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Flex your mental muscles with astonishing creative puzzles

“Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; thus does inaction sap the vigor of the mind,” noted Leonardo da Vinci. Creative geniuses like da Vinci know that without action and movement, nothing happens. Movement and exercise are not only good for our bodies but also vital for our minds. Enter creative puzzles. 

Thinking in general, and creative thinking in particular, is a skill. That’s great news because, just like with any other skill, it can be learned and improved through practice and by embracing it with a positive attitude. Creative puzzles are a fun and straightforward way to practice creative thinking.

What are creative puzzles?

Creative puzzles are mental challenges and fun riddles that invite you to come up with a solution for a particular situation or problem scenario. You can find or encounter them in books (especially about creativity), magazines, and online. These puzzles allow you to engage in various creative strategies that will boost your creative thinking skills, mental flexibility, and persistence.  

Creative puzzles are mental workout sessions for your brain. Just like a good physical exercise routine emphasizes different aspects of physical fitness (such as strength, endurance, speed, flexibility, and coordination), the diverse range of creative puzzles can help you develop various facets of your creativity and mental ability. and flexibility.

The most well-known creative puzzle is the “Nine Dots” puzzle that I am going to share with you below. 

Creative puzzle 1: Nine dots

Below are nine dots arranged in a set of three rows. Your challenge: Connect all the dots with not more than four straight lines without taking the pencil off the paper.

If you’ve already come across this puzzle, then try to connect all the dots with LESS than four straight lines.

Note: At the very end of this article, you can find solutions for this and other creative puzzles featured below. Scoll down only after you’ve given it a shot for some time to solve the puzzle – resist the temptation to give up too soon.

How do creative puzzles work? And why are they useful?

Creative puzzles challenge your standard way of looking at a particular situation and train you to explore other, non-obvious options to resolve a creative challenge. Some puzzles allow you to play with words or numbers creatively. Others invite you to challenge common assumptions that you habitually make or teach you other fundamental creative thinking strategies (such as shifting into another dimension or using another sense).  

Creative puzzles cultivate mental flexibility (by training you in different creative thinking strategies) and help you develop mental persistence, endurance, and resilience by continuing thinking of other possible solutions instead of settling on the first best idea or throwing in the towel right away. The American inventor Ray Dolby (famous for his numerous sound-related inventions such as Dolby Surround) put this notion of creative persistence as follows:

“Inventing is a skill that some people have and some people don’t. But you can learn how to invent. You have to have the will not to jump at the first solution, because the really elegant solution might be right around the corner. An inventor is someone who says, ‘Yes, that’s one way to do it, but it doesn’t seem to be an optimum solution.’ Then he keeps on thinking.”

So true to Ray Dolby’s notion, whenever someone has found the “standard solution” for a creative puzzle, I also encourage learners to think about other creative solutions, and reward any non-standard creative suggestions with a token of appreciation, too. 

To sum up, creative puzzles are a great way to build up creative competence and creative confidence (when finding a good solution), which is why we also make them a part of our Thinkergy creativity training courses.Below are a few more puzzles for you to test your creative thinking prowess and persistence:

 

Creative Puzzle 2: Tom and Tim 

Tom and Tim were born on the same day, in the same month and year, to the same parents, but they aren’t twins. How come? 

 

Creative Puzzle 3: The Eccentric Guest House Owner

You check in a bed & breakfast guest house in Bangkok’s Khao San Road. After dinner, you walk around the guest house facilities and end up in a window-less, teak wood-paneled library lighted by three light bulbs, each of which is connected to its own switch outside the room in the doorway.Your slightly eccentric host leads you out of the room, closes the solid teak door, and offers you the following challenge. “I will let you stay for free tonight if you can figure out which switch controls which bulb.”

“That’s easy”, you smile. “Yes,” your host chuckles, “but I’ll only allow you to open the door and enter the room one more time. You can flick the switches as often as you want, but I won’t let you touch them again after you open the door.”

How can you solve the challenge and win a free night at the guest house?

 

Creative Puzzle 4: Two Strings

Suppose you are in a room where two strings are hanging down from the ceiling, as shown in the picture below. Your goal is to tie the two strings together, but neither string is long enough so that you can reach and grab the other string while holding either one. You only have available a few clean paintbrushes, a can of paint, and a heavy canvas tarpaulin. How can you do it?

