Everything I Need to Know I Learned from LEGO

It might not look that way initially, but we each live in a world of infinite connections.

In 2011, I spent a few months living in London. A university friend of mine organised me a room to rent in the house of a friend from her sports club. One Friday afternoon, as I walked out the door with my suitcases, my housemate asked me where I was off to.

“Scotland,” I replied, “I’m visiting some cousins who grow strawberries up there”.

“Oh," he said, “I also know some Scottish strawberry farmers. They supply the strawberries for Sainsbury’s.”

“So do my relatives,” I said, and in a matter of minutes we had worked out that my housemate not only knew but had also been best man at the wedding of one of the cousins I was visiting. What’s the likelihood of that kind of connection randomly occurring between a South African, her Scottish relatives, and a British Sri-Lankan man? Very low I’d guess. But I’m guessing you have at least one similar story.

When people ask what I do for a living, I like to tell them that I play with LEGO. Apart from this being a great conversation starter (there’s nothing quite like the nostalgic passion of a 1980s LEGO kid), it isn’t far from the truth. I own a kids’ party business that specializes in LEGO parties and more recently I’ve done some work with charity box donations from the LEGO Foundation. So, yes (I hear your jealous sighs!), I’ve had not one but two jobs where I’ve actually been paid to play with plastic bricks. So I take an insult to the brick personally. Responding to my conversation starter with “Oh, LEGO bricks—those things I keep stepping on in my kid’s bedroom” or “I don’t get it – you just build them and then take them apart again” will bring the conversation with me to an abrupt end.

A few years back, my friend Linda and her husband visited a church for the first time and were invited to the pastor’s house for dinner. After a lovely evening, he finished up by saying, “I hope you’ll understand. I’m like a LEGO brick; I only have a finite number of connection points. At the moment mine are all used up, so I’m afraid I can’t be friends with you.” When Linda told us this story, there were a couple of gasps. Yes, the pastor clearly felt stretched, but that’s not the friendly introduction to a church that one might hope for! I gasped too, but for another reason. This man had completely misunderstood the connective power of the LEGO brick!

Let me explain with a few pieces of LEGO trivia.

Fact No 1: There are 915,103,764 different ways that just six 2 x 4 LEGO bricks can be joined together.

Imagine then. If you had 200 bricks, how many different ways of connecting there would be! Now turn those 200 bricks into one of those LEGO houses you built as a kid. The red brick in the bottom left corner of the house is pretty far from that green brick in the roof, right? But they’re still ultimately connected to one another. So that pastor actually had millions of different ways of connecting with different people—and to different degrees—but all he was seeing were the people directly touching him.

Fact No 2: On average, every person on the earth owns 86 LEGO bricks.

So now imagine you have the entire world’s bricks at your disposal (and a few centuries of brick building time) and you want to build them into something spectacular. If there are 86 bricks times seven billion people times an over-countable number of different ways you could build them, then that would equal…well, basically, infinity.

You see my point – LEGO bricks are not best used as metaphors for the finite. And human relationships are even less finite. Even if you’re a complete introvert and have just two people in your life that you closely connect to, you can still indirectly be connected to millions of others. And the ways of connecting are endless.

You’ve probably heard of Karinthy’s six (or seven) degrees of separation, and my Scotland story is a good illustration of it. But what I really love is the unpredictability of it all. Because there are so many different ways in which we all connect to one another, we never know if the random person we meet for the first time tomorrow is actually separated from us by seven degrees or by two. And we also don’t know (though, like the pastor, we might think we do) whether that person will become one of our closest friends or we’ll never see them again. When Linda heard our gasps following her LEGO-brick pastor story, she quickly added, “It’s okay. That pastor actually ended up becoming one of our closest friends.” And so that pastor’s flawed metaphor ends up proving my point that we never can predict what our piece of the LEGO creation will end up looking like.

It won’t surprise you that I saw (and loved) The LEGO Movie. The dad character reminded me so much of all the LEGO-obsessed dads I’ve met at kids’ parties. At the climax of the movie, this dad’s character reaches a watershed moment with his son, which is portrayed in parallel by the animated LEGO characters, President Business (the villain) and Emmet (the hero).

Emmet says: “My secret weapon...is this. It's my hand. I want you to take it. I want you to join me. Look at all of these things that people built. You might see a mess. What I see are people inspired by each other and by you. People taking what you made and making something new out of it.”

I’m with Emmet. I love that we live in an unpredictable world of messy connections and relationships, where we inspire one another as we build crazy stuff together. I love the possibility that the next person whose hand I take might turn my life completely upside-down. And I’m excited about the world of infinite connections that awaits.

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