How puzzles unlock our minds


When you look at the scope of our passions, it’s tempting to say that nothing connects them. What does horseback riding have to do with Sodoku puzzles have to do with cross-stitching have to do with the Fortnite dance have to do with slow-cooking barbecue have to do with collecting bobble head dolls? The American landscape is vast. We are all very different.

And as people who think about our passions every day, we find people with passions that most of us would never think about it. The other day, for instance, we spoke with a woman who began, as almost everyone does, by saying that they do not have a passion. But after a bit of prodding, she admitted that her passion was actually cleaning her house. She loves it. She builds her weekends around it. She will look at her house in a disarray and think about how much she will enjoy cleaning things up.

This passion might have baffled us at the beginning. No more. This passion makes perfect sense to us … and that’s the more we learn about our passions, the more we find that there are certain threads that connect them, certain ideas that unquestionably trigger something inside us.

On our Passions in America Twitter page, we ran an informal poll: We asked a seemingly simple question: Which of the following would you say best describes your passion? And then we gave them four options:

  1. Solving Puzzles
  2. Building things
  3. Collecting things
  4. None of these

See the results.

There is obviously nothing scientific about this — we are working on the science all the time — but there’s something here to think about. More than a third of the 1,200 people who took the time to respond said their passion had something to do with solving puzzles. And this very much fits the pattern of our early interviews and reporting.

Bill James

Four-star general Colin Powell fixes old Volvos. Bill James has altered the way people see baseball and, in a small way, the world. Dr. Patrick Brown invents a 100-percent plant-based food that tastes so much like meat he is convinced that we will be a meat-free society by 2030. Jen Kramer has wanted all her young life to be a magician, and she now has her own show in Vegas.

And what are all these passions at their heart? They are about solving puzzles. They are about the joy of working something over, again and again, until you have that beautiful moment of discovery. The puzzle can be huge — Dr. Brown had dedicated his life to cancer research when he realized that Impossible Foods was an even more vital project — or it can be as small as Kramer figuring out exactly which finger to use for a sleight-of-hand card trick. But they are puzzles all the same.

We had a fun interview with the author A.J. Jacobs, who spends his professional life diving into other people’s passions — religion, health, family, etc. And all along he insisted that he has no passion of his own, that he takes on the passions of others for the time it takes to write his books but then he moves on to the next one. Suddenly, 90 or so minutes into our conversation, he stopped short and began to profusely apologize. He had just remembered his passion, the thing that shapes his week, the thing he thinks about most when allowed to let his mind drift.

A.J. Jacobs’ passion is crossword puzzles.

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