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While cubing is considered a hobby, it taught me many life lessons. (Illustration via Yunyi Dai, Maryland Institute)

Solving Rubik’s Cubes can teach you a lot more than you might think.

When I was 14 years old, my dad and I flew from Hartford, Connecticut, to Las Vegas for a weekend filled with good times and friendly competition. As unhealthy as that sentence might sound to the average individual, this journey would become one of the most profoundly memorable experiences of my life: The reason we flew to Vegas was so I could compete in the 2013 World Rubik’s Cube Championship.

For the past four years I had been a speedcuber — attempting to solve variations of the Rubik’s Cube as quickly as possible — and this was to be the culminating event of my career. I had been competing regularly for three years — in fact, I had already flown to Las Vegas once before to compete in the National Championship the year before — and had honed my craft enough to be relatively competitive in some of the less-populated events.

While I didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped, for a geeky kid who was still figuring out his place in the world, three days of cubing and running around a casino was paradise. I stopped competing a few months after the championship due to school taking up most of my time and other passions beginning to develop, but I still pick up a cube from time to time, and it continues to bring me the same meditative joy it used to.

Here are three major things I learned from my career as a competitive speedcuber.

1. If Competition Is the Driving Force, You’re Setting Yourself Up for Disappointment

One of the most beautiful things about the speedcubing community is the regulations it has in place to ensure absolute fairness between competitors. Every competition uses the exact same type of timer; each round of every event is given the exact same scramble (computer-generated random sequence of moves to mess up the cube); every solve gets the exact same 15 seconds of inspection before the timer starts. The fastest cuber in the world and a complete novice could be at the same competition, and their circumstances would be identical.

When I was competitive, cubing was just on the cusp of attaining the media coverage and mass appeal it has today. At the 2013 World Championship, roughly 300 people showed up to compete, but, more importantly, they came to share their love for the puzzle. Friends who’d spent hours talking online from across the world could finally meet in person; young kids who were inspired to start cubing after seeing videos of world record holders were able to solve on the same stage as their heroes.

At every competition I’ve ever been to, the aura of competition has been almost totally stifled by the friendly excitement of being surrounded by other cubers. While the idea of competition has led to incredible evolutions in cubing technology and methods, those of us who let the idea of rank determine their satisfaction with the experience remove themselves from the opportunity to connect with talented and smart people who share one of the most obscure passions imaginable.

2. The Second You Start Second-Guessing Yourself, You’re Doomed

Much of the speedcubing constitution lies in the lasting muscle memory that hundreds upon thousands of solves will accumulate. Most of this muscle memory is obtained through the ceaseless repetition of algorithms, specific sequences of moves cubers memorize to make pieces on the cube move to the places they want them without damaging earlier progress from the solve. Within a relatively short amount of time, most cubers will have memorized and executed enough algorithms that they do not have to consciously think to solve the cube, but instead recognize the patterns throughout, and immediately apply the necessary algorithms.

Getting to the point in speedcubing where you can solve almost without even realizing it is an incredible sensation, and one of the central reasons as to why the sport is so addictive. The issue many cubers encounter, especially when solving under pressure of competition or an audience, is the fact that you cannot turn off your brain completely when you’re solving.

Many a time I will be in a latter section of the solve about to execute an algorithm I’ve performed hundreds of times without issue, and my brain will start to over-think about the exact order of turns or hand positions. This can stop a solve dead and actually undo earlier progress.

To succeed as a speedcuber requires faith. In a competitive environment there can be any number of environmental distractions only adding to the pre-existing pressure of a competitively-recognized solve. This is knowledge that has echoed throughout my experience with any other skill-driven activity I’ve partaken in, from playing guitar to driving a car.

3. There Is No Single Right Way to Achieve a Goal

As of today, there are over 30 different methods you can use to solve the standard Rubik’s Cube. Some can be incredibly fast, but require intense periods of study and practice to execute smoothly. Others are relatively easy to learn, but they might not be the fastest way to solve. Regardless of your method of choice, every speedcuber shares in the same activity and deserves the same respect and support of all other cubers for attempting it.

While I have not been an active speedcuber for over five years, when I was part of it the aura of elitism among some of my peers — myself included at times — was quite strong. Something about timer number at the end of solving the puzzle could dictate my entire perception of a fellow cuber, and that closed-mindedness is something I still try to learn from daily.

It’s not worth trying to build walls between people who share your passions just because you might not consider them as “talented” as you, or other people you know. The community among cubers breaks down the barriers of geography, age and, at times, language. There’s so much room to learn and grow as a part of it, and to offset yourself from the pack is only doing a disservice to yourself.

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