Tackle your life like it’s a Rubik’s Cube

It’s a game.
It’s a game.
Image: Reuters/David W Cerny
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The Rubik’s Cube, the geometric puzzle created in 1974 by a Hungarian architecture professor, has 43 quintillion possible positions and exactly one correct solution, which at the moment feels about as close as the nearest star.

I’m in a light-filled room in a restaurant at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where representatives from You Can Do the Rubik’s Cube have gathered a small group of journalists to talk about their educational mission. You Can Do the Rubik’s Cube is the humanitarian arm of Rubik’s Brand, the commercial enterprise that sells the original puzzle and variations including a five-by-five cube for masochists, and lighter, faster “speed cubes” for competitive cubers encumbered by the mechanics of the original toy.

The educational arm uses Rubik’s Cubes to spark 8- to 18-year-olds’ interest in math and engineering, and to boost kids’ confidence by showing them how to accomplish a seemingly difficult task. There’s a cube at every place setting, and at the signal we scramble the cubes, open up the illustrated solution manuals provided for our convenience, and twist away haplessly while certified Rubik’s Cube experts patrol the room and coach.

Even if you’ve never solved one or owned one, you have almost certainly picked up and fiddled with the six-colored geometric puzzle known as a Rubik’s Cube. More than 450 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold around the world.  A company-commissioned marketing survey earlier this year found that more people have played with a Rubik’s Cube at some point than have purchased an iPhone or worn Converse All-Star sneakers.

I’ve never solved a Rubik’s Cube. I approach the Rubik’s Cube like I approach hula hoops: a few feeble attempts and then abandonment, because it’s irritating to be stumped by a child’s toy, and so easy as an adult to simply opt out of challenges that use unfamiliar parts of your brain.

“Do you need help?” A Rubik’s representative with a ponytail and a Rubik’s Cube t-shirt peers over my shoulder. I thank her, and then do a double-take and ask how old she is. She’s 13. She has been cubing—most definitely an accepted verb in this room—since she was 11. She can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than a minute.

“So you just . . . no. No, not like that,” she says as she supervises my twists. “You just need to get the white tile over there.”

I know that tone. It’s the one I fight to keep out of my own voice when I watch my kids squeeze all the food coloring into the cookie frosting in anticipation of a rainbow, knowing they’ll just end up with brown. I can see the brilliant brain working behind her pink-framed glasses, can feel the effort it’s taking her not to reach out and just do this thing that feels so evident. It makes me feel small, which I don’t like, so instead I just get quietly furious at this stupid plastic cube.

The young woman moves on and in her place comes Holly Riehl, the director of Rubik’s Cube North and South America. She settles into a spot between me and Lloyd Carroll, a reporter at the Queens Chronicle and another novice cuber. Convincing people throughout the western hemisphere that they can indeed do the Rubik’s Cube is a significant part of Riehl’s job. She’s walking us through the how-to graphics and saying things like “now you’re going to want to solve the corners” and I don’t get it. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Childhood is full of things that don’t make sense, of course, and if there’s any sense of mastery in adulthood I suspect it’s less about true knowledge than the freedom to design a life that veers clear of the discomfort of not knowing things. If a subject like geometry or composition was never your thing in school, you can choose a profession that will never demand it. You can opt for relationships that are familiar and comfortable, both in and out of the workplace. You can, if you so choose, create a life that feels engaged and challenging, but that artfully dodges anything that is truly out of your comfort zone.

I want to quit, but I don’t, because no one else at my table has given up yet. Instead I take a break and go chat with someone I’ve been watching for a while, an elderly man at a corner table wearing a canvas jacket, black socks, and Teva-style sandals. I saw him earlier during the opening remarks, wearing a bemused look as he watched his seat-mate fiddle with the cube at his place setting.

It took this soft-spoken older man a month to solve the first Rubik’s Cube. It wasn’t called the Rubik’s Cube then, just a handful of carefully sanded blocks he’d bound with elastic strings and covered in tiny colored paper squares.

Erno Rubik was then a 29-year-old sculptor and a professor of architecture and design, living in a Budapest apartment with his mother. The cube was a toy he made for himself, he explained—an idea to tinker with and then possibly share with his students.

In the month he spent quietly twisting away in the privacy of his room after work, Rubik didn’t actually know if the puzzle could be solved. He understood fairly quickly that the chances of accidentally stumbling once again upon the correct alignment once the puzzle was scrambled was virtually nil. If you spent just one second on every possible turn, you would be twisting the cube for 1.4 trillion years, which is about 1.39 trillion years longer than the universe has existed. If there wasn’t a solution—a way to get back to the beginning—there would be no game.

Privately, I think this sounds like hell. A month of your time, on a potentially impossible task? But it wasn’t for Rubik. It was fun. He spoke about that month like it was a private game, or a personal expedition to a place no one had ever been. Why spend any time on a question you already know the answer to? What’s the fun of that?

This sense of joy has eluded me, I confess to the Rubik’s Cube creator. I’m frustrated. I’m stuck. There’s no shortage of guidance on the technical path to the solution, but I can’t get past the mental lens that sees this as work—the grinding, unpleasant kind—and not play.

Rubik listens patiently. He smiles. You can tell he was a good teacher.

“That’s not a good behavior, that way,” he says finally. “That’s a very human—how can I say—mistake, at least for a period of time.” He’s a bit shy about his English and doesn’t like to speak publicly, at least in the US.

“If you are not able to do something, that is true for the present, not for the future. All the time there’s a chance to go a step further. Not to be frustrated,” he continues. “If something takes a while to be comfortable with it, that’s a much longer and valuable [goal] that you have achieved.”

He’s right, of course.

I go back to my seat, where Riehl’s tutorial is still underway. “Veni, vidi, vici!” Carroll cries as we resume twisting, which two hours ago might have seemed a bit excessive to describe the act of Rubik’s cubing and now feels utterly justified. A waiter comes by to offer dessert and we brush him away. We are playing. We are doing something that has never been done in the space of our own brains. It feels great.

Carroll solves his cube and hoists it triumphantly above his head. I hug him. Waiters are clearing away plates and most of the tables are now empty, but Riehl hasn’t given up on me, and I have resolved to stay in this room until I have solved this thing, even if I spend a month holed up in a corner of this dining room subsisting on scraps that business lunchers leave behind.

The bottom third of the cube aligns into place. Then the row of tiles above it. And then, after a prescribed series of twists—the “algorithm,” as Riehl calls it—it all clicks into place. I hug everyone in sight. It took me an hour to solve the cube, a span of time in which current world champion SeungBeom Cho could have done 784 cubes in his record-setting time of 4.59 seconds.

And that is okay. I can’t sing an opera, either, and this doesn’t frustrate me. We are in a building housing some of the world’s most brilliant modern art, and the single most beautiful piece is here in my palm, all the time offering me a chance, as Rubik himself promised, to go a step further.