So, I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia.† One of my grandmothers lived near Pittsburgh.† And once or twice a year, my family would take the five hour drive west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to visit for a few days and spend some time with her.† And Iím sure almost everyone here has memories of their grandparentsí houses: the rooms, the furniture, what you do when youíre there, and all sorts of random idiosyncrasies.†
For me, I remember the large portrait of my grandfather in the living room, playing touch football across the street in a vacant lot, these hyper-gelatinous cubes my grandmother called Jell-O squares, and very often on the Formica kitchen table was a jigsaw puzzle that she had just begun.
It wasnít really anything we focused on, but, passing-by, someone would put-in a few pieces here and a few pieces there, during a commercial break or on the way to the freezer to get an ice cream.† And I remember I liked building them: how cleanly the pieces would snap into place, how they all fit together perfectly, just like the picture on the box.
Now, I donít know if this is true, but later on, I started to wonder if some of those experiences I had when I was young began to guide my thinking in ways I didnít realize, if some of the things I did over and over again started to plant themselves as metaphors without my awareness.† And I wondered if building all of those jigsaw puzzles instilled in me an idea which I later came to see as very much mistaken.† Itís a belief that I will here, this afternoon, call the myth of the jigsaw puzzle.
The myth of the jigsaw puzzle goes something like this:† the world is a jigsaw puzzle, and I am a jigsaw puzzle piece.† The most important goal for me to accomplish is to find the place where I fit-in, the place where I belong.† Because if I manage to do that, then I will have fully succeeded and there will be nothing left for me to do but to sit back and enjoy that success.
If this is an aspiration that you find tempting, let me try to explain a number of ways in which itís misguided.†
The first is the idea that you are somehow a fixed person, that who you are is who you were is who you will always be, that, as a puzzle piece, your shape will never change.
But you know this isnít true.† You know who you are now is not who you were in seventh grade, or in third grade, or in kindergarten.† And why should the future be any different from the past?† There are aspects of life you now find trivial that will become meaningful.† And there are some which are now deeply meaningful that will become trivial.† You canít stop yourself from changing, any more than you can stop breathing; itís going to happen.
And even if you could stay the same, that wouldnít be your salvation, because the puzzle itself is always changing.† This is true globally, how different our world is from what it was twenty years ago or fifty years ago.† Itís even more true locally, in your own little world: teachers and classes, coaches and teammates, your relationships with your parents, your siblings, your friends.† These are aspects of life that get changed on you when youíre young.
And the fluctuations donít disappear when you get older; they simply take-on different forms: jobs and careers, whom you work with, whom you work for, relationships with spouses and children, your neighbors and community.† Your world is never going to stay the same, and neither will you.
And yet, there is nothing in those truths that demands a resigned sense of defeat.† The situation isnít unnavigable because of something you already have, something you were born with, and thatís the ability to adapt.†
If you go to the zoo and walk around, the signs will tell you the environment in which each different type animal can survive.† But thereís no such designation for humans.† We live everywhere.† We build huge metal ellipsoids and plunge them under the ocean to live with the fishes.† We launch giant metal cylinders into space and live orbiting the planet.† Ours is the one species for which the phrase, "You don't belong here" doesn't make any sense.† Because we're adaptable.† You're adaptable.† And, in the end, thatís all you really need to be.
By the way, every time you hit an obstacle in your youth and your parents rappel down from their helicopters to remove it, to fix everything and make everything all right again, theyíre keeping you from seeing this ability in yourself.† For all of their good intentions, they're preventing you from developing this most valuable skill: the ability to take a hit, regain your footing, and adapt.
In fact, in conclusion, itís not such a bad idea to push yourself into new and awkward and uncomfortable situations that force you to adapt.† Itís a skill that, once well-developed, is unlikely to lose its usefulness.† And if you master it, internalize it, if you really develop the ability to adapt to the enormous variety of situations that life presents, well, then you can really go anywhere you want in this world, and youíll fit-in just fine.