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9 May 2020

What a 1,000 Piece Puzzle Taught Me About Navigating Uncertainty

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On Saturday night, we finished a 1,000 piece puzzle. Pre COVID-19, listening to jazz and staying up ‘til 10:30pm with my husband and 10-year old to finish a gratifying but arduous endeavor would have been unthinkable. Quality television in the vein of  The Handmaid’s Tale would have beckoned. But I’m living a dystopian reality with the rest of the globe and found myself hungry for a different version of escapism.

As we ploughed through, my puzzle process seemed right and obvious: I chose a piece with some distinguishing color or pattern, examined the final picture on the box for clues of where it fit in, and then 12% of the time located its proper placement (88% of the time I cursed the puzzle’s cruelty for shedding light on my impaired spatial reasoning skills).

As I hoarded the box last Saturday though, I witnessed my husband’s alternative approach. He scanned the in-progress puzzle for clusters of connected pieces, noticed key colors or patterns emerging around the perimeter of that section, then sought out a key piece to lock in. He didn’t know if the final image revealed a show down with Cersei and the Mother of Dragons or dozens of succulents, but his hit rate seemed higher than my meager 12%. Dammit.

In these unsettling times, we’re all figuring out where the pieces of our new life’s puzzle go. Many of us are confounded though because my ‘right and obvious’ process is not available. There’s no glossy picture we can reference as a guide for how this pandemic puzzle ends up; experts differ in their prognoses and past pandemics, like 1918 and SARS, give clues but no guarantees to how our future unfolds. We attempt, nonetheless, to will that picture into existence and perseverate on unanswerable questions: Will life as we’ve known it re-emerge in 3, 6 or 18 months? Will my kids go back to school in the fall? Will low-grade anxiety forever accompany a friendly hug? Will people I know and love die?

Humbling as it is to admit, I think it’s time to take my husband’s approach. Since we can’t know for certain how this unparalleled pandemic will play out, we need to notice what’s emerging in and around us and, piece by piece, craft the picture of our new world together.

I see this emergent leadership approach as vital for clients I support in ‘normal’ times because our lives are always accompanied by the uncertain and unpredictable. But, it’s even more imperative now when what we can control seems limited to the realms of personal hygiene and the time we eat lunch.

We can use my client, Tomas,* as an example. Tomas is the father of one young child and has been bored, quite frankly, in his career for years and uninspired by the leadership around him. In a fortuitous turn of events (given these dire times), Tomas found himself with two job offers and lacking clarity on which to claim. He came to me after spinning on questions like, ‘Which job is smarter to take in this coronavirus reality? Is the role with higher financial risk naïve to even consider right now? Should I just stay put and be grateful for the devil I know?’ and found his anxiety and shortness of breath escalating. He wanted a clear image on a metaphorical puzzle box to reveal the ‘right’ answer. But, no such puzzle existed.

In our coaching session, I challenged him to survey and sense the pieces around him instead of searching for a mythical guarantee of rightness. We both closed our eyes on a Zoom call and I helped him settle into an image of life six-months from now when he’d made a professional decision that brought him pride. I asked questions like: What do you see? Who are you surrounded by? What are you doing? What is giving you energy? What’s absent from your life? What emotions and sensations do you feel?

As Tomas focused on an emerging reality, he detached from the suffocating fear of COVID-19 implications, began to quiet the sound of his father and wife’s opinions, set aside logic as an exclusive guide, and connected to his own hopes and wants. His anxiety lessened. He opened his eyes knowing which role to take and accepting that his decision wouldn’t unfold in the precise way he imagined. In our time together, he sensed where to put a singular piece in the emerging puzzle of his life and took a step forward in the fog of uncertainty.

I appreciate that being told to just sense into our own outer and inner-knowing as the answer to navigating our current existence can feel both mildly patronizing and supremely annoying. I mean seriously: Will I have employment next month? Will my medical treatments be further delayed? Will our nation’s political system combust? And yet, what we most know about uncertainty is that the final picture can’t be known. So, we can either A) stubbornly seek out certainty and regularly befriend pain and disappointment or B) notice what’s emerging in and around us and rely on our experience and intuition to sense where each piece belongs. Since option A filled me with a sense of piercing inadequacy last Saturday night, I’m choosing B. What about you?

Here are questions to reflect on to practice more emergent leadership and humanity in a time of so much uncertainty:

  • What’s emerging in and around you? What activities fuel anxiety? What new habits are joy inducing? What’s surfacing as most relevant and meaningful in your life? What parts of yourself don’t you recognize? What’s shifting in relationship with co-workers, partners, kids, siblings, or clients? What’s calling to you?
  • What do these noticings reveal about what you want to ignore, change, or amplify? What do you want more of? Less of? What do you want to preserve just as it is?
  • What’s one small action you could take, a piece of the puzzle you could put in place, to craft the emerging puzzle of your life? How could you spend the first or last 10 minutes of your day differently? Who could you ask for that you need? What could you say no to? What could you experiment with doing differently, just for a day or week?
  • What are you learning? What sense are you making of it all? What is becoming clearer in the puzzle of your life? What do you know or understand more deeply? What do you sense is your next move?

*Client name changed to preserve confidentiality and anonymity.

3 thoughts on “What a 1,000 Piece Puzzle Taught Me About Navigating Uncertainty”

  1. Diana Manks says:

    I felt my shoulders relax as I read paragraph 7, thank you Chantal.

  2. Zafer says:

    The metaphor of the giant puzzle worked so well for me! And I love the prompts you offer at the end. Thank you!

  3. Anne S says:

    I too loved the puzzle metaphor Chantal and your questions are wonderful – thank you!

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