Order out of Chaos: Life Lessons Learned by a Puzzling Aficionado


 Photo by Marianne Love (@Sellelady) for Slight Detour.

I have to admit it — I love putting jigsaw puzzles together.

When I came upon this exquisite portrait of autumn leaves, which in its delicate beauty evokes a Medieval stained glass window, my first thought was, “That would make a fantastic puzzle!”  Apparently the photographer, Marianne Love of Sandpoint, Idaho, agreed, because she called the photo JigsawPuzzleLeaves.

A jigsaw puzzle offers engrossing entertainment as well as quiet, meditative exercise which can be welcome in this cool, dark season leading into winter.  Puzzle assembly is a highly creative low-tech activity that anyone can undertake.

Over the many hours required to transform a jumbled chaos of pieces into the singular, ordered solution of a completed puzzle, one encounters lessons that can apply equally to puzzle work and to life.

I.  It helps to begin with a framework.

Although it is possible in principle to begin assembling a puzzle with any pair of adjacent pieces, it is most efficient to define the puzzle’s scope and the characteristics of its boundaries by assembling the frame.  Here, for example, is the 20″ X 27″ frame for a 1000-piece puzzle of a Tuscan pastoral scene.



II.  Start with an organizing principle.

Every puzzle begins as a mass of randomly distributed pieces.


While this may be beautiful to look at, it is not very useful.  To begin puzzle assembly in earnest, one must first apply an organizing principle to the pieces.  Usually, the first grouping occurs by color.



III.  Seek out recognizable patterns, and begin work there.

To address the body of a puzzle, one needs a starting point.  For me, this is usually either an area that incorporates a clear boundary, such as the horizon in the Tuscan countryside,



or sections with distinctive details, such as the crowds of tourists in this 1500-piece puzzle of the Paris Opera House.

IMG_4935  IMG_4938


IV.  Divide a large project into smaller tasks.

I find it helpful to approach a complex puzzle section by section, following the leads of pieces that bear distinctive patterns.  For example, for the opera house interior, one might begin with the chandelier, surrounding artwork, and ceiling lights,



follow that with the curtain and stage,



and lastly, after most of the pieces have been locked into their correct spots, tackle the repetitive complexity of the theatre’s auditorium seats.



V.  Some patterns become decipherable only after one has started to work.

Assembling a puzzle forces one to closely examine both the picture on the box and the individual pieces in search of fine patterns.

During the initial phase of the Tuscan countryside puzzle, both of these pieces might be categorized as “pink.”



Only later might one realize that the solid pink piece on the left belongs in the sky, while the right-hand piece, with its fine-grained pattern, belongs among the plowed fields.

“Green” pieces might eventually be identified as components of distant mountainsides, leaves, lake water, grape vines, and shadows, but the proper identifications are not immediately discernible.

These pieces of the opera house interior, all categorized initially as “gold,” find their proper homes in the ceiling light fixture, the mezzanine’s decorative border, the auditorium’s lower walls, and various structural columns only after extensive investigation.



VI.  Take breaks.

Pausing for a change of scene and a breath of fresh air always improves efficiency and effectiveness.


VII.  Sometimes the best way to find a puzzle piece is to stop looking for it.

This is true in life and in puzzle work: sometimes the best way to arrive at a solution – or find a specific piece – is to stop looking and allow the solution (or piece) to find you.


VIII.  Be willing to change your strategy and tactics as conditions evolve.

Throughout a large project such as the assembly of a 1000-piece puzzle, frequent changes of strategy may be warranted.

Whereas it is best to begin a puzzle sorting pieces by color and pattern, near the end of a puzzle project it becomes more efficient to sort the remaining pieces by shape.

Here are six basic puzzle piece shapes.



IX.  Keep the big picture in mind, but focus your energy upon ensuring that the small details are correct.

The only way to complete a puzzle is to focus upon the accurate placement of each individual piece.  The words “close” and “almost” do not apply.


X.  The big picture emerges only when smaller tasks are complete.  In the context of the finished product, every component task makes sense.

When a puzzle is completed, a fascinating transition immediately takes place.  Whereas all of the preliminary work focuses piece by piece, in a completed puzzle it becomes nearly impossible to discern individual pieces.  Only the larger picture remains.

Here is the completed 20″ X 27″ 1000-piece Tuscan countryside.


Here is the completed 23.5″ X 31.5″ 1500-piece Paris Opera House.



XI.  Only when the project is finished can one know that there are no missing pieces.

The moment at which one places the final piece into a puzzle brings with it both satisfaction and relief, because it is only then that one is certain that none of the pieces has been lost.


Finding Good Puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles are available in a nearly infinite variety of designs and in a wide range of sizes and levels of complexity.

A German company called Ravensburger produces the best puzzles I have found. Ravensburger puzzles feature gorgeous, well-selected pictures that incorporate enough scenic variety to make pattern- and color-sorting manageable.  Ravensburger pieces are well cut and fit together tightly.  The puzzles’ matte finishes minimize glare.

Puzzle Tips

I recommend working on a puzzle on a large, dedicated horizontal surface in a well-lit room.

It helps to have three or four shallow boxes into which to sort pieces by color, pattern, or shape.

Be careful to ensure that any pieces knocked onto the floor are picked up immediately before they can be tracked into a different room or otherwise lost.

Do not vacuum or sweep a puzzle-working room until the puzzle is complete.

It is important to be patient.  Keep your sense of humor, and have faith that the pieces will eventually fit together into a congenial whole.

Remember that in puzzle assembly the process is meant to be at least as satisfying as the end result.

Have fun!

Quote for Today

“Our whole life is solving puzzles.” – Ernő Rubik





2 thoughts on “Order out of Chaos: Life Lessons Learned by a Puzzling Aficionado

  1. Thank you, Cynthia, for sharing. I may just have to share a link to this posting on my blog tomorrow. Great analogy.

    For the past few years, I have purchased jigsaw puzzles as Christmas presents for my extended family members who come for the holidays. They have really enjoyed having the puzzles available for those slack times during their visits. Great activity for getting rid of stress and keeping the mind engaged.

    Liked by 1 person

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