What I Learned Solving a Rubik’s Cube

Solving the Rubik’s Cube

When I was working as a System Engineer, I had three, very talented System Administrators that I supervised. One of these guys, a very colorful guy named Jeff, was always solving, ruining, and then re-solving his Rubik’s cube. He would solve it fast, his fingers flicking about, and the cube seeming to morph at his very thought. I quickly became intrigued.

“Jeff,” Said I. “teach me how to solve that thing.”

“Oh, it’s easy!” He insisted. He came into my office and used a good part of our lunch teaching me the various manipulations, and the order of movements, used to get the various squares into the correct places. By the time we went back to work, I had solved it twice, and I knew of a site that taught visitors how to solve it.

That day I hopped on Amazon and bought my own Rubik’s cube (pictured above). After a few weeks – which was probably too long – I was able to solve the cube from any starting state, without references, and within about 30 seconds or so, as well as solve it into different patterns.

The Problem with Limiting-Assumptions

Had I ever attempted to solve a Rubik’s cube prior that day? Of course I had…kind of. My kids seemed to always have one or two around the house, and every once in a while I’d find one and play with it for a few minutes before putting it away. Why hadn’t I solved it?

My assumptions were that a Rubik’s cube had to be solved each time anew and that it required a very analytical and mathematical mind to figure out how to solve it. I could see that there must be a pattern, and casually came up with throw-away theories on how it could be done. That was unnecessary as both of my assumptions were false and limiting. The problem that the cube represents is more akin to driving to a new location for the first time than it is to solving a complex mathematical equation.

Drawing from this experience, I can’t help but wonder what other limiting (and false) assumptions I might hold.

A Lesson Regarding Systems

Now if you know anything about the Rubik’s cube, you probably know two things:

  1. People think you have to be smart to solve it
  2. You really only have to be persistent to solve it

You see, solving the Rubik’s cube is simply a matter of memorizing the associated movement algorithms to get a piece from location A to location B without messing up the rest of what you’ve already solved – and there are numerous models and tutorials on how to do that.

Although the first poor schmuck who solved the problem did have to be extremely smart, you don’t have to be. You just have to be persistent in learning the established methods.

How many other parts of our careers, businesses, or lives can that lesson be transferred to?

A Lesson Regarding Problem Solving

Although not-solving a Rubik’s cube did not have any impact on my life, it provides a good example for some concepts that I’ve been thinking about recently. One of those is solving problems. When analyze how I finally came to solve the cube, what I find is rather insightful. Those steps can be distilled into concepts:

  1. Identify the problem and brainstorm resources available to help you to solve it
    1. Determine whether or not the problem has been solved before by someone else
      1. If it has, consult that person and see what they did and how they learned to solve the problem
    2. Consult external guides and resources
      1. Look for things that are specific, actionable, and measurable
  2. Begin attempting to solve the problem right away
    1. This allows you to learn-by-doing
    2. When you start early, failure is much cheaper
      1. You can begin to recognize, and strengthen, weak-points immediately
  3. Practice, practice, practice
    1. Keep the stakes low and have fun
    2. As you practice you get better, of course, but you also begin to recognize patterns that may be consolidated, streamlined, or automated.
  4. Don’t stop when you’ve succeeded once. Succeed until you can do so effortlessly
    1. This step may not be as universal. If you’ve already found the love of your life, I don’t recommend continuing to look for another one.

In Conclusion

Now, I know that the Rubik’s cube is a pretty silly example, but it got me thinking about processes, problem solving, and the idea that something that appears to be “too hard” or “impossible” might actually be pretty simple. I think that those are ideas worth exploring, and I hope you’ve gotten some value out of this.

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