How to take creative puzzles to the next level

So far, we have dealt mostly with conventional creative puzzles with one or a few “standard solutions.” I have also developed a series of open-ended creative challenges for our creative leadership development program, Genius Journey, that teaches the high-level creative thinking strategies of creative top achievers. These advanced creative puzzles introduce simple challenges relating to a general or a personal business situation with a multitude or even infinite number of possible solutions that reside on different levels of creativity. At the end of each session, I give feedback to the participants on what level their proposed solution for the last puzzle resides. Then, I share with them more creatively advanced solutions that other learners had come up with before. This approach encourages learners to cultivate a feeling for creative possibilities on higher levels, making them want to try harder and think differently when exposed to the following creative puzzles. 

In one of the research studies that I conducted together with fellow researchers to verify the effectiveness of Thinkergy’s training approach in general and the various pedagogical tools used to build up creative competence and confidence, one learner commented on the powerful impact of these open-ended creative puzzle challenges as follows: 

 “The creative puzzles are one the best tools that encourage me to think outside the box. They help me to realize that if I keep doing things as the same way or same as the others, I will get the same result, no improvement. Hence, I need to step outside my comfort zone, my cozy box and look at the things at the different perspectives so that I can gain the creative solutions.” 

Here is an example of one such open-ended creative puzzle: At the end of the first session in our Genius Journey program, each learner receives a piece of paper with the outlines of four black dots arranged in a set of two rows with two dots. Then, I instruct the creative leader candidates to use this paper to create something new of more value by the start of the next session. While many learners use the paper to develop artistic sketches (creativity on the “Good”-level), and some to craft a useful object (e.g., a die; “Great”), one creative leader candidate who is a composer measured the distances between the lines of the dots, translated it into musical notes, and used these to compose a cool new advertisement jingle (“Wow”).

The results of how the learners approached another open-ended creative puzzle named “The Brown Paper Bag” are featured in the photo below. We used the outputs in the next session for an eye-opening exercise during one of our Genius Journey excursions, thereby making the learners realize that most people hide their true selves behind a social mask.

Conclusion: Exercise your creativity in the creative mind gym

Challenge yourself more in solving creative puzzles. When you can think of the preferred standard solution (or another valid one), you feel great about yourself. If you can’t come up with a feasible solution, no worries: engaging in the very act of trying to solve the puzzle has already exercised your “creative muscles.” If you keep going and give it a shot whenever you encounter a new creative puzzle, you soon will become a better creative thinker. So whenever you encounter a creative puzzle on a website or in a book or magazine, take the chance to give your brain a short creative workout, and pay attention to how you cognitively approach the puzzle and hopefully arrive at the right solution. Then consider sharing the fun with other members of your team.

  • What’s your favorite creative puzzle? Feel invited to share your favorite mental workout with us.
  • Would you be interested to learn about our range of creative thinking training courses at Thinkergy?
  • Or have you become curious about Genius Journey and our related advanced creativity training programs?
  • Contact us if you want us to help you develop the creative competence and creative confidence of your employees.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2021

Solutions to Creative Puzzles:

#1: Nine Dots: The illustrations shown below feature the well-known standard solution (which inspired the term “think out of the box” as a synonym for creativity) as well as three other solutions with less than four lines. There are many, many more solutions once you get really creative — or even wildly creative. For example, you can connect all dots with one line (the flame coming out of a cigarette lighter or match) if you set the paper with the nine dots on fire.

#2: Tom and Tim are two of a set of triplets. So you need to challenge the assumption that they were the only ones born on the same day to the same parents.

#3: Turn switch 1 on for a minute, and switch 2 for two minutes while leaving switch 3 turned off. Then, enter the room and touch each light bulb to feel which bulb connects to switch 1 (the warmest bulb), which to switch 2 (medium warm), and which to switch 3 (the coldest bulb). So, you can resolve the puzzle by using another sense (shifting from the dominant visual to the kinesthetic sense).

#4: This puzzle goes back to a psychological experiment that created the room set-up for real. The standard solution here is to tie a paintbrush to the end of one string, set it into a pendulum motion, take one string into one hand, and then grab the other string once it moves into the reach of your other arm so that you can tie the two strings together. Of course, there are many other creative solutions once you challenge assumptions: Take off your pants and use them to elongate the strings (the same might work with the shoelaces). Tear down the strings (which are only affixed to the ceiling with suction cups). Call your friend to come into the room and give you a hand. And so on.