5 Business and Life Lessons from the Rubik's Cube

5 Business and Life Lessons from the Rubik's Cube

In 1981, my grandfather called us excitedly to tell me that he'd done it! - It turns out that this phone call had a profound effect on the rest of my life - and even my identity.

"I can finally solve the Rubik's Cube!" he exclaimed.  For my six-year-old self at that time, it was some of the most exciting news I'd ever heard. I had been sitting there for weeks, cube in hand, trying to crack it - only being able to solve at most two of the 6 sides.

The next week I met with my grandfather and I marvelled as he stepped me through his copy of Don Taylor's 'Mastering the Rubik's Cube'. He had highlighted line after line of explanations and formulas, as well as scribbling in his own algorithms that he had developed for himself.  I learnt the notation that is still used even up until today to describe each movement of the cube - U='Upper', D='Down', L='Left', R='Right', F='Front' and B='Back'. Sure enough, within a couple of hours, with intermittant glancing back to the book's formulas, I could finally solve the cube by myself.

If you have listened to any of my TEDx Talks, you would have heard that it was thanks to my grandfather (my mum's dad), that I was introduced to languages, computers, Morse-Code and electronics from a young age.

Actually, what my grandfather really did was to just learn how to 'have fun' using our brains, and for me, the Rubik's cube was the epitome of that. Lessons that I learnt from being able to not only solve the Rubik's Cube, but also develop faster and faster speeds and being able to solve subsequent puzzles as a result of the cube have helped me develop many skills and solve problems that go way beyond the cube - and I'd like to share some of those things with you here. I hope that by the end of this, you'll be ordering a cube online for both you and you're loved ones - you won't regret it.

1. Just Because You're the First to do Something, Doesn't Make You The Best

The Rubik's Cube was invented in 1974 by Hungarian Professor of Architecture and sculptor Ernő Rubik. He initially developed it as a tool to teach his students to understand 3-Dimensional movement of structures.   When he invented it, even he himself didn't have a solution to it. It was some considerable time afterwards that he developed his own solution to the cube, but his was at that time inferior to other solutions that had been developed, and when compared to the efficiency of some of the solutions that are being applied now, Rubik's own solution from back in those early days can't come anywhere close.

Ernő Rubik created the cube, but users of it over the next 40 years kept building and honing his idea into things that he could have never dreamed of back then.

When multiple brains work, eat, sleep and breathe the same problem, the final result will almost always be something way better than if that thing was held captive by the original creator.  In business it's hard not to micro-manage, but as we see - when you let people's genius go to town, the results can be spectacular.

2. Just Because you Have Experience Doesn't Mean You're Better than those Younger than You

Back in 1981, as a six-year-old, my solve time came down to around 40-50 seconds.  I thought I was pretty good, and I would go around solving people's cubes for them - saving them from having to smash them apart out of frustration.

Now, almost 40 years later, the fastest official solve of a 3x3 cube was achieved in 2018 in China by Yusheng Du (杜宇生) - who solved it in an amazing 3.47 seconds.  Before you go any further - just stop reading and count out 4 seconds.

... Now THAT'S FAST.

I Was Left Behind

As I have grown up over the years, I can't remember a time where at least one Rubik's cube wasn't within arm's reach.  For me, solving the cube has become a kind of meditation where my brain can be both in a state of being highly functional and calculating, while at the same time allowing me to just go into autopilot mode, where my muscle memory kicks in.  While that's all nice, I realised over the past few years that I had been left way behind, a long time ago when it comes to HOW I solve the cube.  Things have changed and way more efficient methods of solving the cube have not only been developed, but have also become the 'standard' solves.  Chances are that someone picking up a cube for the first time and going through a YouTube tutorial of how to solve the cube can, within a couple of hours solve the cube faster than my fastest speed back in the 80's.

I decided a couple of years ago to 'retrain' myself to solve the cube - not just in one new way, but in multiple ways.  Something changed as I did this.  Rather than muscle memory and remembering algorithms for solving a handful of patterns that I had learnt to recognise 40 years ago, I started to use less algorithms and found that understanding the actual mechanics of the cube became an even more integral part of my logic and my muscle functions.  Like in jazz, I didn't just have to play the same riff over and over again - I could start to improvise and in my head, 'remap' things using different moves but 'same principles'.  Perhaps this is because I was now learning it as an adult and had new abilities of reason and logic that hadn't really been developed at the ripe old age of six.

In any case, my time now has come down to around 20-30 seconds - I've hit sub 20 seconds a few times, but it is still a challenge for me ... but I'm working on it.

Even though I've probably been doing the Rubik's Cube for longer than most people who regularly use it these days, the fact is that there are millions of young people who are WAY BETTER than me at doing it - and that's okay.

