There's no such thing as a jigsaw 'problem'

Jun 10, 2024

Erno Rubik, the inventor of the Rubik’s cube, once said, “Our whole life is solving problems”.  He was an architect and professor of architecture.  His famous invention was initially created as a teaching tool to help his students understand 3D geometry.  Since the Rubik’s cube was invented 50 years ago, roughly 500 million cubes have been sold, proof of the enduring popularity of puzzles.

Puzzles are challenging, intriguing and we enjoy working them out.  Problems are essentially the same thing.  But with a big difference. 

Puzzles are exciting, mysterious, something new to work out and make sense of.  

Give a child a jigsaw and present it as a jigsaw problem and more likely than not, it will immediately become a chore, a bore, a completely unappealing task.

In school, many of my subjects were graded with a problem-solving element.  Problem solving became something that we just had to crack on and get on with if we wanted to get good grades.  I wonder how much more enjoyable those subjects would have been if they were billed as puzzle-solving instead. 

 How we interpret and respond to challenges defines our experience more than the challenges themselves.

One of the fundamental laws of Physics is that for every action, there is a reaction.  It’s an important law of the Universe.  It’s just how things are.  Which is good news for us.

Because this means that for every puzzle, or problem, there is a solution.  There has to be.  A problem or a puzzle cannot exist without there being a solution. 

Rubik didn’t create his puzzle to deliberately frustrate or annoy us, although if you’ve ever attempted to solve one you may well have found the experience frustrating and annoying.  He did it to help his students understand something. 

The solution exists.   We just have to be open to it.

The word solution comes from a Latin word, solver meaning to loosen.  You can imagine a solution as a loosening of the chemical bonds that make something solid, like when you make saline by dissolving salt particles in water.

When we loosen the bonds of something, make it into smaller pieces, like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, for example, it’s just a matter of choosing the right pieces to fit together.

When talking about the inspiration behind his famous creation, Rubik explained that “I was searching for a way to demonstrate 3D movement to my students and one day found myself staring into the River Danube, looking at how the water twisted around the pebbles.  This became the inspiration for the cube’s twisting mechanism.  The fact that it can do this without falling apart is part of its magic.”

The fact that we can solve puzzles without falling apart is part of our resilience.  And it’s just a small step to reframing problems as puzzles, isn’t it?