What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's Cube

Olivia & her Rubik's Cube

Work, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain. I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that - methods that can apply to learning almost anything - are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3x3 Rubik's Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik's cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.