Recently, my family and I have gotten obsessed with Spelling Bee on the NYTimes Crossword. Someone in our family does it nearly every day.
The game refreshes daily and we’ll typically spend 10-20 minutes playing it across all devices. The rules are simple: make as many words as possible with the 7 available letters; all words must be four or more letters long; and all must use the middle letter at least once. Also, there’s a Pangram every day, a word that uses all 7 letters.
Recently, the Times added a something called the Spelling Bee Forum. It has hints for each day’s puzzle, and is divided into two sections: (1) A grid that shows the number of possible words and their length, listed by letter…
..and beneath that, (2) A list that tells you the first two letters of the words listed in the above table.
So, for example, for last Sunday’s puzzle there were (per the grid above) 11 words that started with C: one with four letters, two with five, two with six, three with seven, two with 9, and one with 10.
Of these, per the next section of hints, 9 of the C words start with ‘CO’ and 2 start with ‘CU.’
As a family, whenever we play, we try not to click on the hints. But when we do check out the hints, I try to look first at the top table and then, if I’m really at a dead end, I’ll look at the bottom list as well.
It is difficult to overstate how helpful the first table is. I can be absolutely stuck, having stared at the same seven letters for 5 minutes straight, sure that there are no words left that I can find. Then, after a glance at the first table of ‘hints,’ and armed with the information that there are 7 words that start with the letter ‘G’ when I’ve only found three…it practically makes more ‘G’ words appear as if by magic.
This is a version of looking when know something is there (in the pantry, in your organization).
The new information—in this case about the number of words that start with the letter G—is telling me two things:
- To narrow my field of vision: looking for words that start with G will be fruitful.
- That I’m on the path to success: there are four more words that start with G. Hence, the (previously credible) voice telling me I’m at a dead end is silenced.
Having played Spelling Bee for a few months, I’ve become familiar with the ‘stuck’ feeling: staring at that honeycomb of letters and being fully, completely convinced that there’s nothing left there for me to find. Then my wife will come along and find ‘udon’ or ‘iconic’ or ‘epee’ or ‘naan,’ or we’ll click on the hints to look at the skeleton key for that day’s puzzle, and a new door opens.
While life rarely can tell us so cleanly which of the uncertain paths we’re exploring will be fruitful, there’s still a lesson here.
When we’re searching for new answers (how to fix a thorny problem, how to get unstuck, what our next product or offering should be) our biggest limitation is not our ability to find new and better answers. Rather, our biggest limitation is the voice, that gets louder after each passing minute, telling us we are stuck, we are done, there’s nothing fruitful here for us to find.
Perhaps, then, we all are spending too much time focused on improving our “looking,” “thinking” and “analyzing” skills…when our biggest untapped potential is the simple realization that the answer we’re seeking really is in the palm of our hands—if only we could see it.
(And why wouldn’t it be there? We’ve done the work up to this point. We are ready, we are prepared, we are the right person in the right place. Of course the answer is there!).
The moment we vanquish the thought that there’s nothing left to find, the moment we dance a bit longer with belief, the moment we dare to think that magic is within our grasp…that thought alone is what unlocks our potential.
“I’ve looked as hard as I can look. There’s nothing there that I can find,” sounds sensible and objective. But, in truth, it’s nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.
More accurate would be, “I can’t find anything more because I’ve decided that there’s nothing more there left to find.”
Don’t look harder.
Don’t look smarter.
Look with more confidence.
Look with the belief that of course “it” is there for you to find, and you’re looking in exactly the right place.
Indeed, you have everything you need, right now, to make that next breakthrough discovery.