Actuarial SpeedCubers in Wonderland

Actuary out of the Box
9 min readJun 17, 2023

Fun facts about the Rubik’s Cube: Curiouser and curiouser!

· The Rubik’s Cube was invented by the Hungarian Ernő Rubik in 1974. It was originally called the Magic Cube.

· Over the past 40 years, more than 350 million cubes have been sold.

· “There are more than 43 quintillion ways to scramble a Rubik’s cube. That’s more positions than there are grains of sand on all of Earth’s beaches.” Forty-three quintillion — 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 to be exact — is the kind of number that defies analysis.

· Ernő Rubik himself was not very good at solving the cube. It took him over a month to first solve it.

· Photo above shows Max Park setting world record (3.134 seconds) for fastest ever single rubik’s cube solve at an official competition — June 11, 2023.

And, last, but not least… drum roll, please…

· There are at least 4 actuaries who are ranked in the World Cubing Association’s official ranking. They are listed at the end of this article.

Hooked

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”

I started to fiddle with the Rubik’s Cube during Covid-19 lockdown. The estimate that only 5.8% of the total population can solve the Rubik’s Cube certainly piqued my interest. Thereafter, the discrete incremental time improvements, as the cube slowly revealed its secrets, nudged me slowly but surely to embark upon the quest of trying to become a speedcuber. The pursuit of cerebral pursuits like actuarial exams, chess, New York Times word games, etc., might risk encouraging latent tendencies of narcissism. In speedcubing, any risk of cerebral narcissism is abruptly checked by the cold, hard fact that it’s quite normal to see pre-teens best your times by wide margins. Wipeout!

So, what can actuaries learn by studying to solve a Rubik’s cube?

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Fraternity amongst competitive speedcubers is very strong. The power of social media has taken the sport to a totally new level. Within hours of the 3.134 second world record being established, information about the way the cube was scrambled and the strategy to deliver the record-breaking solve was freely available.

The caption above shows the consistent fall in record-breaking times. The graph on the left represents minutes, whilst the one on the right represents seconds. Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby.

A driving factor behind faster solving times for the Rubik’s Cube is most certainly correlated with the surge of tips and advice shared within the speedcubing community.

By the same token, we actuaries — an even smaller population than Rubik’s speed solvers — can benefit from engaging in more discussions with one another. I find that I make the best improvements to my pricing and reserving models after face-to-face discussions with other actuaries. In this day and age, it’s so easy to sit in your home office with your laptop and smartphone, pretending you are connected with other people. My advice? Go out! Discuss the data you just received from an actuarial colleague, make new actuarial friends, talk about your challenges, and… alienus non diutius (alone no longer).

The Growth Mindset

I can highly recommend Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” Dr. Dweck defines mindset as follows: “In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount, and that’s that. Their goal then becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

I would guess that the number of FSAs (Fellows of the Society of Actuaries — USA qualification) or FIAs (Fellows of the Institute of Actuaries — UK qualification) who have never failed an actuarial exam is in the single-digit percentages. However, after failing an actuarial exam, you learn to pick yourself up, study harder or adopt a different study strategy and start all over again. A robust growth mindset might be the most important trait to qualify as an actuary.

Failure, even for individuals who have a growth mindset, can still be painful, but it doesn’t define you as an inept learner. It’s highly likely that the surviving cohort that emerges as FSAs and FIAs has a large percentage of ‘growth mindset’ individuals… literally the survival of the ‘growth mind setters’.

The great news, according to Dr. Dweck, is that one can change from having a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. The first step is to recognize the difference between the two mindsets. How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. Since no one was ever born with the innate ability to solve a Rubik’s Cube, a growth mindset is a requisite to make any meaningful progress in speedcubing. An apt quote for the trials and tribulations of speedcubers might be: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett)

Mentorship: Never trust spiritual leader who cannot dance

In speedcubing, it’s amazing how willing most people are to be mentors to up-and-coming cubers. My own personal mentors (whom I have never met face to face) include Toby, a computer programmer from Canberra, Australia, ranked #10 globally in the age 50+ category of speedcubing; Roberta, an energetic Brazilian mom of three small kids now living in Toronto, Canada; and Alan, a prolific speedcubing YouTuber (@Junk Cuber) and a high school teacher from New Jersey who teaches math and puzzle-solving courses.

It’s an honor when someone asks me for speedcubing advice because it makes me feel like I must have something worth sharing. In a mentor-mentee relationship, it’s always a two-way learning experience. An inquisitive mentee will tirelessly provoke you to explain cubing solutions from first principles and confirms the adage attributed to Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Professionally, I have been very fortunate to have many great mentors and bosses over the years who have, perhaps unconsciously, steered my career to where it is today by sharing anecdotes of their personal career journeys that invariably influence the decisions I make.

