a conversation about problem solving

“Daddy, help! It’s too hard!”

My daughter Justina, age seven, was lying on the couch, head propped up. She was holding a Rubik’s Cube in her little hands. She was wiggly and frowning. As she was twisting the cube this way and that, she seemed both delighted and unhappy. Impatient.

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s not my level; it’s just too hard!”

I raised my eyebrows. Well. It is a Rubik’s Cube.


“It’s a problem to solve, sweetie, you can do it.”

“But how? I am not getting anywhere!”

“Start with something that you can solve. Something that’s just a little challenging.”

We discuss, how she can tell which color a side of the cube needs to be. She quickly points out the center title of a side and can easily tell, what color each side of the cube would have to be.

“That was easy,” she smiled. “Now what?”

“Well, now you make it just a little harder and try that. Gradually make it harder until the next hardest step is the problem you want to solve. Here – let me see.”

She handed me the cube. I twisted the sides until I manipulated the cube to show a single-color cross on the white side of the cube. The center piece was white, as were the other middle pieces on that side.

“Here, this is a cross. Try to do this for the blue side. When you get it, keep practicing for other colors.

She eagerly took back the cube and went to work. I watched her for a few seconds, then left.

Find your current level, solve it, then find a slightly harder problem. Keep doing that.


“Daaaddy!”

Uh, oh.

“What’s going on?”

“I got it right a few times with blue, red and white — but I can’t do it with green!”

I glance at my watch. She had been at it for about ten minutes since we last talked. It was getting late for her, too.

“Sweetie, it is after eight. Let’s go upstairs and get you ready for bed. I’ll tell you a secret.”

Her face brightened, she stood up on the couch, then jumped into my arms. As we were walking up the stairs, she whispered, “what’s the secret, daddy?”

I smiled at her. “You have to fall in love with it!”

She stared at me, quietly.

“You have to fall in love with your problem. At least become really, really interested. Care a lot. That way, when your current level still feels too hard, you can easier keep going after it!”

Fall in love with your problem.


We were in her room now. She was wearing pajamas and had just brushed her teeth.

“This was fun! But, I feel like my brain hurts! It’s probably not a good idea to work on stuff like that so close before bedtime!”

“Well, actually …”

“Do you have another secret?”

I laughed. “It’s not really a secret. I do have one more idea for you though. If you want to hear it?”

She nodded.

“It can be really good to think about hard problems right before you go to sleep.”

“Why?”

“You’ll think about them while you’re sleeping. Might learn something new!”

“–“

“Right now, as we’re talking, we’re conscious. Our conscious minds are helping us think and talk. When we’re sleeping, we’re unconscious. It’s a different kind of thinking, a different perspective.”

“Kind of like dreaming?”

“Kind of. Sometimes people wake up and find they have new insights on problems or ideas they had been considering.”

“–“

“That make sense?”

She nodded, smiled and sat down next to me.

I opened the book.

“Daddy?”

I looked at her.

“Let’s not read today, I am feeling pretty tired already.”

“No problem, I understand.”

Sleep over it.