Puzzles vs Mysteries

Gregory Treverton outlines a nice distinction between puzzles and mysteries in an article called Risks and Riddles

There’s a reason millions of people try to solve crossword puzzles each day. Amid the well-ordered combat between a puzzler’s mind and the blank boxes waiting to be filled, there is satisfaction along with frustration. Even when you can’t find the right answer, you know it exists. Puzzles can be solved; they have answers.

But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.

Puzzles may be more satisfying, but the world increasingly offers us mysteries. Treating them as puzzles is like trying to solve the unsolvable—an impossible challenge. But approaching them as mysteries may make us more comfortable with the uncertainties of our age.

Jim’s comments while MBAs and other similar programs seek to provide people with a basic tool-kit for solving problems, they assume a framework, but

“They offer far less guidance on the far more difficult task of framing issues in ways that can be addressed.”

All good stuff. It reminds me of the apprentice-journeyman-master model. On this puzzle-mystery reading, you could say that:

  • An apprentice is unaware of the puzzles and doesn’t have the tools to solve them
  • A journeyman is aware of the puzzles and has the tools to solve them. But is unaware of the mysteries
  • A master is aware of the puzzles and has the tools to solve them. What sets a master apart though is the awareness of the mysteries and the ability to use that to make your own puzzles.

The world doesn’t increasingly offer us mysteries. It’s probably pedantic, but I’d say instead that more and more people are aware of the mysteries that the world offers, and as a result more and more people are aware, albeit faintly, that the journeymen might not cut the mustard.

The catch is, of course, you normally have to become both apprentice and journeyman before you can make your valuable puzzles from life’s little mysteries.

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