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Entrepreneurship, the Rubik’s Cube, and Penn & Teller

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been learning how to solve the Rubik’s Cube. It’s a puzzle that always bothered me as a kid. Not because I couldn’t solve it (I couldn’t) but because other kids could solve it and I couldn’t. That is really petty, I know. But it’s true. I could beat those kids in chess, I scored higher on every test (and got lower grades in almost every class, but I didn’t care about that) and was a top performer in pretty much every academic contest you can think of. But I couldn’t solve the cube.  I bought a book on how to solve it. That got me to where I could solve one side and the edges on that side, but I couldn’t get any farther. I learned to take it apart and put it back together solved. (That should have told me something about myself. I’m not sure what…)  I didn’t peel the stickers off, you could detect that, but if I turned the top side 45 degrees I could pop the corner out and disassemble and reassemble it and no one could tell that I ‘cheated.’ Eventually something else attracted my attention and I moved on. Thinking about it, knowing that all these other people could do it made me feel dumb, and I didn’t like that.

Thirty years later, I see a man doing magic on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us with a Rubik’s Cube. Six dollars later Amazon delivered a ‘speed cube,’ which turns easier and has colored plastic sides instead of stickers to my office. I’m not sure if it comes apart the same way, because I can solve it pretty easily now. It turns out that all the techniques in the cube solving book I studied as a teenager can be distilled into half a dozen fairly short algorithms (in this case directions for telling you which side to turn and whether to turn it clockwise or counter clockwise).

If I thought I felt dumb before I was mistaken. Knowing that there’s a trick to something that I don’t know doesn’t really bother me. I’ve seen Penn & Teller perform the Bullet Catch trick many, many times. I have no idea how they do it. I have theories from the ridiculous (very lightly charged loads that really fire across the stage, break glass during the flight, and end up where they can be easily palmed (even I’m not crazy enough to think that they’re actually catching the bullets in their teeth)) to the highly technical (they have cameras and experts making identical bullets when they secret on to the stage somehow, or a device in their mouth that copies or 3d prints the bullets somehow), to the mundane (plants in the audience, which I’m confident is not how they really do it). I know there is a trick to it, and that’s why I can’t figure it out. But with the cube I didn’t even know there was a trick. When someone solved a Rubik’s Cube in front of me I thought I was watching a wizard perform magic, but I was watching a magician perform illusion. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know.

This is exactly how Steven Brundage, the cube guy on Fool Us actually fooled Penn & Teller. What he did wasn’t illusion, it was artistry. It was artistry developed by deliberate practice. He learned to do something so well, that the performance of it looked like magic, even to trained magicians.

I will never (probably) be able to solve a cube as fast as Brundage, nor will I ever (probably) be able to build a business like Gates, or Jobs, or Branson. But I know some things about entrepreneurship, and cube solving that I did not know before.

First, both are skills, with all that encompasses. They can be learned, and they can be taught. Thinking otherwise just means that you don’t fully understand the algorithms involved yet.

Second, neither is easy, even if you know the ‘tricks.’  Especially at first. I’m two weeks into my cube training, and I still have the algorithms by my side to look over at. I’ve also started, or assisted in the startup of a great many businesses. I still use a ton of tools (tricks) to make sure that the business starts off properly.

Third, nothing happens without thought and action, working together.

Fourth, some people will get it easier than others. That does not mean that those others are incapable of getting it. It just means it will take them longer. If you’re trying to understand entrepreneurship, or trying to be an entrepreneur, do not despair. You can, with help, figure this out.

Fifth, as skills, the more you do it, the better you will do it, but only if you practice deliberately. At some point I will address deliberate practice here, but in the meantime, look up Anders Ericsson’s work on the subject. (If you do that you’ll have no need of my thoughts about it.)

Sixth, even though I’ve used the word ‘trick’ several times, it’s not really a trick, or a set of tricks. It’s a set of techniques that you use in specific situations. You learn the techniques and you learn when to apply them. With a Rubik’s Cube, it’s a sequence of clockwise and counter clockwise turns. With a business it is market research, product validation, value proposition iteration, or whatever specific tool is needed at a given place and time.

Lastly, sometimes businesses (and cubes) can’t be ‘solved.’ They just don’t work. For a cube, this means probably it was taken apart and put back together incorrectly. For a business, there are many, many reasons this might be so, but they all boil down to that business not having the proper parts in the proper places. That might mean that that particular business will never work. It might mean that parts need to be added, removed, or moved around. But what it does not mean is that you are incapable of being an entrepreneur. It just means that you plus that business, in that time and place don’t work. Failure is an event, not a vocation.


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