Leaving the puzzle unsolved

A few months ago, a few colleagues and I went on a team-building outing to an “Escape Room”. For the uninitiated, every escape room has a series of puzzles to be solved as a team within a stipulated time. The scenarios here can range from solving murder mysteries to having one hour to defuse a doomsday plot that threatens to destroy the earth. The venue usually arranges for a guide to accompany us, explain the case and ensure that things are going fine.

Our own case, was a murder mystery – a South-American politician who was assassinated amidst a drug scandal. We had to solve a series of puzzles, with occasional assistance from the young guide who waited outside our room. The setting was quite cliched. The whole experience felt a bunch of interns had put the scene together with puzzles from the internet. We solved the puzzle in the nick of time – in 57 minutes. Despite what I said about the setting and the puzzles, everybody on the team was delighted with the experience. This got me thinking as to what really happened there, and why we ended up enjoying the experience so much.

Looking back at the whole experience, the role of the guide stood out. At certain moments, she dropped us hints and clues to ensure that we made progress. At the same time, she never gave us the solution to our puzzles. In the end, all my teammates were happy that we had solved the case ourselves, conveniently forgetting that we had been shepherded through it all along.

Everybody loves solving puzzles. There are fewer delights than solving a riddle or a difficult problem on your own. Looking at the solution simply does not feel rewarding. Under these circumstances, as people who serve as guides, teachers, consultants, therapists, counsellors, trainers and Escape Room hosts, we would do well to lead our audience to the solution, but give them the feeling of solving it themselves. This requires more restraint than you’d think. When we are experts in a particular domain, no sooner than we understand a problem, a solution flashes in our mind. And then, we itch to jump in, offer the solution and resolve it. However, doing that robs the person with the problem of the gratifying feeling of solving it themselves.

Even with a poorly designed setting, our escape room turned out to be a wonderful experience. While we did emerge successful in the nick of time, behind the scenes was a young guide who dropped enough clues to egg us on, but showed enough restraint to lead us to believe that we did it on our own.

Well played, young lady. Well played.

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