I didn’t really hang out with kids my age in elementary school.

My dad was in grad school, and I basically lived on a college campus, where most of my out-of-school, non-family interactions were with college students visiting for my mom’s Vietnamese food.

What were the results of my premature collegiate associations, you ask?

  1. My teachers saying that I was “very mature for my age” and my consequent “Oh-God-am-I-a-teacher’s-pet” complex.
  2. Me reading books gifted by said college students that flew over my head. (The only thing I remember about “East of Eden” was farms and a lot of names.)
  3. Jigsaw puzzles.

I’m not sure how it happened (likely a college student gave me a one for a holiday), but I quickly developed a love for jigsaw puzzles. The small table in our living room corner was dedicated to my puzzling endeavors. Perhaps it would have been a brief phase if not for the fact that our college visitors often did the puzzles with me. A 20-year-old doesn’t have much to discuss with an 8-year-old, so the amiable silence that building a puzzle brings was a work-around for awkward interactions. 

So I built a lot of jigsaw puzzles during those years, sometimes by myself so my college “friends” would be impressed next time they visited, sometimes with them as we were waiting for dinner.

This went on for some years, and by the end, I had leveled up from the 500-piece puzzles to my crowning achievement: a 3,000-piece with safari animals around a watering hole in a magnificent animal unity scene. I was so heartbroken at the thought of tearing it apart that I moved the finished puzzle onto a large board and kept it intact for a couple weeks. 

But eventually my magnum opus was dismantled, my family moved away from the university, the small table became a storage space for my family’s belongings, and I stopped playing with puzzles. 

Nearly a decade later, I haven’t really thought about jigsaw puzzles since. I don’t think most people think about jigsaw puzzles, ever. 

But I’ve started to feel a nostalgia for my puzzling years. It isn’t your standard “man, to be a kid again” reminiscence. I’m wistful for the version of me that could spend hours looking at small, oddly shaped cardboard pieces, placing them in appropriately-spaced orientations, and be perfectly entertained. 

I now live in a world of fragmented attention, constantly jumping from one task to the next, one form of entertainment to the other. There have been so many times when I’ve opened my phone to send a quick text or email, only to find myself, an hour later, clicking on the umpteenth YouTube video or scrolling through yet another Instagram photo that doesn’t leave any impression on me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at an Instagram photo that I’ve liked previously, only to realize that I didn’t remember ever seeing it before.

It’s not that I hate our current entertainment landscape. I just have a problem with the mindless, meaningless, time-sucking way I consume it. Especially when the experience itself actually can be quite boring, and so I open up another form of entertainment to look at simultaneously in that same mindless, meaningless, time-sucking manner. I guess I just miss being someone who didn’t need to be bombarded with 1,000 flashy external stimuli to be entertained. 

Although I have lost that part of jigsaw-puzzling me, not all of the remnants of those years have left me. 

I think most people view jigsaw puzzles as rather boring and laborious. They wouldn’t be completely wrong. It is just sitting down and working on it. There’s no way to cleverly solve it. Essentially, it’s not a test of skill, but stubbornness. You either do the puzzle, or you don’t.

It’s easy to admire outright skill. Aren’t we always more impressed by the athlete that masters a move on the first try than the athlete that has mastered it after years of practice?

There’s not anything wrong with that. What I take issue with is that while most people recognize that talent and hard work are both necessary, we are more impressed by a lot of talent than a lot of hard work. It’s almost assumed that hard work is something everyone can do, whereas talent is reserved for the chosen ones. 

Say there were two students in organic chemistry. One doesn’t study much, but still does well, whereas the other studies plenty and does about the same. Naturally, we praise the first one, put them up on a pedestal that “normal” people cannot ascend to, and expect they will have success in that course and in the field. About the second, we almost think, “Well, it’d be kind of sad if they spent all this time studying and they didn’t do well.” I say we, but I really mean me. I do that. All the time. 

But at some point, you can’t just outsmart your way to success. Maybe it’s not going to be in that first organic chemistry course, or even in graduate school, but at some point, that very talented student will be faced with a problem they just can’t immediately figure out.

At some point, in our courses, extracurriculars, personal lives, we too will be met with a problem (most likely problems) that we cannot solve right away. Either there’s no straightforward solution that we just have to realize, or that straightforward solution is not easily attainable. There’s not much else to do except sit down and fit the pieces together, deliberately and patiently. 

I’m not saying that anyone who wants to improve their media consumption and have a healthier outlook on success has to do jigsaw puzzles, but, at least for me, I think a puzzle or two would force me to be another version of myself, a less fractured and impatient one, if just for a couple hours.

When I get home this Thanksgiving break, I think I’ll rummage through the box of old toys tucked away somewhere in our basement. 

Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for.

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