One of my favorite childhood hobbies was solving jigsaw puzzles. I started with simple shapes and quickly graduated up to the boxes filled with 1000 pieces. My parents always gaped at the way I was able to mentally rotate and place the pieces, visually building the picture in my mind before translating that vision on to the table. Perhaps most notably, I completed a 1,500 piece puzzle of a snowy leopard in a winter aspen fores in four days. White, white and more white, speckled with bit of black. That puzzle was my first memory of “flow”–that fully immersed feeling of energized focus.
When I was in middle school, I was involved in a group project where we were tasked with designing a new playground within a certain budget. We took the constraints of our current school playground and researched the best equipment, ground cover, foliage, and layout. Once more, the strategic thinking, spacial reasoning, and attention sent me off to the world of my mind and I spent every free moment in design-mode, crafting the perfect playground.
In high school, we were required to take a standardized test each year. It was a math test, filled with impossibly complex problems. While others groaned through the exam, I felt deeply engaged. Each year, I spent 60 minutes twisting three-dimensional shapes in my mind to count the number of sides, mentally plotting out obscure word problems, and thinking, “This is so much fun.” Once more, I found my flow state. When the scores came back, I scored in the top 1% in the country, acknowledged in front of the entire school along with two Korean exchange students. I felt like a word problem wizard. I felt like a genius.
I went on to fail calculus three times, once in high school and twice in college. The same year I was a deemed a national math champion, I was unable to to grasp basic calculus. Or, more specifically, I thought that I understood but my test scores showed otherwise.
It was my hope to graduate with a pre-medicine undergraduate degree and go on to specialize in neurology and perhaps even neurosurgery, but my inability to pass that math class shattered that dream. And two thoughts stem from that.
Firstly, why do schools require that students pass test ultimately unrelated to their field of study and career aspirations? I understand that doctors, lawyers, and other high-level professionals serve roles that require a sharp mind and multi-dimensional thinking, but I often wonder if removing some of the red tape would lend itself to a more creative, diverse, and progressive society.
Secondly, what did that test I continually did so well on represent? Was it a standardized test dispersed simply for the sake of standardized testing, or as research to assess the performance of different groups? Of female test-takers, I scored in the top 0.25%, but how can I apply that in my own life and I seek out answers surrounding career options?
When you discover you’re exceptionally skilled at word problems, three-dimensional thinking, and approaching obscure problems in a logical manner, what do you do with that information?
To this day, I love jigsaw puzzles and Mensa puzzles. I enjoy stretching my mind and rearranging problems in order to see them more clearly. I know, on a deep level, that these visual thinking skills could be applied to larger puzzle–worldwide problems in need of solutions; I know that I could be doing more to make the world a better place.
I’ve spent much of the last ten years trying to discern how to best apply myself to the service of others, honestly assessing my skills, passions, and values. And though I’ve refined my understanding of what I can offer, what I love, and whom I can help, I’m still waiting for the three areas to clearly converge. I’m still trying to learn my purpose, so I can show up fully in my life and contribute in a meaningful way.
Spatial visualization is one of those abilities, an area in which I’ve been both objectively and subjectively deemed and small-time superhero. Yet, it seems that so many of the careers reliant on spacial intelligence also require calculus, and my insecurity about past failures has made it challenging to face that fear and attempt the class once more.
I recently discovered the field of ergonomics and human-factors design and engineering, and it feels like a career specifically crafted for me. I believe, and I hope, that the task of developing solutions to untapped problems, visualizing concepts in new ways, and innovating more user-friendly products and systems could be an opportunity for me to finally converge my skills, passion, and values in a significant way.