Doing Our Work Like It’s A 1000 Piece Puzzle

M. Night Shyamalan thinks his superpower is his anxiety. Will anybody care about his next project? Is this the one that flops irrecoverably? Is he ever going to figure out what the next story is (let alone his next signature plot twist)? He knows there’s only one thing to do with questions like that on the line: some actual work.

Shyamalan told Guy Raz on How I Built This (How I Built Resilience edition), that he likens his process to building a 1000 piece puzzle. On day one you stare at the pile. No way are you going to finish this puzzle – it doesn’t even look possible. You browse the mountain of seemingly unconnectable pieces until you find two that match. By this point, hours have passed and it’s time to quit.

The next day you come back. The pile’s still there and you connect a few more pieces. By the end of the third and fourth day, sections are starting to come together. Patterns and then pictures are starting to emerge. Not long after that, one day there’s a final piece left, and then… the puzzle is done. The anxiety over starting? It’s gone. Conquered. There’s only the faint memory of it.

Anxiety shows up when we feel like there’s a thing we can’t control. Once the puzzle pieces are dumped into a pile, the picture on the box looks like an impossibility. We solve our anxiety, or at least temporarily keep it at bay, when we find two pieces that will just snap together. Then another. Then another.

We’re anxious over the big picture. We’re not as anxious over finding a single match. So we start small. We have no choice. The answer to our anxiety is to put some pieces together. If we can remember that, we’ll finish a lot of puzzles.

Over time, we’ll realize the enemy was never the anxiety at all. It was the cooped-up energy of thinking we needed the work done, when we really needed to spend it putting the work in. That realization is Shyamalan’s superpower. Dream big. See the picture. But start small and make a single connection.

The project, the idea, the business, the movie in Shyamalan’s case – they come together, but not like the glossy photo on the box. They come together like the 1000 piece puzzle inside. One piece at a time. Go ahead and be anxious, but channel that energy about the work being done into the energy of putting the work in.

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