Mastering the Rubik’s Cube: On Accomplishment

Solving a Rubik’s cube is a parlor trick. There is no real reward for it the way there are for other pursuits. So why are there so many people who can do it?

My twelve-year-old (they/them) taught themself how to solve a Rubik’s cube last year. At their request, I printed out a few pages of the algorithm before we headed to a large gathering, and thought it would be a good way for them to entertain themself. A couple of hours later, it became clear that although I had previously found instructions that, when followed scrupulously, allowed me to solve the cube, these instructions were too difficult, even for me. 

We sat together, and I insisted on starting over, from the beginning, one too many times. 

“Can’t we please just go home?” they begged. “I want to find a solution on YouTube!”

My child grabbed the half-solved cube out of my hands, not patient enough to let me try again, but desperate to complete the project.

“You know what?” I changed tactics. “I bet that there’s someone here who knows how to solve it.” At a large gathering, there had to be, right?

The first people I ever met who could solve the cube seemed to do a good bit more than that. One summer in high school, I spent a summer at a mathematics program where we gathered around complicated problems in the morning and biked or played card games in the afternoon. There, several of my classmates raced to solve the cube faster than one another. One of them could also give it a good look, put it behind his back and produce a perfect cube half a minute later. This seemed like a particular kind of unachievable genius to me, some peculiar talent that they were born with, the Rubik’s cube equivalent of Mozart, who composed his first piece of music before other children his age learned to read. 

Now, as an adult, I have been let in on the secret. Like most everything else, solving the Rubik’s cube is a skill that can be practiced. The kid who solved it behind his back once first clumsily practiced clunky algorithms. He did it slowly, he looked at the cube, he performed a few twists and evaluated how the cube changed. She studied it, she solved it over and over, she handed it to a friend to scramble it for her, she did it again.

When I was younger, I wondered only how these kids managed to do it. Now, a different question occurs to me about it. Now, my question is: why?

I recently was reading Adam Gopink’s book The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery. Part of the claim that he makes in that book is that we overestimate the work of some particular masters, but that mastery itself is evident in abundance. For example, we venerate some particular celebrity musicians with magical fingering (or early composition skills, as I did, above) while neglecting to see how incredibly widespread musical skills are. There are lots of people who can play an instrument, compose music, or just jam with a group. 

I keep coming across little videos where a vacant piano in a public place beckons some of them. Here is a particular charming one that I saw yesterday, where two strangers hit the piano together, and over the course of the video, you see them getting better and better and their collaborative effort to make music. Tentative efforts to play a particular piece shift in mood and force and wow, is it ever fun to watch!

Just the same, there are lots of people who can solve a Rubik’s cube. In fact, as I wandered around with my kiddo, it only took a couple of minutes before they took tutelage from an older teen, who assured them that they had done the hard part, now a few twists would bring it to completion.

Why is it so (relatively) easy to find someone who can do this?

Solving a Rubik’s cube is a parlor trick. There is no real reward for it the way there are for other pursuits. When children put that much effort into learning an instrument, we gather in front of them to watch their recitals and applaud. When they put that much effort into their schoolwork, they are rewarded with good grades and teacherly approval and scholastic achievement. If they put that much effort into a trade or art, they often make money at it, even as teenagers.

By contrast, nobody gets a job solving Rubik’s cubes, or gets a scholarship to college for their skill, and the general population doesn’t much appreciate the difference between solving it in 45 seconds or 90, or with a more elegant and difficult algorithm.

I wonder if, in fact, it is the fact of general indifference, married to the thrill of accomplishment that drives the urge forward. 

In a recent op-ed in the same vein as his book, Adam Gopnik writes a little bit on the distinction between achievement and accomplishment. He describes setting himself on a path of understanding the difference at age 12, when he disappeared into his room for a week with a guitar. According to what he writes, this set a pattern of learning for the rest of his life.

He writes, with nostalgia and fondness about his young self first experiencing the thrill of accomplishment. Learning an instrument has a particularly tight feedback loop, because it is easy to figure out right away what sounds good, which is part of what he learned that week. And sometimes, this kind of learning does turn into receiving a kind of admiration from the world. Or the admiration could be not so much for the guitar-playing as for the genuine self-driven nature of it— any oxymoron, really. Nobody learns to spin the cube for the societal reward. They do it because they themselves grow high on the thrill of it, and that is the thing to admire; a child learning out of a complete self-driven practice of wanting to get better at something.

It is a falling in love before most of the hormones for romantic love kick in. It is an addiction to the pleasure of doing something that suits you, for no other reason and no social reward.

For all of the admiration I have given to kids who can solve the Rubik’s cube (and by now I have met many), I think the main thing that strikes me in my praise is that they don’t really care. They shrug off wowing me or anyone else, because the thing they most care about is wowing themself. 

My child did indeed figure out the last few steps to solve the cube. I learned this before they told me so, because from across the courtyard, I could see them literally jumping up and down with excitement. Like a little spring, their legs boinged them up and down, hair flopping one way, then the next. They laughed, they beamed, they got a taste of the exquisite pleasure of fulfilling a goal. 

And eventually, they got really good at solving it. They spent a semester in school practicing during the period where kids were supposed to pursue a “passion project” and then, for the talent show, performed a solution to the cube in under a minute while riding a unicycle around a stage— another skill they had laboriously practiced for no other reason than because they wanted to. 

They got a fair amount of recognition for that, or perhaps it was for the music they chose to accompany their act, but by now, they’ve moved on. They’ll pick up the Rubik’s cube every once in a while. They have me scramble it, ask me to time them as they deftly put it back together, toss it to me.

“What was my time?” they ask.

“Just over a minute,” I reply.

“Eh.” They shrug. “Not my best time.” Coolly reported. The moment has passed already, they’re ready to move on to the next learning adventure. 

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