I read an article recently that talked about the difference between a ‘mystery’ and a ‘puzzle’. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

In the article the author gave a perfect example of a mystery- the Enron trial. If you remember, Enron was an energy company that had unethical business practices and was not forthcoming in their business and financial dealings. When their practices were exposed it was discovered they weren’t actually making any money, their stock value plummeted, and they went bankrupt.

Enron is a great example of the difference between a mystery and a puzzle. The prosecutors were treating the trial as a puzzle, as if all the info and facts would piece together a clear picture. However, Enron executives never withheld any information. All the facts were there in their financial filings. The problem was that there was TOO MUCH information- thousands and thousands of pages of fine print. It took a specialist with lots of time on his hands to wade through the data and interpret it so that the rest of us could understand what it said.

The problem it seems these days is not a lack of information, but an over-abundance of it.

I think it’s really helpful to distinguish between a puzzle and a mystery, especially in our day. I think of Google and the internet and the vast amounts of information at our disposal. The problem it seems these days is not a lack of information, but an over-abundance of it. We get lost in the information. You have to have a fine eye to pick out the good info from the bad. It takes special skills to be good at this. As the author said a mystery cannot be solved, it can only be framed.

Oftentimes when I’m researching or looking something up on the internet I tend to think of my pursuit as a puzzle. I think the more webpages I look at, the more forums I peruse, etc. the closer I will be to getting my answer. And sometimes that works. Sometimes you stumble upon the right piece of data that solves the puzzle. But sometimes it might be helpful too to approach things as a mystery, that is, something that is not going to fit together nicely, something that you won’t get an answer to. The answer must be framed, not answered. It will save me a lot of energy and stress if I stop trying to solve mysteries and treat them for what they really are.

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