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Episode from the podcastLead. Learn. Change.

In a Moment - 34 Across

Released Wednesday, 30th September 2020
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34 Across

I was speaking with my dad recently. During our phone call I asked him about crossword puzzles, because I wanted to know more about his interest in them. As a young child, and as a teenager, I often saw him complete the crossword puzzle in the daily or Sunday newspaper. This glimpse into his world of skills and interests helped me see, although I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, how my dad‘s mind worked and what his talents were, and this was not an easy conclusion to draw, as he would readily tell us, or anyone who asked, that he really had no hobbies or specific pursuits he would be spending his time on once he retired (which was quite a long way off at the time). So, crossword puzzles it was, apparently, Not golf, fishing, running in local 5K road races, or even reading the classics or writing his autobiography. Crossword puzzles. 

Once, a number of years after I had left my childhood home, my wife and I were visiting my parents and I was in my dad‘s office area in the basement. On the back of the door leading to his workspace, there was a giant crossword puzzle thumbtacked there. I recall that I counted the number of spaces in this behemoth of a grid, this Crossword Challenge that was, based on the ratio of filled in:blank squares, on its way to succumbing to my father’s eventual conquering of it, demonstrating his superiority over the clever clue creators that posed their hints for the novice or skilled puzzle warriors. I didn’t file away a mental note of the exact number of words required to complete this puzzle, but a new calculation today, based on the size of the door and my recollection of the size of each square, AND factoring in the typical percentage of shaded squares (for an American style grid), it is completely reasonable to estimate that there were nearly 6,500 blank squares to fill. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of words.

So, during our call the other day, I asked my dad a bit more about his crossword puzzle habits. That simple question opened the door for some interesting insights and, naturally, his answers to some of my queries ended up spinning off into other topics of discussion. We ended up having a very enjoyable chat. I discovered that my dad has been purchasing packages of crossword puzzle books. I didn’t even know that was a thing. He indicated that he could appreciate the nicer, higher quality books–those printed on better paper and with a substantial front and back cover. He also spent some time highlighting the differences in difficulty levels based on the publisher and/or the newspaper in which the puzzles are printed. At one point, some quick math generated the number 15,000 as the likely quantity of puzzles my dad has completed over the years. 

Our phone call left me with a better understanding of what he enjoys, as well as what he does not find frustrating. For example, I asked about his accuracy rate and his completion rate, and he shared with me that he does not (can not) fill in every square in every puzzle, nor, when he is able to do so, are all of his answers always “correct.” He went on to say though, that, of course, sometimes the “wrong” answer is in fact nevertheless accurate and works very well as a right word for the given clue. 

Then, at one point during the call my dad said that my mom wanted to talk to me for a few minutes. Mother got on the phone and we chatted about a few things and then she handed the phone back to my dad. He told me that while he was away, he had started and completed a crossword puzzle, and that he checked it against the answers and he had indeed, on this one, gotten all of the answers correct. He then qualified his statement by telling me that this was one of the easy ones, though, and that the more puzzles you work, the more frequently you will see similar clues and similar answers. It was almost as if he did not want to take credit for his puzzle prowess. He does have more time now to complete puzzles, and he did say that doing so keeps one’s mind sharp and helps you think, and that “just for fun,” he sometimes flips through a completed book of puzzles and checks accuracy of every sixth or eight page (or even twenty or so random pages) to see what his general “score “is overall. As it turns out, at least based the numbers he humbly shared with me, his expertise is quite impressive.

He also quizzed me by posing three of the clues from the puzzle he completed during my brief chat with my mother. Granted, I had the distinct disadvantage of not looking at the puzzle in question or knowing the letters of any perpendicular and connected words, but I was able to correctly answer one of the three clues. Given those constraints, we both considered my 33% score to be quite acceptable.

The last thing I remember my dad telling me about puzzles was that sometimes he puts the book or newspaper aside, and doesn’t pick it up until the next day, or even a few days later. Then, looking again at one of the clues for a missing word going across or going down, the “fresh eyes” seem to make a difference. On occasion, for some reason, the way the clue is worded lands differently in his mind the second or third time around, and it triggers a new thought or a potential answer. When that new word is penciled into the appropriate squares, it often turns out to be correct and has a cascading effect of generating multiple correct answers where there were no good ideas before. Along the same lines, he told me that sometimes an answer to a particularly difficult clue simply pops into his mind, seemingly out of the blue, and it may be while he is engaged in some seemingly unrelated task. That moment of inspiration typically ripples into the completion of other words and the once stalled puzzle is revived and on its way to becoming another successful venture.

So, aside from a fun and engaging conversation with my 86-year-old dad, what did I learn? Other than going down a rabbit hole and reading some material about how crossword puzzles are created and how these word games differ slightly from country to country, there were more than half a dozen takeaways for me. 

First, alleged perfection–achieving 100% on every task–is an unreasonable standard, and is not necessary to find fulfillment, generate learning, or create satisfaction.  In the same vein, a “poor score” may be good enough, if you learn something and no harm is done.

Second, there are often multiple solutions that are correct, that work well with other ideas with which they intersect, and they can serve as an indicator of a learner’s creativity and knowledge base.

Third, persistence matters. A temporary roadblock is just that, temporary. A new perspective can create a new lens, and an alternative solution can work as well as the one originally intended by others who are involved in various phases of the same project. 

Fourth, if you spend time with a student, colleague, family member, or client, and truly listen, that allows you to extend the discussions (based on what you hear), and you can get to know the other person even better. This deeper understanding creates opportunities to support them–and delight them–in ways that you may not have previously imagined.

Fifth, taking an interest in what someone else finds fascinating may pull you toward your own new learning path, and who knows where that might lead! Keep an open mind! Maybe Subject X or Book Y is, in fact, interesting after all, and perhaps diving into it will yield unexpected benefits for you and your work, via connections not considered before.

Sixth, you tend to spend time (either through work or activity that is visible to others, or via intense thought) pursuing what interests you and challenges you. The learning that results from this focus begets more learning, and the cycle continues.

Seventh, it’s okay–even beneficial–to occasionally place some tasks on pause and engage in other work. Ideas frequently surface in one area that rhyme with or collide with other projects or problems, producing possibilities for potential progress and laying the foundation for future endeavors. Approaching life, our work, and our relationships through our talents, skills and interests keeps us mentally sharp and productive, and opens doors to help others do the same.

Are there some colleagues, clients or students that could benefit from you knowing more about them—what makes them tick?

How could your progress on a current or planned project gain new momentum as a result of learning more about those with whom you work?

What moments can you capitalize on to make your next interaction a win-win for everyone involved?

Take a moment to learn more about your own work. 

Take a moment to learn more about those you serve.

My final thought. 

34 across.   Six letters.   Four clues.

1: a tiny slice of today;

2: an instant in time;

3: a pivotal second; 

4: you can lead, learn or change in one of these.

Music for Lead. Learn. Change. is Sweet Adrenaline by Delicate Beats

Podcast cover art for Lead. Learn. Change. is a view from Brunnkogel (mountaintop) over the mountains of the Salzkammergut in Austria, courtesy of photographer Simon Berger, published on www.unsplash.com.


Professional Association of Georgia Educators  

David’s LinkedIn page

Interesting information about crossword puzzles