3. Have a Problem? Turn it into Something you DO Know How to Solve - THEN Solve It

'Almost' isn't a solution.

Despite being able to solve the 3x3 Rubik's cube for many years, up until relatively recently, I never tried my hand at any of the larger cubes that were available.  Perhaps it was me just subconsciously wanting to be comfortable and feel in control - I felt content with my competence with what I could do and I was happy to stay there in my comfort zone.  I had tried a 2x2 cube several years ago and I found it to be very easy as you could solve it using the strategy for a 3x3, only missing the centre pieces, but more than 3x3 - pass.

When I finally brought my first 4x4 home to play with about a year ago, I started to play around with it and realised that there was a fundamental difference between the 4x4 and 3x3.  The one principal that I understood about the 3x3 cube is that the very centre cube on each face is immutable - it will NEVER change position.  Having confidence that those centre pieces will never move lets you use them as a framework to arrange all the other cubes.

The catch with a 4x4 cube is that there are NO fixed centre cubes (because '4' is an even number). I puzzled over this for hours and then it dawned on me.  Picture a 4x4 grid next to a 3x3 grid.  I thought to myself 'Is there any way that I could make this 4x4 grid look like a 3x3 grid?'

Then it dawned on me - you can create a faux centre cube in the centre by creating an inner 2x2 square from the like-coloured centre pieces.  Rather than looking at the 4x4 cube as a 4x4 cube, I could now look at it as a 3x3 cube - just as long as I ensured that once I solved the middle bits, I never broke them up.  I felt like I'd cured cancer with that epiphany.  I then tried to put the cube into a state that looked familar to me and then solve it.  Well - I almost did, but kept getting stuck on the edge pieces.

I then did what any sane person would do - I Googled it.  It turns out I was on the right track.  The principle was correct - you had to turn the 4x4 into a 3x3 cube, then continue to solve it as a 3x3, however there were a couple of quirks that come with having 2 edge cubes stuck together representing one cube.  I learnt the strategy to get these cubes into place and BANG - I could do it!

Not only could I do it, but I also learnt some 'cube logic' that I could transfer back to a regular 3x3 cube that increased my 'toolkit' when it came to strategies that I could use to solve a 3x3 to help me get a faster speed.

The important life and business lesson that I learnt from this was:
When you're faced with a new problem, try to look at it from as many different, creative and sometimes abstract angles as possible - you might just be able to turn it into something that resembles what you DO know, then go ahead and solve it.  This is actually a general principle I use when I approach learning a new language. The more I understand the languages and patterns that a given language is related to, the faster I can internalise the new language.

4. Solving the Cube Blindfolded is Actually Easier than the Standard Solve

There are around 43 quintillion possible combinations or 'states' from where the cube may be solved, but despite this, they say that mathematically, the cube can be solved from any of these 43 quintillion states within just 20 moves.

I have marveled over the years as I watched international cube challenges and saw kids solving the cube blindfolded.  They would sit there and study the cube for a while, then put a blindfold on and proceed step by step to solve the entire cube blindfolded.

I thought to myself "How the heck could they do this?" In any normal solve, I will have to assess the cube step-by-step after applying each algorithm or move to see what the next best move is and then apply that subsequent move. Sometimes in the middle of a solve, you're not even sure how exactly to get out of a certain situation, so you might partially shuffle something until it resembles something you know how to solve.

How is it that these kids can visualise and memorise every move necessary to solve a randomly shuffled cube? Based on my understanding, there is no room for error and I personally believed that for this to be possible, you'd have to be a freak.

'Based on My Understanding' - Famous Last Words Before Defeat

It turns out that 'my understanding' is exactly what would have hindered me from ever being able to solve the cube blindfolded.  The strategy used to solve the cube blindfolded is entirely different from the standard strategy of solving it and in fact, it is possible to solve the cube blindfolded using only ONE relatively simple algorithm. The only other requisite is that you develop the ability to apply logic to 3 Dimensional space, as well as being able to use a mnemonic to memorise a few letters that would be as long as someone's phone number - okay, maybe two phone numbers - and for the record, even though I can do it with ONE algorithm, I personally use two.

The logic of solving a cube blindfolded is like this:

  • Learn an algorithm that swaps two pieces at any two (preferably disconnected) points on the cube  - That is point 'A' will swap with point 'B'.
  • Examine the colour / cube at point 'A';
  • Locate the target position in which the cube at point 'A' should be;
  • Move that destination cube that point 'A' should be into point 'B';
  • Apply the swapping algorithm;
  • Move the cube now in point 'B' back to its original position - Now the cube that was at point 'A' should be back in place;

This logic is amazingly simple and once you spend about 15 minutes doing this cycle, your logic starts to sync in with your muscle memory and you realise that you now have a strategy to solve the cube no matter what state it's in.  The downside of doing it this way is that it will take much longer than a usual solve, as you're applying the same algorithm to each position of the cube - however, it is a certainty that the cube will be solved.

