Life Lessons From Sudoku

07/30/2010 02:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sure, I do puzzles for fun. To exercise my mind. To pass the time. But, I'd never seen Sudoku as a metaphor for life. Til I realized the life lessons I'd learned from the simple game:

1. Try, try again. When I first took a stab at Sudoku, the puzzle seemed terribly hard. I watched other puzzle solvers who seemed to easily figure out which number should go into which square with amazement and envy. I didn't have the chops to do that. Why even bother to try? Fortunately, despite my doubts, I decided to give it a go. If I hadn't, I'd still not be able to solve Sudoku--today, with patient practice, I've learned enough skills and strategies that I can finish the five-star challengers. Clearly, in life, too, to achieve a goal, you have to take the first steps--otherwise you're dooming yourself to failure by being afraid to start.

2. Baby steps and bunny slopes are A-OK. Starting out, I quickly discovered that medium Sudokus were beyond my ken. So, I went back to Easy Sudoku until I felt confident that I was ready to move to the next level. When I wanted a challenge, I'd try a harder puzzle--to build my confidence, I'd solve a familiar easy page. Slowly, I was able to progress to medium, hard and then challenger levels, being kind to myself when I met a puzzle obstacle I couldn't conquer.

Again, in life, starting slow and small, and working your way towards your goal slowly is more likely to generate both solid learning and skills, and relative progress. Don't bite off more than you can chew--you'll discourage yourself and give up on what might have been an eventually achievable goal.

3. Don't beat on yourself if you don't always succeed. Yes, at each level of Sudoku, there were a few puzzles I did wrong or couldn't solve. I have to admit that now and again I've tossed newspapers across the room in frustration. But, I discovered that "getting back on the puzzle horse" usually allowed me to find a solution. Sometimes, I had to start the puzzle over completely--but, I was able to solve it the second time around. Whatever your goal, it's likely you'll find some obstacles in your path, or meet failure along the road. Don't blame yourself if you don't always succeed. Nobody does. Strategize ways around the obstacles, and resolve to consider starting again if necessary.

4. Get the easy tasks out of the way first. By scanning the puzzle, you may be able to pick up squares where it's easy to fill in the missing number. Completing all the easy fills helps you get started, gives you a confidence boost and allows you to then focus on the harder tasks where the answers aren't quite as obvious. When you're facing any challenging project, stepping back to review the tasks needed, and then starting with those you can finish right away, helps you move forward with a sense of accomplishment and builds a foundation for the rest of the project tasks.

5. Eliminate the unnecessary. There are nine numbers in Sudoku, but, for most squares, you can eliminate a few of the nine to narrow down the choices. By carefully analyzing a square's environment, you can see what numbers are in each section and avoid duplication of entries. In life and work, removing duplications and distractions from your strategic planning can help you focus on your goal and include the necessary "numbers" or components in your plan.

6. What's missing? Each Sudoku section has some numbers already in place. Which numbers are missing that you'll need to fill in, and can you assign some patterns to those numbers that will reduce the numbers of choices you'll have to face? For example, can some of the missing numbers be paired? If so, then those digits can be removed from other squares in the row or section to simplify your options. Identifying what components are missing between you and your life goals can help you develop options to "take care of them." For example, obtaining a degree or certification might allow you to move ahead faster on your path to a promotion or a new job.

7. Get help when you need it. No, I don't mean by looking up the solutions online or in the back of the puzzle book. But, there are a lot of puzzle experts who provide tips for solving Sudoku that can teach you a few helpful tricks. Seeking out mentors who can coach us as we make our way through life can help us learn new skills and techniques that will promote our happiness and success. Collaboration with a partner on a puzzle or a project can often lead to synergy--and an improved outcome.

8. Yes, you can look up the answer--but not too soon. Sometimes, all the techniques you've learned aren't enough to come up with the right solution. Don't give up quickly, but once you're sure you've exhausted your skills or your patience, turning to the puzzle answer isn't always cheating. It can be an opportunity for you to learn a new approach, analyze what went wrong and benchmark your progress. Unless you're a 21st Century Edison, inventing the new, chances are that many others have faced the same challenges you are facing--their answers might allow you to examine your solving attempts and refine them.

9. Finally, have fun. Yes, fun. Try to avoid becoming obsessed, frustrated or angry when you're solving puzzles, or bounding down the pathway towards other goals. It's natural to want to do well, to succeed, but obsession and anger often create more bumps in the road. If you can't solve the puzzle in today's paper this evening, put it aside for a few days, then give it another go. Taking a break, and approaching life's puzzles as entertaining exercises will help your mind and body respond more effectively and will increase your chances of five-star level success.