Most people have encountered a Rubik’s Cube at some point in their lifetime. In fact, one in every seven people has handled one, making it one of the best-selling toys of all time and a global symbol of intelligence and ingenuity.
Since its invention in 1974, the Rubik’s Cube has captured the public’s imagination, with numerous appearances in all corners of popular culture and international competitions to determine who can solve the puzzle the fastest. But those in science, technology, engineering and math have held a particular affinity for the cube, which offers a way to practice the logic and problem-solving skills essential to those subjects.
Ernö Rubik muses on the cube in his book, Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All, exploring how his invention— which came into being largely for his own amusement—perhaps can reveal more about the imperfect science of creation and how to fulfill our innate curiosity.
Here are a few key takeaways from Rubik’s experiences with the Cube—from when he first invented it to what it has taught him over the decades since becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
The cube is about problem-solving—but not just solving the puzzle.
With every twist and turn, a person makes unique and often calculated decisions as to how to move the jumbled colored squares into a uniform pattern. Logic and problem-solving skills are in play, but Rubik argues that there is more to the mechanical puzzle than spatial reasoning—these small, focused movements can help teach someone how to problem-solve in other scenarios, often ones much larger than a 3x3x3 cube.
“It has often been observed that finding the solution to a puzzle is a kind of microcosm, a model for problem-solving in other parts of our lives,” Rubik writes.
Most problems—material or otherwise—can be solved through first understanding the problem, making a plan to find a solution, carrying out that plan and looking back on the work you did to solve the problem. Or in Rubik’s case, if you deconstruct something, you have to be able to figure out how to put it back together again.
Rubik makes the case for being an amateur.
When Rubik was first designing the cube, he didn’t have any of the experiences one would think essential to making the puzzle a success. He didn’t have expertise in toy design and manufacturing. He wasn’t a professional engineer who could easily solve the cube’s technical challenges. And he wasn’t a designer who could make the cube into something as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional.
Inventing the cube became a puzzle itself. Through trial and error, Rubik had to figure out the cube’s mechanical construction and how to get the different sections to move together seamlessly. But he also had to work out other problems, such as figuring out that the cube’s sharp corners needed to be filed down into slight curves to make the puzzle comfortable to handle.
This amateur approach is what Rubik finds the most rewarding. “Maybe the best we can hope for is to be both at once: a forever amateur professional, or someone who makes being an amateur his profession” he writes. “The key seems to be to enjoy our professional activities, so as not to lose the way we felt when we enjoyed our first achievement, and to anticipate every new task with the enthusiasm and zest of the amateur.”
Failure is essential to success.
Along with striving for perfection, many are afraid of failure, but Rubik says failure was key to fine-tuning the cube and is essential for working out problems, as he discovered through the lengthy process of developing the cube. The failure allows someone to look at the problem again and figure out what went wrong, turning the failure into something useful.
“Failure is never pleasant, of course, but for me it is an essential component involved in any effort of learning by doing, and as such, it is actually a positive thing intellectually, even if painful emotionally,” he explains.
Curiosity is at the heart of innovation.
For Rubik, the quest to discover how things work and why is central to solving puzzles— whether it’s a small hand-held cube or a larger complex issue—and they cannot be solved without that innate sense of curiosity. This intrinsic motivation for understanding drives innovation, creates new ideas and helps people look at a problem from new perspectives when the first attempt was a failure.
“Curiosity means that we accept nothing, that again and again we question the fundamentals,” he explains. “We find the good questions because we are interested in the ‘how’ of things. That is the only way forward. And here ‘forward’ doesn’t mean a predetermined direction or something that can be fixed beforehand, but the openness, not just of the eye, but of the broader vision.”