaking in them, but I will admit that I am now slightly hooked!
I remember a few years back Robert Fulghum wrote a book titled, “Everything I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.” With its simple title, Fulghum reminded his readers of the most basic lessons in life – to share, to always take naps, that warm cookies and milk could fix many a problem. With this book title in mind and after just a few months of my new hobby, I feel I should write the sequel to Robert Fulghum’s book, only mine would be titled, “Everything I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned from Doing Jigsaw Puzzles.”
To begin, completing jigsaw puzzles requires patience which is why I had never thought to do them. I would certainly not describe myself as being particularly patient. Channeling my inner patience has involved much practice; I often need to tell myself to take a deep breath and relax, to remind myself it’s ok if the puzzle is not coming together instantly. After all, puzzles, are meant to be a process. While it is satisfying to see the completed product, it’s the challenge of assembling the puzzle that is what I enjoy the most. It’s the process, not the product that makes puzzles so rewarding. And this process often requires me to step back when it seems too challenging and take a break in order to see the pieces with fresh eyes and a new perspective. For those who enjoy doing puzzles, think of how many times you couldn’t find a piece and how many times you ended up finding it only after taking a break and coming back to look. It’s the time away which makes one more productive.
A student once asked me how I complete puzzles. Do I work on the edge pieces first and then address the middle, he asked, or do I start in the middle and work out? Now that I’ve done a few, I realize I always try to complete the edges first. It gives me a sense of the big picture before I concentrate on the details. I gain a sense of the size of the project and how the inner pieces should be organized. If nothing else, it gives me a sense of control and I gain a sense of accomplishment by completing the borders. But sometimes it’s not possible to do this. When the edges are all the same color or when I can’t find that last straight edge, I need to change plans and start in the middle. I will admit that leaving the edges undone makes me uncomfortable but being flexible with my approach allows me to move forward and address other areas of the project. By fitting middle pieces together, I increase my chances of finding those missing edge pieces in the slightly lessened pile of unconnected parts.
When I need to stray from my original plan, I remind myself there really is no wrong way to approach a puzzle. It’s whatever is most comfortable that should dictate how to proceed. Along these lines, I realize there are usually parts of the puzzle which are easier to complete while other areas are more difficult. Either because of the pattern, the colors of the pieces or their shapes, certain areas of the puzzle are more easily mastered. Starting with those areas instead of always following the same plan of events can be beneficial. It’s okay to start with the easier sections and increase the difficulty as I become a stronger and more confident puzzle builder.
Another lesson I have learned over these past few weeks is that while puzzles should be challenging, they should not destroy my enjoyment or self-esteem. I am careful when selecting which puzzles I choose as I realize that like the three bears, some are too easy, some too hard, and some are just right. I prefer the ones which make me slow down and challenge myself while also affording me the opportunity for success.
Aesthetics also matter. In addition to choosing the appropriate level of difficulty, I am careful to choose ones with pictures I enjoy. Puzzles with bright colors are simply more fun for me and much like the art I choose to hang on my walls, I need to enjoy looking at the picture. The visual is important but so, too, is the feel of the pieces and the sound they make when they fit together correctly. The act of assembling a puzzle should feed multiple senses – how it makes me feel - visually, auditorily, and tactilely is as important as how it makes me think. Related to the look of the puzzle, I have become far more observant of the specifics in each piece. Sometimes, even the slightest change in color or shape can decide if two pieces fit together. Again, a reason to slow down and practice patience.
But even with extreme concentration, I can’t always find the piece I’m looking for and that’s when my family will come in to help. You see, what’s so great about puzzles is that they can be done by working with others or alone. Unlike competitive activities, there are no winners. Puzzles can be done and enjoyed either solo or with others working as a team. Sometimes I prefer to work on a puzzle by myself and sometimes I enjoy working with another as we strive toward a common goal.
Finally, what I enjoy about puzzles is the element of trust they require -trust in my own abilities and trust that all the pieces will be in the box. The feeling of tearing open a sealed bag full of pieces brings with it the excitement for the potential challenge and confidence I will be able find that illusive piece even when I feel the search has gone on endlessly.
So why, you may ask, am I writing about toys? Well, take a moment and think of all these lessons I just mentioned but frame them in the context of daily life instead of constructing puzzles. Think how much more peaceful we would be if we remembered that life should be about the process, the journey instead of the destination; if we were to remind ourselves that when events are overwhelming, we should take a deep breath. How, if before responding to an emotional trigger, we step away to give ourselves time to gain clarity and a fresh perspective. Imagine what life could be if we made sure to focus on the big picture before getting fixated on the details and surrounded ourselves with beauty, whether with art, good music, delicious food, or spending time in nature. Finally, imagine how powerful we would feel if we realized that while certain activities may be easier done with another, each of us is capable of so much more than we often give ourselves credit for. What could life be if we trusted our own abilities and stopped doubting ourselves?
