We all face challenges. While sometimes it would feel so much better to just ignore our problems or give up when things get hard, we all know that this course of action seldom brings true reward. One of my biggest challenges (I say semi-jokingly) has also been one of my most rewarding, namely, solving a Rubik’s cube. Interestingly enough, this mentally exhausting task has actually taught me a lot about problem solving.
As a high schooler, I was a member of the marching band, juggling club, and participated in the school musicals — you may stereotype me as you wish. One year, for a talent show, lacking any performance-worthy ability, I decided that solving a Rubik’s cube quickly would be my show-stopping talent. I went online and looked for websites and YouTube videos to help me in my quest. Much to my dismay, following a Rubik’s cube solution guide was no walk in the park. Memorizing algorithms such as this one “R U R’ U R U U R’” seemed like an impossible feat. Similarly, it was difficult for me to follow video solutions as imitating the presenter’s manipulations of the cube eluded me. So, instead, I purchased a list of “easy” step-by-step instructions that revealed the solution. Simple enough, right? Not really.
Here are the life lessons I have learned through solving a Rubik’s cube:
Lesson 1. There is more than one way to do things.
Following the step-by-step instructions was challenging. Trying to get the cube to match up to the piece of paper at every step had me pushing pieces seemingly ad nauseum. Trying and failing so often — even with the solution staring me in the face — taught me that following instructions is not problem solving. Following instructions, in fact, can be a shortcut for critical thinking. To solve any step of the Rubik’s cube, you need not perform the same sequence of moves any more than two or three times. If you do find yourself doing this, it means that you are missing something — usually, this means that you need to approach the step from a different side of the cube. While the instructions show you how to solve the cube in theory, one must really examine each step to figure out whether there are more efficient ways to get things done.
Lesson 2. Things sometimes get worse before they get better.
If you have ever attempted to solve a Rubik’s cube on your own, you may find that you are able to solve one face without too much effort. However, after a certain point, you may become frustrated that your easy progress is halted after a few early accomplishments. Some Rubik’s cube solution sequences are counterintuitive. At points, you will turn the cube in such a way that your perfect face becomes disrupted and progress seems reversed. However, at other times the cube will look totally scrambled, when in fact, the solution is just a few more turns away.
Lesson 3. Practice pays off.
It took me about a month to learn how to solve a Rubik’s cube quickly (just under 2 mins on a good day). At times, it really did feel like my hair was turning white. As a child/ teen/ now, I got/ still get frustrated easily. Memorizing each step was agonizing. I muttered the steps under my breath with each turn and chanted them on repeat before going to bed each night. Even when I thought that I got all steps right and found variations to complete some steps more quickly, there were times that my mind totally blanked mid-sequence. In these moments, I could not for the life of me remember what came next. These brain farts, if you will, reinforced the idea, that I could not do this, and I just was not a spatial thinker. This, however, was just an excuse and with more painstaking energy spent trying to improve, eventually, everything just clicked.
So, on the day of the talent show my heart was pounding and I was feeling sick walking up to the front of the—admittedly harmless and friendly—group. With the cube scrambled and placed in my hands, I attempted to solve the cube with a fun song from childhood blaring as a joke in the background. Although I was fighting internal jitters, the pacing was smooth, and the cube was solved at what seemed to be the climax of the musical piece. They clapped and they cheered. In that moment the relief that it was all over was enough for me. However, to my great surprise…guys… believe it or not — I got first place!
This achievement remains the first and only time in my life that I have ever won (or even entered, maybe) a talent show.
My Rubik’s cube today is no more than a desk toy but continues to serve as an internal reminder that many challenges demand time, energy, creativity, perseverance, and hard work to succeed. If something is worth it, we really must devote all that we’ve got into the endeavor.
Wishing you all the best on your journey!
P.S. Catch up with me on the socials!