In episode 13 of “The Lobby,” I interviewed Chris Marr, of The Content Marketing Academy. Recently, I caught an episode of his podcast. He was talking about the Rubik’s cube, and how he decided to give himself a challenge and learn to solve it. He asked for folk to share their own experiences with this cultural icon of extreme cleverness. Once I’d finished writing my answer out, it felt like a blog post. So, here’s a blog post.
It was my sister’s wedding, and on every table was a small, pastel shaded Rubik’s cube. In a way, I knew how to solve them, but right then, right there, I wasn’t sure whether or not I could. Still, it was an interesting extra layer of challenge. I picked up the little cube, nudged my brother, tapped one of the squares and asked, what color is that?
It took a while to figure out what color went where. My brother had never learned to solve one of these things, so it took us a while to work out a system that would allow him to tell me what I needed to know, without having to hear what every last square was. But eventually, roughly 20 minutes later, we’d solved it.
Imagine trying to solve the cube when you’ve been blindfolded, without a chance to look at it ahead of time, or at all. That’s me, only there’s no blindfold needed; I’m already blind.
I recall seeing a Rubik’s cube when I was a child. I could see better at the time, better but not well—I still used Braille and walked with a white cane. In fact, I didn’t realize how much I was using the sight I had left until it was gone. The cube is a good example. When I was younger, I could have looked at the colors; but by the time I was old enough to have a clue of how to solve it, I couldn’t see the cube at all, and some other solution was needed. There are “tactile Rubik’s cubes” on the market, but they cost more than I was willing to spend on a toy.
Then, one day, a friend who had become interested in the cube showed up at my apartment, and handed me one he’d modified. He had removed the stickers, drilled holes, and glued large metal staples in different patterns a different pattern on each side. I finally had a chance to play with the thing and see if I could figure out how to solve it, without looking it up and using someone else’s solution.
To use a cube solving as music metaphor—looking up the answer and perfecting it is like learning to play a difficult song; figuring out how to solve it on your own is like learning how to write that song.
I already knew that ways of solving the Rubik’s cube were on the internet for anyone with a browser, internet connection, and the will to use. It’s a test of memory and coordination, especially if you go for speed. However, I wanted to treat it as a puzzle, to find my own way of doing it.
It took me eight months. When I started, I had already heard that it cannot be solved one side at a time; it’s better solved one layer at a time instead. That saved me from going down that blind alley. Still, day after day, given a free moment, I was moving the cube around; observing the effects; Trying and mostly failing to find some interlocking set of moves that would lead to solving the damn thing already!
Then, one day I noticed that I had enough tricks to manage the overall trick. I could solve the first layer, no problem. The second layer just required one of the corner pieces of the first to go on a 7-move trip, landing where it started, wreaking havoc on the other layers along the way. That last layer was the real challenge. I actually had enough tricks to solve it for some time before I noticed how they could work together.
Let’s see, I can move these pieces in relation to one another, but they rotate. Um, oh, I can rotate them without moving them. What about the corners now. Hmm… I can move three of the corners without moving this one. Actually, that means I can move the corners until they’re in the right spot; I just have to start from different places. Rotating the corners? Easy! I found that trick by accident in the first week! Hey, I think I can…
Why would I bother to do it the hard way? Because, like everything else, problem solving is a skill that improves with practice.
In “The Lobby” I’ve been using my guests as part of some ongoing research. What is it that allows some people to set and reach their goals, while others give up so quickly. One of the skills that is important to cultivate is problem solving. Even more important, is your attitude toward problems and challenges.
As my friend who modified the cube put it:
step one: want to try!