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is the right fit the right answer?: lessons from crosswording

 "Life can be so much like a crossword puzzle.
It's perplexing and tiring and you're never quite sure
if you got the right answer."  



Lately I've been spending my mornings crouched over the kitchen counter at my parents' house, mesmorized by the daily crossword puzzles in The Washington Post. Never before have I been interested in crossword puzzles, but lately I've found myself sucked into them on an almost daily basis. Clearly, I'm a fan of words (being a writer and all), but what I love most about crosswords is the little tricks -- the clues that seem so clear, but when the right word is finally discovered it's linked to a definition I'd never even considered (or known!). 

With my new-found love for crosswords, not only am I learning new words -- and completely random facts I'll probably never have use for -- but I recently I had a crossword-related revelation: even when I'm 100% sure I know the word, even when it fits perfectly in those little squares, and even when it aligns flawlessly with the clue -- sometimes the answer I pencil in ends up being wrong. Clearly these puzzle-makers do this on purpose to make them tricky, but it can be frustrating. How can something that fits so well be wrong? 

This seems-so-right-but-is-really-wrong concept happens not only in crossword puzzles, but in life as well. There are moments when something (a relationship, a career choice, our words or actions, etc.) seems to fit so perfectly that you're certain it couldn't possibly be wrong. It matches up with all the other letters, it makes perfect sense with the clues you've been given, but later you discover it's completely wrong and there's an even better answer that you never even considered. When other puzzles are solved, when new words are added, you discover that the answer that seemed so right is, in fact, trumped by an even better solution. 

When this idea -- that something that fits perfectly might not necessarily be right -- first dawned on me, I was a little unsettled. I started wondering if the seemingly "right" aspects of my life might somehow be wrong. Just because something is a perfect fit doesn't mean that it's the right answer. 

How do you know if the right fit is really the right answer? 

The truth is: you don't. At least not always. At least not right away. With my crossword answers, I usually discovered an answer was wrong only after I'd completely other parts of the puzzle and concluded that the answer I was once so sure about no longer seemed to fit. In many cases, I remained certain my answer was correct until the following day when my parents and I would look over the answers and realize that seemed right was actually wrong. 

In life there are many situations where there's no way of knowing if the right fit really is the right answer. (On the contrary, there are often many situations where we know it's not the right answer but we desperately try to make it fit in order to have completed the puzzle. Don't do this. A forced fit is never the right fit.) However, just like the crossword puzzle, there are a few things we can do to figure out if what fits is really what's right. 

Get a second opinion. 

Sometimes the only way I realize an answer I'd been certain about is wrong is when my parents discover a better solution to the puzzle. For the most part, I think we know what's "right" for us in our lives, but it doesn't hurt to get a second opinion. I can't tell you how many times someone else has interpreted a crossword puzzle clue in a way I never would have considered. If you're questioning any of the perfectly fitting pieces in your life, don't hesitate to ask someone else for his or her opinion. A fresh perspective could be just what you need to determine if what fits is really what's right. And if a second opinion doesn't offer you a new answer, it has the potential to either confirm that your answer is, in fact, the right one -- or open your mind to thinking about the clues in new ways. 


Double-check connected clues.

Most of the elements in our lives are connected in some way. Some examples: your personal relationships can impact your work; your workday can influence the mood at home; your relationship with your parents can affect your relationship with your partner. It's important to look at the elements of your life impacting the seemingly perfect answer to see if those elements might also be the perfect-but-not-right fit. With the crosswords, sometimes by changing another answer  I realize my perfect fit wasn't so perfect after all. When attempting to ascertain if the perfect fit is the right fit, don't isolate your thoughts to one element of your life -- look at the whole puzzle, or at least the connected elements.  


Use creative thinking. 

One of the things I love most about the crossword puzzles -- and find immensely frustrating at the same time -- is that the clues are often multidimensional and much more clever than they appear at first glance. To get the right answer sometimes you have to think outside the box and consider alternate definitions and possibilities. Likewise, if you want the right answer for an element of your life, you have to consider alternatives and be open to ideas other than the first and most obvious answer. When an answer seems to fit so perfectly, it can be challenging to see the clues from a different point of view, but putting the effort to think creatively is much better than settling for the first thing that comes along. 

Take a break. 

Whenever I'm stumped on a crossword puzzle answer, I find that taking a break from staring at that newspaper page often helps me to clear my mind and actually come up with the correct answer. Similarly, if you're struggling to determine whether or not the right fit is the right answer, removing yourself from the situation for a bit will help you to clear your mind. When you come back, you'll usually be even more certain about your answer or be able to come up with alternate ideas based on a fresh perspective. When things seem to fit well in our lives we don't often want to step away from them to evaluate, but doing so could prevent a lifetime of living with the wrong answer. 


It's quite possible that the perfect fit isn't the right answer -- but it's also quite possible that it is right. It's important to be aware of what's happening in your life and review even the seemingly perfect parts of it, it doesn't do any good to constantly worry and wonder if what seems to fit is actually wrong. What I learned with this crossword puzzle revelation is not to question everything, but instead to be open to the idea that the perfect fit isn't always the right fit. It's not about creating a culture of doubt, but learning to be more aware of what's going on in our lives -- even the parts that seem to fit perfectly. 


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I totally agree with you about being stumped and taking a break makes all the difference. Many a time I have put a crossword down thinking I can´t do any more only to glance at it an hour or so later and suddenly an answer pops into my head and I´m off again.

Nigel - It's funny how that works, isn't it? Often it's when you focus on a problem intensely that the answer is hard to recognize. Stepping away for a bit can make a difference -- both in crosswords and in other situations!

the best advice I ever got on filling in crosswords - or life - was from a 7 year old. "if the words don't fit" he said, "just draw in more boxes". I love it.
Sandra Block, Ph.D.

Sandra - Hahaha, that is GREAT advice. Love it! Thanks so much for sharing that.

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