Synthesis, Sticky Notes, and Scrabble: What do They Have in Common?

In my first semester of college, I signed up to take a two-unit Scrabble class. This was no oh-how-fun-I’ll-just-relax-and-play-some-Scrabble-on-the-side kind of class. Nope. We had homework and quizzes and midterms and a final.

For two hours a week, I sat and learned Scrabble strategy from a brilliant (if a little eccentric) little man named Max.

A few years later, aside from the long list of “Scrabble legit” two-letter words I had to memorize, the thing that most sticks out in my mind from Scrabble with Max was what he taught us to do with our seven letter tiles each round (for anyone who is unfamiliar with how Scrabble works, take my word for it that everyone draws letters at random to reach a total seven letter tiles, which are used to make their next word).

7 tiles

The most important thing to do with your letter tiles, says Scrabble Max, is shuffle them around. Arrange them and rearrange them again and again until you see not one possible word, but many.

You’ll begin to notice patterns that you didn’t notice at first. Even if more words don’t manifest themselves right away, odds are they’re in there somewhere, and it’s only a matter of time until we arrange what we have in a way that sparks a new idea or insight.

In all my experiences brainstorming and solution-seeking, I’ve learned that the same concept applies for ideas. Sometimes, the the way we’ve arranged the components of an idea naturally give way to what seems like a fairly obvious solution. And maybe this is the best solution. But maybe it isn’t.

Round 1

In order for us to fully appreciate the full range of possible solutions that come from our ideas, we need to be able to move them around. To organize them in different ways so that we can make more connections and open up more possible solutions.

This is why trying out new frameworks for our ideas is important: so we can understand our ideas in different contexts and make connections between elements that we may not have thought to pair together.

Shuffling our ideas around is beneficial for understanding in the same way daydreaming is good for creativity. When we unbind our ideas from the way we have them categorized initially, they are able to mix and mingle and connect in ways we may not have connected them on our own.

On the other hand, when we fixate on one possible solution, we limit ourselves from being able to see the rest of the possibilities.  

To be able to see all the different ways that your ideas can interact when you rearrange everything once or twice or twenty times will connect ideas in ways you may not have seen the first time around (this is why we don’t lock sticky notes, or any other multimedia, in place).

Smarter Solutions

This helps you find patterns, and patterns help you understand the Bigger Picture.

When you notice patterns between ideas, you begin to see them as the working parts of a bigger concept. Your perspective becomes “zoomed out,” and instead of looking at ideas individually, patterns connect them and transform them from individual ideas into integral parts of a whole.

Shuffling Ideas

Understanding the Bigger Picture opens us up to a more holistic understanding of a problem or a perspective, and this can lead to better insights and solutions.

Looks like Scrabble Max was onto something.

So next time you’re on the hunt for solutions, or even just organizing your own thoughts, remember:

  • Don’t “marry” the first feasible solution you come up with. Make a note that you have a possible solution, and then keep looking for more.
  • Shuffle things around! Combinations that might have seemed unlikely can spark new ideas that give way to better solutions than those that jumped out to us in the beginning.
  • Putting seemingly unrelated concepts side by side can help you see the Bigger Picture by finding patterns that enhance your overall understanding. Don’t be afraid to take things out of context and see what happens.

p.s. Check out what Jason Silva has to say about how connections affect our understanding, it just might blow your mind.

Megan Landes
Neuroscience nerd, peanut butter aficionado. Never found without colored pencils.