I’m fascinated by crossword puzzles, but rarely even attempt to solve one. How’s that for placing a topic of discussion in the center of the table, then boldly backing away?

I’m also fascinated by a starry night, but can only identify a handful of constellations. I watched more curling during the recent Olympics than any other sport, but have no desire to order “stones” through Amazon and plan a group outing to a nearby, indoor ice rink. And, I really enjoy fishing, but hardly ever get to go.

I guess my point is, that just because we find something intriguing, it’s no sure sign that we’re driven to devote large portions of our time to the activity, which brings me back to crossword puzzles. Just looking at them is a pleasant visual stimulation. The order and crispness of the grid, the tantalizing mind probe of the clues, up and down, across we go, some squares get letters, many are left blank; it’s all such captivating fun.

I can usually complete 30 to 35% of grid on my initial run through of a medium level crossword, but it’s the second level that holds my attention. That aspect of using the things I knew right away and penciled in, to aid me in solving for that which didn’t immediately come to mind on the first pass, is where the intrigue and challenge actually begins. Seeing that “mastodon” is the correct response for “ancient elephant” is so much easier when you’ve already got an “s” in the third square. It’s especially satisfying when you’ve been trying to somehow spread “mammoth” into eight spaces by adding an “s” on the end and convincing yourself that it’s the only right response, because the clue was surely meant to be plural. You were certain it was a typo until that “s” in square number three showed up. Mastodon! Oh, what a tease you were!

I must openly admit that I struggle mightily with Latin phrases and European rivers. And, I don’t feel the need to bathe myself in layers of guilt and shame for having looked up such answers. If there’s an “X” or “Z” in the path, well-known Chinese personalities are acceptable options, but only if the crossword designer is really painted into a corner. Let’s make this challenging, but entertaining. Avoid blatantly obscure and supremely ridiculous words as much as possible. Make me feel too ignorant, and my interest level fades pretty quickly.

So, why write about crossword puzzles if I rarely pick one up and wrestle with the clues? Because, in some small, but consistent way, the puzzle becomes an apt metaphor for life. As we age and mature, we become more equipped for the challenges that come our way.

I probably would have enjoyed a crossword puzzle when I was 8, but the answer grid would have needed to be restricted to words suited for my age level. In middle school, the options could have naturally expanded to include larger words and a wider range of references. By senior year, the array of material from which to draw would have grown substantially. And now, as an adult, I can even appreciate the occasional obscure reference and flashbacks to pop culture from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

Having all that in tow, you can now mix in a few Latin words, European rivers, and well-known Chinese personas. I’m ready for ya. Challenge me. I’ve got this.

So, why then do we struggle with doubt and self-confidence?

I think there’s a natural part of our Psyché that wrestles with the uncertain potential of the unknown. Those squares are blank. That clue doesn’t help, even if I say it out loud repeatedly while walking around looking at the ceiling. Seventeen across has always tripped us up and here we are again, ready to break the pencil in half and run the puzzle through the shredder. We doubt. We get frustrated by our doubt. We assign it a more lofty status than it’s earned through the years, and we settle into the comfort of self-restriction, rather than embrace the exhilaration of facing the challenge.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast interview with author Sandra Brown. You may have heard of her. She’s authored and published sixty-nine books since 1983; fifty of them have been labeled with Best-Seller status by the NY Times. Reportedly, she started her writing career in 1981 because her husband dared her. Had he double-dog dared her, she might have been driven to write and publish under alternate pen names as well. Oh wait… she did. She’s written twenty-one additional books under the names Rachel Ryan, Laura Jordan, and Erin St. Claire. Some of those were Best-Sellers.

In the podcast interview, she was asked a question about the origin of her creativity. Her response was something along the lines of, I don’t know. I often wonder, “What if the first eighteen Best-Sellers were a fluke?”

I got a good laugh out of that; hopefully, you did too.

Today is Sandra Brown’s birthday. She turned 70. She published her most recent book, Seeing Red, this past August and I’d bet she’s working away on her next story, still wondering if those first fifty or so New York Times Best-Sellers were a fluke.

I’ve never in my life filled in all the squares of a crossword puzzle on the first pass, but I’ve always found that the things I knew the first time through helped me greatly on my second pass. That’s experience at work, helping me meet the challenges with a little extra insight. Life kinda works that way… for all of us.

When in doubt, look in the mirror and consider all the things that the person looking back at you has done to win the trust of others. Then, realize that they’ve earned the right to be trusted by you as well. You’ve got this!

Quick Links to Mark’s Books on Amazon:

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Don’t Forget Your Cape
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