Working in the Dark

I love weird stuff. And every so often, it’s so weird that I have to spend a morning on it here.

That’s how we’ve ended up with columns on the infamous “Boaty McBoatface.” Or on the man who solved nearly 7,000 Rubik’s Cubes in 24 hours. Or on the friend who loves to wrap a “hippity hop” ball in lights and lower it from a rope to celebrate the New Year. You know, the stuff that keeps the world interesting.

Well, we’re back in Rubik’s territory today. Not quantity this time, but quality. I’d say it’s a real eye-opener, but that would be singularly inappropriate in this case.

You see, today’s weird and wonderful accomplishment comes from an Australian teen who set a new Rubik’s Cube speed record … for solving it while blindfolded.

In 12.1 seconds to be exact.

Now I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t do a 12-second solve with my eyes open. Even if you let me “solve” it by peeling off all the colored stickers and putting them back on again so they matched.

To be fair, Charlie Eggins’ first reaction, according to Guinness, was also “I still can’t believe it!” And that’s after he’d done about 25,000 practice solves.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so startled. Maybe none of us should be.

After all, we try to do the same thing every day. Only we’re taking on something harder than Rubik’s Cubes.

We’re trying to solve people.

We like to think we know our family, our friends, the folks around us. Even with complete strangers, we’re usually pretty comfortable in our rules of thumb … after all, they can’t be that different from us, can they? Even one of our most fundamental rules – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – takes as its first assumption that others want what you want.

That’s not a bad starting point. It’s certainly better than seeing the “other” as a danger to be feared. But every so often – more than every so often – we run into the limits of it and have to reassess.

It could be minor, like discovering their indifference to a movie “everyone” knows. (“What do you mean, you’ve never seen Star Wars?”) It could be something more fundamental in their beliefs, their upbringing, the way they see the world.

Big or small, earthshaking or trivial, we suddenly find something that brings us up short and makes us think instead of react. In that moment, we get new eyes: toward the other person, the world, even ourselves.

Like a number of literature geeks, I’ve been reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of “The Iliad” lately. (I’d offer you my copy but, well, beware of geeks bearing gifts.) There’s a moment early on where the fierce warrior Diomedes is briefly given the ability to recognize the gods on the battlefield , even when they’re invisible or shape-shifted. Able to see who’s receiving special help, he fights more effectively than ever, even wounding Aphrodite when she tries to protect one of her favored warriors.

Clear vision can produce amazing results.

But like Eggins, we won’t solve anything if we’re not willing to come to grips with it.

We may be working in the dark. But if we’re at least trying to understand, we’ve taken the first step. (A step too few take, judging by the headlines.) We may get it wrong. We may fumble and stumble and misunderstand. But if we make the effort, and recognize the attempts of others to do the same with us, we’ll get there eventually … even if it isn’t in 12.1 seconds.

And that’s pretty weird and wonderful in itself.

A Good Failing About This

Some people spend their life working in a cube. George Scholey just made a name for himself by solving them.

Nearly 7,000 of them, to be exact.

That “nearly” is important, by the way. Scholey recently became the world’s new master of the Rubik’s cube by solving 6,931 of the three-dimensional puzzles in 24 hours. That’s enough for a new Guinness world record … but apparently not enough for his own satisfaction.

“Toward the end of the night I saw I was getting closer to 7,000, and I’m a bit annoyed I didn’t get that result,” he told UPI. “But that’s fine.”

If that makes your head ache and your tendonitis flare just thinking about it, you’ve probably got a lot of company. Most of us would be feeling more than “fine” at an achievement like that. Heck, I’d be ecstatic to solve it once. (Word games, I’m good. Tactile games, eep!)

But of course, that’s just it. When you’re familiar with something, you’re never quite satisfied. That’s what pushes some to keep becoming the best … and others to quit before they’ve barely started.

After all, the thing we’re most familiar with – or think we are – is ourselves. Or, more to the point, our limits.

I play a decent piano. My family and friends enjoy hearing it. But when I watch a professional at work, I feel like a kid plinking out “Twinkle, Twinkle.”  There’s a gulf between my work and theirs and I’m falling down it like Wile E. Coyote.

Many people have a similar story. It might be the hobbyist painter watching the ease of an expert artist. Or the first-time National Novel Writing Month participant comparing their pages to their favorite author. Or the homeowner who struggles to loosen a bolt watching their handyman neighbor complete a major plumbing renovation.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with setting high standards or drawing inspiration from someone better. We can all learn from someone else and use those lessons to improve. But when those glances become a source of intimidation rather than inspiration … well, to quote the old first-grade teacher, that’s when it’s time to keep your eyes on your own work.

You see, we’re going to fail. And we need to get used to it.

That’s not a condemnation, just a fact. Learning requires failure. Most of us don’t get to be Mozart; we have to be bad at something before we get to be good at it. Everybody’s got a different axiom about how long it takes  – so many hours, or so many days, or so many attempts – but that basic truth remains the same. Even saying “practice makes perfect” doesn’t really get at it, because the real goal at each step is to be less imperfect than you were before.

And that’s not an easy tightrope to walk. Willing to be imperfect, but not so comfortable as to stop working. Wanting to be better without being crushed by expectations. That’s a puzzle that makes a Rubik’s cube look easy … or even 6,931 of them.

But it can be solved. And the solution will be yours. Not the expert’s. Not your neighbor’s.

That’s encouraging. Frustrating at times, maybe, but encouraging nonetheless.

So keep it up. Because not only are you still learning a skill, you’re still learning yourself. And there’s more to find than you might think.

That’s a pretty “fine” place to be.