Piecing Together 10 Life Lessons from a 1000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle

by Diane Berenbaum

Many of us care about repairing the world. It’s a widely-valued ideal. We put our heart and soul in these important efforts. We care for others in need, help our communities grow, and dedicate time to do so. But, how many of us take the time to take care of ourselves?

I recently read an article about self-care by Rachel Glaser, a senior at University of North Georgia and a member of the Service-Learning Fellows Program. She is wise beyond her years and offers life lessons for all of us, no matter our age.

Her great-grandmother, Fannie, kept a card table in the corner of her living room. It was there that she would gradually build and complete intricate jigsaw puzzles. Once completed, she framed her cardboard masterpieces. In connecting with this piece of family history, Rachel found a hobby for reflection and recharging, as well as inspiration for a meaningful life.  


Here are 10 life lessons she learned from assembling a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle:

  1. Starting is the hardest part: If I waited until I felt completely ready or capable, I’d never finish anything.

  2. Framing is important: I began with the edges. I needed to know the parameters I was working within so that I could build from the outside in.

  3. Shine some light on the shadows: It’s remarkable how a good lamp can throw hidden details into relief.

  4. Blue is never just blue: Fifty percent of my puzzle was blue sky or water. As I sorted through the pieces, a variety of subtle but important details emerged– a rock breaking through the water’s surface, the wisp of a cloud, or the edge of a leafless branch. Taking the time to notice and make sense of the details was key to solving many of the more frustrating sections.

  5. Just when I got to really know a piece, it found its place: There are many pieces I stared at for hours, it seems. And then, like magic, they blended right into their proper surroundings.

  6. Create space: There’s only so long that working on the puzzle is either relaxing or productive. If I put it aside for a day and then returned to it the next, suddenly an elusive solution was staring me in the face!

  7. Turn it upside-down: Rather than looking at the whole picture, I removed myself from the literal image and observed the colors, shapes, and textures independently. Looking at it from a fresh angle made all the difference.

  8. Buying a puzzle second-hand is risky business: I was aware of the possibility of putting hours of work into this thrift store-bought puzzle, only to find one piece–or more–missing. However, I know my efforts were just as meaningful as they would have been with a complete picture. I did the best I could with the materials available to me.

  9. Beauty is fleeting: I dumped the finished puzzle back into the box. The picture remains the same, just in a very different order than the artist originally intended. I enjoyed my time with it, and now someone else can too.

  10. There might be a piece under the couch: Maybe I’ll find it two years from now, when I decide to rearrange the family room. And, maybe I will have given away the puzzle or sold it at a tag sale. We don’t always get all the answers we want at the same time. That’s okay. It’s not that important.

Building a puzzle takes focus and patience. There aren’t shortcuts or reasons to rush. Doing this small, meditative act can engage and restore your mind, so you can serve others to the best of your ability. And maybe along the way, you’ll help someone else build a puzzle so that s/he can, in turn, repair the world.
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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