Back when I was looking for a job, I did a lot of interview prep with other people. Among other things, that means practicing brainteasers in front of white boards. But as it turns out, I am extremely good at this already and don’t need the practice. Recreational math was a hobby in my youth, I participated in math competitions in college, and I’m mildly competitive in the US Puzzle Championship. I don’t want to brag, but friends have told me I ought to brag more often, so I am bragging. I am ridiculously good at puzzles.
So if I’m “good” at puzzles, what skills does that mean I have? It’s hard to say. (Does this imply that I’m also good at the jobs I interview for? Eh.)
There are, of course, many very different kinds of puzzles, and perhaps each category of puzzles requires unique skills. To name a few categories: programming puzzles where you seek to write an algorithm; logic problems where you deduce a solution from structured clues (e.g. Sudoku); puzzles where you make multiple moves in sequence (e.g. Sokoban); math problems; jigsaw puzzles; and what I call “linchpin” puzzles, where the goal is to have a particular realization. Some puzzle solving “skills” are more properly understood as puzzle-solving knowledge–knowing the solution to a bunch of common puzzles gives you a set of tools to solve new puzzles. But I also think there are a few general puzzle-solving skills, which I’ll try to describe.