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open to new patterns

three important lessons from The New York Times’ “Spelling Bee” game

I love words and word games. I love etymology, the nuanced imagery that a perfect word evokes, the cultural implications of a word choice. I even love thinking about spelling words. So it’s not terribly surprising that one of my favorite daily activities is the New York Times’ “Spelling Bee” puzzle.

It’s a simple enough game: you’re given seven letters and asked to make as many words as you can from the combination. You must use the letter in the middle, but you can use any of the letters as many times as you like. There is at least one “pangram” in each day’s puzzle– a word that uses all of the letters at least once. Sometimes it’s fun and easy; other times it’s incredibly frustrating. No matter what, you only have 24 hours to work on it, and then there’s a new puzzle– and you can see which words you missed the previous day.

The game has its flaws– its dictionary is heavily biased toward western culture– but otherwise it feels like a really wholesome way to engage my brain. Once you’ve paid for the subscription ($5/month or $40/year at the time I’m writing), there are no intrusive ads. It’s not the kind of game you get lost in for hours and hours (at least, not for me). And I’ve found that it’s helped me to remember some important lessons about how we use our mind.

Can you find the pangram? I'll put the solution at the bottom of this blog!

1. Daydreaming is essential for problem-solving.

I often open Spelling Bee at the beginning of my morning walk with the dogs. While they sniff and do their dog business, I find my first few words, and then close the app while I walk. It’s during this time– looking at clouds, thinking of nothing in particular– that a word combination drops into my awareness (in fact, this happened in the puzzle below with the word “elect”). It’s not by staring at the letters or thinking hard that this happens– although those are important parts of the process, too. It’s the empty space I gave my mind to simply rest that allowed the problem to be solved. Studies have demonstrated that our most creative ideas can come during periods of “mind-wandering” or daydreaming. In another study, researchers found that “compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problem.” For me, this moment of discovery feels surprisingly delightful. Out of (seemingly) nowhere, an answer emerges!

Cultivating periods of deliberate quiet, rest, or “non-productive” time can feel, well… counter-productive. Our culture rewards the appearance of busy-ness. In what Tara McMullin calls “The Squeeze,” we tend to fill every moment with activity. Simply gazing out the window, or taking a nap, or an aimless walk, feels difficult, if not wrong. Yet it’s in these moments that our brain creates connections, makes creative leaps, solves problems that have been eating away at us.

2. Constraints can boost creativity.

The theory of creative constraints suggests that when options are deliberately limited, unexpected results can occur. In this case, rather than having 25 letters, we have 7. We know that there are limited options– in fact, that’s what makes the game fun.

This is the antithesis of our innate negativity bias– the evolutionary/ biological feature of our brain that keeps us scanning for danger, problems, the bad things. If we followed the logic of our negativity bias in working this puzzle, we’d do pretty poorly (“WHY AREN’T THERE ANY “‘S-ES?!”). Instead, this type of puzzle encourages us to look for the possibilities that do exist. We are forced to become innovative.

I’m often faced with constraints in my career. Some of them are clients’ physical challenges– they can’t put pressure on a knee, for example, or they aren’t able to reach overhead. Or I may have a time constraint– how much can I meaningfully share with someone in an hour? The constraint becomes an opportunity to find a creative way to work with the client. These creative solutions are often more meaningful and useful than the original solution would have been, and they open my mind to greater possibilities for future scenarios.

3. Getting stuck in a pattern can make it difficult to see other patterns.

Occasionally, there’s a puzzle that seems like it should be something. There’s almost a word. And once I get stuck in seeing that pattern, it is really, really hard to see other patterns.

For example, in the puzzle above, my brain insisted on trying to spell “catalyze.” If only that “I” were a “Y,” I thought, again and again. It took me several hours to let my brain find another combination.

Getting stuck on what we think we should be seeing can keep us from seeing what’s really there. Ooh man, is that a metaphor for just about everything in life, or what?

Sometimes, in order to work with this, I try to open Spelling Bee and simply let my mind take in the letters. I don’t start finding smaller words– I let my mind take in the letters and see if the pangram emerges naturally. After a few minutes of resting with the puzzle in this way, if I can’t easily find it, I’ll start working the “harder way.”

This has been such an enormous reminder for me in how I work with clients. There have been so many times where I was sure that I was seeing a pattern– which prevented me from seeing a fuller picture. Or I got caught up in smaller pieces, creating shorter words, so to speak– rather than pausing to let the bigger picture emerge.

So, not all technology is inherently evil.

I can be pretty cynical about the role of technology and how it funnels our thinking into narrow pathways, discourages critical thinking, and creates more division than connection with fellow humans. But there are some really good things, too– and this game has been an excellent reminder of the ways in which we can use technology to support overall wellbeing.

Did you find the pangram? It was “italicize!”

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