We Can’t Put The Puzzle Together Until The Pieces Are Out Of The Box

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there’s a section where the main character’s son wants to write a letter to his mother about the road trip they’re on. He’s got the blank page and pen in front of him and… nothing will come. He wants to write a letter and doesn’t know where to start or what to say. We want to think through this based on each of their roles, because it applies to what we do as professionals.

His father says not to write the letter first because that’s too hard. Instead, the father’s advice is to list out anything that might belong in the letter and agree to organize it later. The son accepts, and a few filled pages of furious writing follows. The son looks at his work in amazed confusion and wonders out loud how this will all possibly fit into a letter. His father assures him they’ll figure it out.

In the face of information overload, it’s hard to know where to start. Whether we’re the son trying to figure out what to say or the father helping to nudge someone else forward, step one is simply to start. It doesn’t matter where, it only matters that we take some form of action. Often we’ll find that once we start, all sorts of things will follow.

The next step, the follow-up and the organization, that’s the artful part. It’s where purpose belongs. But we can’t really serve the purpose until all of the other important bits have been put onto the table. For the professional, like the father in the story and the son at some point in his grownup future, curation and reduction are skills of their own.

Try too hard and you’ll go crazy. Instead, relax and be willing to explore. It’s a much better way to make progress and stay sane. We can’t put the puzzle pieces together until they’re out of the box. When it’s our job to help others make decisions and curate information, remember that getting the process started – emptying the box – is the most important step for them, and then assembling a coherent message to complete the job – putting the puzzle together – is the most important step for us.

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