Why improving yourself is like solving a Rubik cube

Terry Xu
Terry Xu
Jan 6, 2019 · 6 min read

I saw a Rubik cube for the first time when I was around 6. It seemed like a simple puzzle to master, but after a few attempts, it became clear that solving even a corner tile was beyond my ability, let alone solving the whole thing. In fact, I couldn’t remember knowing anyone from my relatives and schools who solved a Rubik cube growing up, at least not in front of me. I took it as granted that I can’t solve it because I am not smart enough.

A couple of years ago I got curious about Rubik cubes again for several reasons:

  • I got a Rubik cube at a company party
  • Being a software engineer got me into the habit of solving problems for fun
  • My belief that “I am not smart enough” has been replaced by a new belief that “the longer I work on something, the better I’ll be at doing it”
  • I’ve got a low expectation to start — I am happy if I can only solve one face of the cube
  • YouTube has tutorials on everything I want to learn

It turns out to solve Rubik cubes you need to know some “algorithms” — certain ways to manipulate the cube so you can move a tile to a particular position and state without messing up all other tiles. Each algorithm contains at least 4 and up to 20+ steps to solve just one tile of the cube. When you are in the middle of applying an algorithm, the cube may look even more random than when you started. However, if you hold off your doubt for a little longer and carry out the right algorithm correctly, you will see the tile move into the exact position you wanted, and that confirms the algorithm works.

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How to Solve the Rubik’s Cube! (Beginner Method)

Once you solved a tile, you need to move on to solving the next one which often requires a different algorithm because now it’s a different problem. In other words, it’s a multi-layered problem — the whole problem is only solved if you’ve solved every sub-problem, and solutions to each sub-problem may look quite different. No single algorithm is sufficient to solve the whole problem. At the same time, each of the algorithms is essential to solving the whole problem. So you can’t dismiss any of them as useless.

When I first started reading self-improvement books I often got very excited because my hopes were high. “When I finish this book and practice it for a while, I’ll be able to solve any problems I encounter in my life”.

The results were disappointing. I read “How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere” by Larry King and I still often don’t know what to say in a formal meeting or a casual party. I read “Getting to Yes” and its sequel “Getting together” by Roger Fisher and William Ury and still get rejected most of the time. I read “Lean Startup” and still prefer to write code instead of talking to customers and haven’t felt ready to start my own company.

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“It doesn’t work!”

I blamed myself for lacking the determination to act on what I’ve learned in the books. I also blamed the books and thought they were not practical and don’t work. It’s only after I read dozens of more really good books and had some painful and some delightful life experiences did I realized that neither of the blames above was true nor helpful in improving myself.

Last year a young colleague of mine got into a similar life stage where he was desperately trying to improve himself. He is smart, much smarter than I was at his age. Having graduated from Harvard recently, he was eager to make big impacts, quick. But it seems the harder he tries, the more resistance and less support he got from other people. His outstanding technical ability was impeded by his inability to get people to agree with him and inflexibility to agree with other people. Frustration ensues.

One day I invited him to grab lunch together. During the lunch, I asked him what he was doing about the situation. He told me he read the classic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I asked what did he learn from the book. He said, “I read it but it doesn’t work”. That sounds very familiar!

“You are in the right direction”, I replied, “but you won’t see the effect right away. For me, the time it takes from reading a book like that to the point where I feel the learning has become part of my philosophy and subconscious is usually 12–18 months. It can be shorter or longer for you, but definitely not in days”.

I wasn’t sure if I did a good job of convincing him but that’s what I truly believed. A few days after the lunch, this analogy between Rubik cube and self-improvement came to my mind. Rubik cube, like many other puzzles, are really good ways to practice problem-solving skills.

For example, I often see junior software engineers rewrote some code to solve a software bug but the bug still exists. They conclude the lines of code they changed are not the cause of the bug, so they revert the changes and rewrote another few lines of code. When that doesn’t fix the problem either, they get stuck. They conclude that the problem doesn’t make sense because neither the changes work. In fact, all they need to realize is maybe the bug was caused by two problems at the same time. So even though neither of the solutions could solve the problem alone, they need to keep both solutions instead of losing faith into the first solution and revert it too quickly. It’s a sure way to get stuck.

Self-improvement is a multi-layered problem not much different from solving a Rubik cube or solving software problems at a high level. Even if you didn’t solve the whole problem after the first few attempts, don’t draw the conclusion that what you’ve done is useless, or worse, revert back to your old behaviors. When we try a new behavior and got stung, we get discouraged and want to stick to our old behavior. Why change my behavior for no clear benefit or progress? The opportunity cost is you’ll never get to the next stage.

You need to keep learning and practicing different self-improvement ideas and keep yourself challenged. It may take years or decades, but if you keep doing it, you’ll reach a milestone where you know your self-improvement is “complete”*. Solving a Rubik cube for the first time — putting randomized patterns back into order — is very satisfying. The feeling of knowing your self-improvement effort made you a complete individual is far greater. I’ll describe that feeling in later posts.

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“It works!”

*Of course, self-improvement is never complete but you’ll reach a key milestone. Just like you can always be better at solving Rubik cubes but solving one completely for the first time is a key milestone.

What makes self-improvement hard is that unlike a Rubik cube, we couldn’t see where ourselves are in the problem-solving process clearly. Also, it takes weeks or months of disciplined thought and practices to make a single move — making a change in our way of thinking and behaving. This makes it all too easy for self-doubt to come in and conclude that we are not good enough or the effort is futile.

Next time you are disappointed by your self-improvement attempts, you can imagine the process as solving a Rubik cube or any other puzzles that you have successfully pushed through. Stick to it and treat self-improvement with a problem-solving mindset. Analyze, execute, and learn.

Exceeding Expectations

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