52. Reprioritising is rarely done on whimsy

“I once gave a Rubik’s cube as a birthday present to an eight year old who was turning nine, and the way it was packaged had it in the ‘solved’ position, with each side having the same colour squares. When we took it out of course the first thing she did was to start mixing it up, twisting the sides this way and that to mix up all the colours. She seemed to enjoy that part. After a while I said the real trick was to get it back like it was in the packet. But maybe I’d let her twist it up for too long before saying so — I left her to it, and found out later that she had sat with that mixed up cube trying to twist it back into place for a long long time, although at some stage she had managed to get three same-colour squares lined up along one edge. Apparently when she went to bed that night it was still in a mixed-up state on the floor — and I know I would have been the same, although I’d probably have given up earlier. I would never have been able to solve that puzzle without some help, especially when I was younger like her… I’d usually not be able to stick with efforts like that for very long.

“But the next time I came by, one of the first things she showed me was the solved Rubik’s cube, with each face one colour. I was very impressed — that is, until her parents told me she’d actually gone to the trouble of carefully peeling off the coloured stickers on each little square and sticking them back in the solved positions. And when I looked more closely I could see that they weren’t exactly square-on. You had to smile at that. It was an obvious and simple hack, but also kind of clever in a nine-year-old sort of way, especially if she thought up the sticker-swap trick by herself. And anyway, who cares, although I remember wondering if the cube would still be solvable like that.”

So Benny could see that obviously the intention of the puzzle was lost on our nine year old, whose attention was drawn first to the twistiness of it, and only later to the goal of trying to have uniformly coloured sides. But it was her sideways solution of how to achieve that end result (and now he wondered if he’d been sold a cheaper version) that became the seed of his later understanding of this sort of approach as a phenomenon seen in many others along the way. Benny’s retelling of the fate of that birthday present was no random recollection, but was prompted by the displays of others that mirrored such misinterpretations of purpose. Not specific incidents in this case, but as a general acknowledgement.

I’m sure a lot of people know someone who has the knack of being able to re-set the focus of a lot of situations so that their own take on things gels, at least in their own minds, as ‘correct’. It’s a skill that’s not really under the heading of twisted logic, but a sort of reprioritising. Actually that’s not a good way to label what I’m talking about, because it’s not a skill and half the time I’m sure there’s no real priority; it’s more of a recasting of a situation to suit their own agenda. The way that people can re-write personal history is an example. It’s a way for many to disguise either what they don’t quite ‘get’, or else their own failures, as attempts at something positive. And then there are the simpler examples (not necessarily done through volition) of someone paying lip service to good intentions when their focus and attention are really drawn elsewhere.

The Rubik’s reminder may need rekindling now and then.

< Chapter 51 Chapter 53 >

Chapter index and link to slogans