One Saturday morning in January when he was eight years old, Jack Williams was seized with a strong notion to solve his Rubik’s cube.
The cube had been a Christmas present — two Christmases ago. He’d noodled around with it for awhile and then, as small kids who get Rubik’s cubes for Christmas tend to do, he’d moved on to other, easier toys (i.e., Beyblades).
But now cracking the cube was back atop his to-do list. “It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t his mom: it was him,” says Jack’s dad of the mysterious trigger. (Any parent who locates the “on” switch in a kid, the one that makes him suddenly commit to doing a really hard thing, will immediately receive a McArthur Grant, no questions asked.) For now Jack’s explanation will have to do: “I wanted to be the first kid school to solve it.”
First thing Jack did was take an iPad up to his bedroom and go on YouTube. There are tons of homebrew tutorials on how to conquer the cube. The best ones break the learning process down into seven steps. Solving the cube is less like safecracking than doing a math proof. It’s not so much art as craft. You methodically proceed through the sequence of operations, undoing some of your good work in the last step for reasons that, you trust, will be revealed in the next.
Jack pulled out a notebook and some pens. He started watching one of the most popular tutorials (it was, in fact, the same one he’d discovered the previous day). He’d listen a bit, push pause, write that much down, push play again. Sometimes he’s go back and re-listen to the last explanation.
He soon had pages and pages of notes. The deep structure of the solution began sinking in. The crystal forms from the middle out. You make a cross on each side, turn those crosses into Ts, fill in the middle side pieces, make a fish on each cube face, match all the rogue corner pieces. Boom boom boom.
If you were in the room with him you might have reminded Jack to breathe. He was in a full-on flow state.
At one point he took a break to get a snack, then charged back up the stairs before the learning trance weakened.
“I did it all at once cuz I knew I head to concentrate,” he says now. “I knew if I didn’t keep going I’d have to learn it all over again.”
Next thing he knew it was suppertime. But he had the source code. He could do this. Now it was just a matter of doing it without looking at his notes.
One of the first thoughts that popped into Jack’s head Sunday morning after he woke up was: ‘I can solve the cube.’ He devoted most of that day to practicing it, and by the afternoon he had it. He called a couple of friends and told them. “They wanted proof,” he says, so a couple of them came over to see for themselves.
At school there was one kid who had a few fancy moves he could do on the cube but had never learned to actually solve it. On Monday morning that kid handed his messed-up cubes to Jack, who put them right, without notes. The kid wasn’t miffed. “He was happy to have his cubes restored so he could do his tricks again,” Jack says.
On that day, Jack Williams was king.
Jack is now eleven. He can now solve the cube in about fifty seconds. Sometimes he physically takes it apart, sprays lubricant on it, and puts it back together — for speed. He also has a smaller cube – two-by-two rather than three-by-three — that he’s working on solving with his eyes closed.
The knowledge is in him. He cracked the code once, on that Big Day in January, and it stuck.
But “I always keep that book around, just in case,” he says. “If you don’t do it in awhile, sometimes you have to go back to your notes.”
Mastering the cube remains one of the things he’s most proud of — in his whole life.
That’s a pretty big payoff for One Big Day.
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