the universe revealed: puzzles vs mysteries

This blew my mind with its simplicity:

Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink) has another amazing article in The New Yorker. I’m calling it the article of the 10-day-old-year. He defends Enron’s ex-CEO, Jeff Skilling, by asserting that Skilling should not have been legally liable because he disclosed Enron’s sketchy bookkeeping in mammoth amounts of financial disclosures. Basically, Enron’s “deception” was hidden in the open and so they didn’t lie. Though the article is about Enron, it really isn’t.

The mind-blowing point is when Gladwell explains the difference between “puzzles” and “mysteries” using a distinction made by national-security expert Gregory Terverton. In a nutshell:

A puzzle just requires more information to solve. The article cites bin Laden’s whereabouts as a puzzle: All we’re lacking is information. The more information we have (for example, what city he is in monumentally narrows down our search) the easier it is to solve the puzzle. Or think of Wheel of Fortune: Each letter revealed makes the puzzle easier to solve.

A mystery requires analysis, judgment and experience. Fundamentally, a mystery has to do with uncertainties. As Gladwell puts it, mysteries don’t have “a simple, factual answer.” His example in the article is “what would happen in Iraq, post-toppling of Saddam Hussein?” 100 different people have 100 different assessments of what post-Iraq would be like. Simple, factual answer? No way. The example that popped to mind was the show House MD. While the information in the form of tests and investigation of the patient’s personal lives is absolutely needed and gathered—it’s the rigorous analysis and experience of House that cracks the nut. And true to form, there is almost always very strong dissent that his diagnosis and/or treatment is wrong and dangerous. That’s because these patients’ disorders are not puzzles, they’re medical mysteries requiring judgment. Medicine is firmly founded on the puzzle premise, which is why House is unique (and good television)—he also solves mysteries.

This is interesting to me, because I think we attempt to turn everything into puzzles– even the mysteries. An example would be any kind of major life decision: we cling to the notion that everything will be solved by one more piece of information. We delay decisions by weeks or months, claiming that we’re waiting to find out about X or Y. Instead, what we should be doing is spending serious time doing some soul-searching (another word for soul-searching: analysis) about what we really want, etc. Based on my personal experience, this is true for me. I’ve pinned my hopes of a clear decision on something a few weeks off or some  milestone. I would have been better off doing the analysis (soul-searching) immediately, because in most cases my decision would have been the same regardless of the new information. But as Gladwell states, we don’t like mysteries because they’re not simple, and like most things in life—we take the easy way out.

2/16/13 – I’m much less enthralled with Gladwell today. While I now find the divide between puzzles and mysteries a bit murky and potentially simplistic  (aren’t mysteries just really complex puzzles that could be broken down into much smaller puzzle pieces whereby additional information “solves” them and once all these puzzles are solved, the mystery is solved?), it’s still a really interesting concept. But, hey, if nothing else – we can watch Zero Dark Thirty and see Maya solve the mystery before our very eyes.

3 thoughts on “the universe revealed: puzzles vs mysteries

  1. Very interesting. It's always good to have a specific definition so we really know what we are talking about that the reality check that life takes more than facts, but you actually need to put them together in a way that makes sense. I personally like the examples, too.


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