The lesson I took away from this is "Just because I can't do something right now doesn't mean that it can't be done - or that I'm incapable of doing it". Something I may have once thought impossible or something I'd never be capable of turned out to be relatively simple.  It's so simple in fact that I will be encouraging my new little baby as soon as she can to start to learn this method as I believe that the skills learnt in spacial logic, memory, navigation and dexterity are invaluable skills that can be applied in other areas of life.

The only 'other step' that allows people to use this method to solve the cube blindfolded, is that they assign a letter to each position on the cube (A-X if it's a 3x3 cube), and then just traverse the sequence of what cubes will move through 'point A' each time the 'swapping algorithm' is applied.  They do this once for edges, once for corners, making up a fun mnemonic that allows these letters to be recalled in order.

5. Sometimes you Need to Sacrifice Something You've Built to Move Forward

From the very early days when I first learnt to solve the cube, I would have friends and family approach me with partially solved cubes asking me to help them finish solving it for them. They were very proud that they could solve one, two or sometimes three sides.  The problem is that these people didn't understand what 'solving the cube' actually meant.  From the outside - sure, you put all the white cubes together, then the blue ones, then the red ones etc.  You can put all the white cubes together easily enough, but if you look at the edges of each cube, unless all those colours match too, you will never be able to solve the entire cube.

It devastated some people when I told them that I would have to destroy the fruit of their hours of work that it took them to get those two or three colours solved.  The reality is that you just don't solve the cube colour by colour.  There are several strategies - the most common one is to solve the first layer, usually by making a cross first with the white side, then the corners, then the second layer and then the third.  Once that strategy is mastered, you might learn to solve the first and second layers together and then the third - this method is called F2L (First Two Layers).

When you start diving down the Rubik's Cube Rabbit Hole, you'll find that there are in fact, a never ending stream of methods that have been developed and just like we have different schools of martial arts, some people become devout disciples of the various methods that they have chosen to 'follow'. Since being liberated from the only method I had learnt back in the early 80's, learning some of these new methods has been a lot of fun and has helped me develop new abilities in logic and just understanding the cube that I never realised over the past 40 years that I have been doing the cube.

The lesson to take away from this is that just because you think you're on the right track to solving something, you might actually be headed for a dead end.  Sometimes it's much faster to scrap everything you've done regardless of what you've invested in it and start it again from scratch THE RIGHT WAY.

The Cube is an Invaluable Tool For Developing Life Skills and Increasing Your Bottom Line

In hindsight, between my grandfather introducing me to how to solve the Rubik's Cube, as well as how to use the Chinese Abacus (算盘 suan pan), I realise that the logic, memory skills, ability to noitice and take advantage of patterns and embed these things into my muscle memory that I learnt from being able to competently use these things from a young age, set my mind up to be able to learn many other things throughout my childhood and into adult life. These things include playing music, honing perfect pitch, to learning languages, coding, electronics and math.Everything just becomes just another exercise in observing, noticing patterns, linking them with things I already know, add a bit of colour, sound and humour and bang - you've developed an entirely new skill.

I used the cube analogy in a training session with the Leadership Team of one of my clients last month.  They are in aerospace, which is a very competitive market, and require to be able to make parts for aeroplane engine turbines and aero-structures as efficiently as possible.  Lately, they were finding that they were hitting a wall when it came to bringing cycle times down per 'piece' that was being made.

My question to them was, when it comes to your engineering, are you like the person who can solve the cube in 3 minutes or 3 seconds? Do you even know what the standard is for what you're competing against? After that workshop, the CEO within days hunted down one of the most skilled experts on the planet in that area of engineering and flew him into Thailand for 3 weeks. Those three weeks with the expert paid off, as he was able to show them where they could do things more efficiently - sometimes using techniques that they'd never contemplated before for such a job, and the cycle times started to come down.  It was as though they'd learnt to do the cube blindfolded.

If you have kids, or even if you yourself would like to give your brain a new lease on life, go jump online and order a Rubik's cube now - actually, order both a 2x2 and a 3x3 cube (do a search on Amazon for speed-cubes). Learn both a standard solve method as well as the blindfolded method. Once you start, you'll feel the synapses firing on all cyllinders and your brain will start putting things together even while you sleep, that you never dreamed possible before.



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Written by

Stuart Jay Raj