What if the large picture of cupcakes currently sitting on my dining room table is more than 1,000 pieces of colored cardboard? What if it were really a collection of life lessons wrapped up into a sweet looking picture? I encourage each of us to take note of the lessons we can learn from seemingly meaningless activities and evaluate the puzzle we call life.
Remembering My Mentor
In looking back on this seemingly endless year, I realize there are many lessons to be learned if we only take the time. These lessons emerge from our experiences but also from the people we have worked with and learned from. Sometimes it takes unforeseen circumstances for us to stop and reflect on those lessons. Unfortunately, I had such an opportunity as one of my mentors died unexpectedly this year. I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on all he taught me, both personally and professionally. I call this man my teacher and friend for he truly was both. As my first supervisor after graduate school, I was prepared to consider him my boss and nothing more. Fortunately for me, this man was not interested in hierarchies or titles and instead wanted us to be colleagues. Everyone knew I was the “new kid on the block” and everyone understood it was he who was in charge. My supervisor looked past that and was far more interested in working together. You see, his philosophy was to worry less about titles and to focus on surrounding himself with talented and dedicated people who would give 100% of their efforts. This man knew that when you treat colleagues (even your subordinates) like professionals and nurture them, they will give you their best efforts. If you appreciate what people bring to an organization, they are more likely to give freely of their time and their talent. As my supervisor, he supported and encouraged me both during my successes and my challenging times. I will forever be in his debt for how he allowed me to learn from my mistakes and be proud of my successes. I can’t help but wonder what a difference it would make if more supervisors were to treat their staff with such respect: If they truly mentored those who work for them and viewed each person as a professional with great potential if given the opportunity to shine.
Creating a Culture of Consent
To say that life during COVID-19-19 has been difficult would be a gross understatement. There continues to be a staggering amount of loss—of life, financial stability, community, and of our ability to predict our futures. Activities we used to take for granted can no longer be assumed and the ways we interact with others have been greatly impacted. Where we work, how we go about daily routines, and whether our children will be able to attend in-person school are a few examples of activities we have needed to reevaluate. Not only have we had to determine if we should be participating in certain activities, but we have also had to be deliberate as we decide how to go about taking part. Merely leaving the house is more involved than ever. Pre-COVID-19, I took my purse and keys when I stepped into my car. Now, I make sure to take my purse, keys, face mask and hand sanitizer. Every step of my day is more complicated.
Less obvious, though, is the change we have had to make in how we speak with one another and the questions we need ask each other before we gather. Our in-person interactions must now include a level of consent previously not required. Creating a culture of consent and obtaining permission to be close to another are not only for intimate relationships; they are necessary during this time to ensure people feel comfortable being with one another. With each of us having our own comfort level with social distancing protocols, we can no longer assume that what makes us comfortable is what will make another secure. How close will we stand, and whether we will wear masks are simply two of the many questions we need ask the other and we cannot presume we know the answer. We must articulate our intentions and make sure the people with whom we are interacting agree to the same level of precaution we propose. Simply because we feel safe being in certain situations does not guarantee all people feel the same way. We now need to proactively ask those with whom we interact how they feel and what makes them feel safe.
Just as we have needed to be deliberate with our daily activities, so too must we demonstrate that same level of intentionality in our relationships. Interacting during COVID-19 has forced us to create a culture of consent and respect. Maybe this is the blessing among all the challenges because if continued, these habits will strengthen our personal and professional relationships even after the COVID-19 crisis is over. Although the questions we ask each other may change post-COVID-19, it remains just as vital that we continue to ground our relationships in a culture of consent and respect.
Teaching My Children To Drive
April 30, 2020
I can proudly say I have taught all three of my children how to drive a car. For months before earning their driver’s licenses, they practiced how to handle a car in different types of weather and traffic conditions. In addition to the basic stress of driving with a novice driver, what I remember most of the experience was how I needed to reflect on my own driving in order to explain the skills to them. Teaching my children how to make something as simple as a right-hand turn required me to analyze how I do each step in this simple act and then teach each of them to my children. I was forced to think about when I use the brake, and at which point in the turn I ease my foot onto the accelerator. Activities that were up to then automatic and second nature to me were no longer taken for granted. I needed to pay attention to my own driving in a way I wasn’t used to doing. This not only allowed me to teach them how to drive, but it made me a stronger driver as well. In reflecting on why I do what I do, my driving became more deliberate.
Teaching someone to drive is but one example of when automatic activities need to become intentional. There are countless other times when I have had to consider my actions before coaching someone else. Each of us has a list of activities that are so natural to us that we take them for granted – how we interact with others, how we work, how we shop. Unfortunately, at this moment in history, we do not have this luxury.