What do I look for in a mentor? I want someone who has achieved at least a modicum of success in their career but has also overcome their share of adversity. I want people who are different from me and who challenge the way I think. I want people who are accessible, willing, and available because it doesn’t do any good to have a mentor you can’t approach or talk to. And I want someone who is a good storyteller because, in the end, it is the stories we remember.

Focus on Being Productive Instead of Busy (Tim Ferriss)

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Consistent speedcubing training is a clear reminder that a logical, thought-focused approach that deepens your understanding of the cube’s mechanics and keeps the cube stationary usually beats flashy solving with fast-moving long solutions while rotating the cube in a whirlwind of frenzied activity. It’s insightful that elite speedcubers almost always film their solves both in practice and at competitions to critique their weaknesses. These videos are used to accelerate their learning experiences, both through self-review and by sharing them with colleagues/mentors to elicit feedback.

I once participated in the management training program run by a team of elite former fighter pilots (https://www.afterburner.com/). Their message was simple. Debriefling after each mission was the secret to continuous improvement, to accelerate learning and increase experience beyond the mere time spent performing the actions . A debrief meeting is a powerful and productive way to improve the recollection of crucial information addressing organizational weakness while empowering and reinforcing strengths. Actuaries, speedcubers, and fighter pilots who harness the power of the debrief will be the ones to increase efficiency and productivity.

You Can’t Play with a One-Armed Goalkeeper…(Kevin Keegan)

Being a successful actuary means having access to a versatile toolkit to deliver effective solutions to address the diverse problems that are presented to you. For a repricing project, for example, you might have to make use of strategic thinking, detailed analysis, persuasive communication, and software implementation to measure the revised results of your repricing. All four aspects need to be running at the top of their game to enable the success of your exercise. Four less one equals zero.

There is a parallel in speedcubing, even in the blink of a 3.134 second solve. The world champion was implementing a methodology that included intuition, rote learning, pattern recognition, and prediction techniques — these are the fundamental pillars of speedcubing. If you are weak in any of these areas, progress will be limited. Speedcubing is a constant reminder that success ultimately depends on a collective skill set being applied in a complementary fashion.

So, the next time you embark on a project, think about what are the minimum keys/drivers for success and carefully consider if there is a less-than-fit goalkeeper in the mix.

Put money into perspective

“Dogs have no money. Isn’t that amazing? They’re broke their entire lives. But they get through. You know why dogs have no money? No Pockets.” — Jerry Seinfeld.

Of course, being recognized with salary and bonuses are great and leads to a very comfortable life; and as Don Barzini famously quipped “after all, we are not Communists”.

99.9% of elite speedcubers are not remunerated for their super-human efforts. Speedcubers are truly happy with the lack of salary and this can be a check-point that the pursuit of fulfilment does not depend on a pay check at the end of the month.

What’s next..

It Seems Very Pretty, She Said When She Had Finished It, But It’s Rather Hard to Understand!

Assuming that you have reached this far in reading this article, and let’s say that you are raring to learn more, I can recommend two resources.

First, Netflix’s “Speedcubers” is a documentary about the world of competitive Rubik’s Cube speed solving. It profiles two leading solvers, and the film evolves into a story of friendship, growth, decency, generosity, and overcoming hardships. Max Park (3.134 seconds record holder) is featured.

Second, there is YouTube, where you can find a wealth of resources. “How to Solve a Rubik’s Cube — Wired” has amassed over 30 million views; it was my first Youtube resource when I peeked into this captivating rabbit hole.

I’ll conclude with a quote by Ernő Rubik which has a distinct actuarial appeal; “If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.”

The known actuaries listed on the World Cubing Association (WCA) rankings include:

Brennan is working on improving times for one-handed solving

  • Chris Hardwick (10.35 secs) cmhardwick@gmail.com

Chris has been speedcubing for 25 years and will be attending his 10th world championship in Incheon, South Korea in August 2023 (Speedcubing Olympics)

  • Aaron Soley (14.44 secs) aaron.soley@gmail.com

Aaron is presently focussing on speedsolving whilst blindfolded.

Ronald is striving to improve his 229th world ranking position for his age group for the 3x3 classic cube and is also working on getting a competitive time with the dodecahedron-shaped (12 sided) twisty puzzle.

Please contact any of us if you are also WCA ranked or are aware of other actuaries who might be included in the WCA ranking or would like to learn more about casual or competitive cube solving. You might find your cubing colleagues on the WCA site: https://www.worldcubeassociation.org/results/rankings/333/single

Ronald Poon-Affat, BSc(Hons), FSA, FIA, MAAA, CFA, is the Life & Health Director at IRB Re, based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ronald is the co-editor of the Society of Actuaries (SOA) Reinsurance Section’s newsletter, Reinsurance News. He served as a past SOA Board Director (2009–2012), was recognized as an SOA Outstanding Volunteer in 2015 and received the SOA Presidential Award in 2016.

In memory of Suleman Dawood (2004–2023) 13.2 seconds

If you enjoyed reading, please consider hitting that little green heart. It means the world to the author.

--

--