Mentoring is like a jigsaw puzzle

Mentoring is like a jigsaw puzzle

When last did you complete a jigsaw puzzle? Or do you prefer Crossword puzzles or Sudoku and those types of mind games?

I completed a jigsaw puzzle this morning. It took me about three days, though I was doing it at various times of the day and night, as I don’t enjoy becoming too intense about it.

I particularly enjoy the 1000 piece Wasgij puzzles, where one doesn’t know the final picture and has to use one’s imagination, creativity and develop strategies to work out the best way forward. In many ways this activity reminded me of some of the the challenges of a mentoring journey. Let me explain, though only after we consider how completing puzzles might be benefitting the brain.Some years ago I started doing jigsaw puzzles, as a friend of mine suggested they were a great way of keeping the brain sharp, especially as one aged.

Dr Shen-Li Lee, author of Brainchild: Secrets to unlocking your child’s potential, and author of a parenting website figure, shared some research she undertook about jigsaw puzzles and the positive impact on the brain. From her research, which she states can’t be scientifically proven, she collated what she had found about the benefits of solving jigsaw puzzles:

  • enhances visual perception
  • hones coordination
  • improves memory
  • develops critical thinking
  • increases dopamine production in the brain
  • heightens creativity
  • stimulates the whole brain

It would be great if all these bullet points were proven to be scientifically true, as it would justify the hours I spend wrapped up in trying to solve the picture puzzle!

There is a great mentoring tip in this information, though, namely encouraging your mentee to do puzzles to keep developing his or her brain. Better still if you can complete one together, imagine the conversations and teamwork skills that could occur, as well as all the fun that would be enjoyed by the two of you – maybe some frustrations too!

I am sure we all have different strategies we use when we complete puzzles and that’s why it is like mentoring in some ways, especially with regard to the Wasgij puzzles where we don’t know the final picture.

When we enter a mentoring relationship, we have absolutely no idea what the end result is going to be. With the puzzle, we study the initial picture and then the clues that are often provided. Similarly, in a mentoring relationships we see two strangers brought together and they seek common ground in the initial fairly superficial conversation. “Tell me about your family.” “Do you play sport or a music instrument?” “Where do you live?” “How long have you lived there?” “How many hobbies do you have?’

Just as I study the clues before I begin the puzzle, so in the mentoring relationship I’ll seek common ground or similar interests when I meet my mentee for the first time. That’s why it’s important to ask non-threatening or non-intrusive questions, questions that allow me to respond as well, being a little vulnerable and, hopefully, through sharing a little of my story, encouraging my mentee to start sharing their story.

I immediately look for the border pieces, the frame of the puzzle and this helps me begin to see some structure to the puzzle. Similarly, as a mentor, I place boundaries in place early on to ensure that my mentee feels safe and secure and comfortable in the relationship, so it can be developmental in a positive way and fun.

When I work on the jigsaw puzzle and sort out the pieces, I look for faces, body parts and words/letters and place these in a separate area; maybe there are certain building pieces, items of clothing etc. that I can detect. I am fortunate, as I have a wooden puzzle board on which to complete the puzzle. The board has four narrow sliding draws into which I put common colours etc., as I am always looking for a visual image that will help me complete the puzzle.

I am planning and organizing the pieces, in a way also setting small goals as I identify the different pieces. While my ultimate goal is to complete the puzzle, I need to achieve this with small action steps – the different characters and shapes I separate out early on.

The mentor aims to see the mentee enjoying a self-empowering journey, hence the focus as early as possible on goal setting, management of time, planning and organizing. Together, as with the puzzle, strategies are created. Open-ended questions will enhance our mentoring relationship and, just as I try and do with the creator of the puzzle, trying to get into his or her shoes to imagine the end picture, so I shall try and encourage my mentee to develop his or her own long-term vision, doing my best to walk in his or her shoes for a while. Then we work backwards to the present day and begin the initial small, doable and achievable action steps.

After a while my eyes tire and I begin to lose focus on the puzzle, at times feeling frustrated as my progress is so slow. Then I get up and move away, often for a few hours, during which time I still hold a vague picture of what I think the puzzle will look like once completed. As a mentor, I head off after our mentoring time and have a chance to reflect. When I meet my mentee the next time, with fresh eyes, just as with the puzzle, I might suddenly see some pieces coming together. My mentee might share something and it’s like a missing link has been found and I begin to gather a greater perspective about my mentee. It’s a journey, like the puzzle, that takes time and often has unpredictable turns.

I find perseverance so important when I complete puzzles. I am colour blind, so the only time I have quitted doing a puzzle was when there was too much brown and red, usually a garden scene, and I just can’t pick the different colours. Rather than become frustrated, I hand over the puzzle to my wife, who also enjoys them, and she gleefully completes the puzzle twice as fast as I do.

What’s this to do with mentoring? We bring our unique gifts and talents to the mentoring relationship and, over time, our relationship will be shaped and refined, our strengths acknowledged and we shall work at ways of supporting one another, though most of the time the adult mentor will be the main source of encouragement to the mentee.

As with the frustrations of not fitting pieces to the puzzle at different times, so the mentoring relationship can be frustrating, depending on the mood and feelings of the mentee when we meet. So, I need patience and to always remember that one Golden rule for the mentoring journey shared years ago by a mentee: “Don’t quit on your mentee!”

When I finally complete the puzzle, I enjoy a wonderful feeling of satisfaction. I am pretty sure there is a positive dopamine release going on in my brain, as I study the final picture, always marveling at the ingenuity of the creator of the puzzle. I leave it out overnight and stand proudly looking at it again the next morning before I break it up, box it and usually pass it on to a friend.

We have no idea how long or short our mentoring relationship will be. What’s important is to celebrate every small goal achieved, as that will enhance the self-empowering journey of the mentee, whilst usually building self-belief and self-confidence.

I am tempted to find another puzzle now that I am in the groove, but I know the importance of a balanced and healthy lifestyle, so I must wait awhile and be reminded of the importance of discussing what a healthy and balanced lifestyle means to my adolescent mentee. Is he or she getting that critical nine hours sleep a night?!

Do you attempt jigsaw puzzles or any other puzzles? What strategies can you share with mentees?

By the way, if you are wanting an easy read to understand the principles of the spirit of mentoring and how to apply them, I wrote a novel, details of which are available on this website.

About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organiser, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in Australia and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can join him on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook or contact him through his YES! website