COVID 19 is challenging on many levels, not the least of which is how it requires us to evaluate how we operate on a daily level. Even simple activities such as grocery shopping are now altered and can’t be taken for granted. The implications of this pandemic are staggering to think about financially, operationally, educationally, medically, and the list goes on. COVID-19 is forcing us all to assess if we can continue with certain activities and how we go about doing them. Even when we have the luxury of working or taking classes from home, we still must make changes. No longer can we depend on seeing colleagues and friends at the office. No longer can we assume our former methods of communication will be adequate. Even as we use new forms of technology, we must be intentional about creating community, making sure we are working together. Just as I needed to reflect on my driving skills, we all must do this same sort of reflection in every aspect of our work and personal lives. We must ask ourselves why we do what we do and how we should go about doing it. No more can we rest on the rationale “this is how we’ve always done it.”
We may not be able to control all that is happening around us, but we can control the lessons we learn from what is occurring. The way to make sure countless people’s suffering is not in vain is to come through this challenge with new perspectives on life. Instead of allowing the past to sabotage our future by keeping us frozen in bad habits and outdated processes, let us take this time to reflect on what we hope to achieve and the best ways to reach those goals.
I hope you stay healthy, safe and sane during these challenging times.
Deciding to Run
March 6, 2020
This past year I decided I was done watching my husband and children run 5K’s together. I was tired of waiting at home as they went off to enjoy the challenge and community that running in races brings. I decided I would start running, something I had never done before and hadn’t really planned to do. Having never run a day in my life, I knew it would not be enough to simply wish to become a runner. I would have to build up my stamina and learn how to run properly. I began the process and little by little, I have learned a great deal. I asked the salesperson at the running store for advice. I asked my friends who run, and I asked my own children for tips they could share for how to make it to the end of a race alive. I wasn’t concerned with winning a speed record but finishing the race alive and breathing did sound good to me! I learned the proper way to stretch and how to slowly build up to the desired distance. I registered for the 5K in my area and told just enough people about my plans to hold me accountable. I will admit that “running” is a liberally understood word in my world. What I call running looks more like jogging to most people, but I manage to run this distance multiple days a week. I not only achieved my goal of completing my first 5K with my family, but I can honestly say I now enjoy running.
In reflecting on the last months, I learned a great deal. In addition to countless facts regarding physiology and running shoes, I am reminded that simply wanting to run would never have been enough. My desire to join my family was the start but that alone would not have allowed me to achieve my goal. It was the planning and attention to details that allowed me to successfully finish the 5K and walk away feeling proud and accomplished. This is the case in everything we do. Running is not the only activity requiring planning. Having a goal and an action plan for how to achieve it are what lies between merely having dreams and accomplishing them. After all, if a dream is important enough to have, it should be realized.
Let me help you and your organization realize your goals by helping you articulate them and by developing a plan for how to achieve them. Even if you’ve never run that 5K, it’s never too late to get started.
It's all in the name...
February 12, 2020
When I decided to start my own consulting business, I never dreamed picking a name would be the first stumbling block I’d face. After all, how difficult would it be to choose a name? I knew I didn’t want to use my last name because “Flash Consulting” would send the message of being hurried through the process and that was the last thing I wanted for a client. After much thought, I decided to call my company Partnership Solutions Consulting. I felt strongly that in order to achieve a client’s goals and find solutions for their challenges, I would need to partner with them. The members of any organization know their company better than I ever could and I’d never want to presume I could solve their challenges in a vacuum. Yes, it would need to be a partnership. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State disagreed and would not allow me to use any part of the word “partner” or “partnership” in my name.
So, I began the process of finding a new name. It seems that any name I thought of was already taken. I thought about using the first letters of my children’s names but unfortunately, that would spell S.A.D. – not the image I want conveyed! I tried a variety of names, but they were all claimed in some form.
I realized then I would need to get even more creative than I thought I was being. I thought about my past work experience and remembered the times when I had the most meaningful conversations with people. I recalled when people were able to be honest and vulnerable with their feelings and I reflected on what all those times had in common in addition to a listening and sympathetic ear. Over the years, I have always had a jar of candy in my office. The jar was placed next to my sitting area where I met with people. I noticed that when people had something to hold and to eat, something sweet and maybe a bit decadent, they felt more at ease. They were more willing to share what they were truly feeling, and they were able to bring their whole selves to the conversation. With that piece of candy in hand, they felt safe.
In my consulting, I aim to help organizations find ways to bring that level of safety to their staff and board members. I work with leadership to help them create a working environment where employees and board members feel like an important part of a team, where they are valued and able to share their ideas.
This is how Candy Jar Consulting was named. It is with a deep desire to help organizations create an environment where people feel empowered to share their successes and their challenges, where they work together to achieve goals and realize their vision. It would be my honor to work with you and I may just bring the candy!