Better an ‘oops!’ than a ‘what if . . .’

Funny thing about full time travel is that the thrills of the destinations are always eventually usurped by the realities of, well, just being a family.  We’re still parents of four quirky, growing boys; they are still children of two unreasonably strict and embarrassing parents.  There is fatigue to deal with, fights to resolve, chores to do.  In between all of that, however, there are still the warm fuzzy moments of parental satisfaction that are completely independent of our travels.

On that note, there is something that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now that is not exactly travel related but worth recording nonetheless.  For posterity, for our family . . . and maybe you’ll enjoy it too.  But you’ll have to forgive me – the origins of this story are a little exotic. 

The backstory

In 1974 a Hungarian architect built a model to help explain three dimensional geometry.  It was a 3x3x3 cube whose coloured sections could be rotated.  There were 43 quintillion potential section arrangements.  It took him a month to solve his own puzzle and five years to get his invention out from behind the Iron Curtain.

His name was Erno Rubik and his invention, of course, was the Rubik’s cube.

As a child of the 80’s, to me the Rubik’s cube is iconic.  My older brother got one when I was ten or so.  He managed to solve two sides.  I think I solved a single side one time then got smacked upside the head when I started peeling the little coloured stickers off.

So I had mixed emotions when my two oldest sons became interested in the puzzle game.  As different as they are, Owen and Jake are clever little humans. There was a distinct possibility they would show me up.  Turned out to be more than a possibility.

How kids respond to challenges

Owen was the first to get a Rubik’s cube last Christmas.  When he came up against that familiar and frustrating wall of solving more than a single side, his solution was true to his character: “I will build a machine to do it for me!”.  Two days later he emerged from his bedroom with a fully programmed Lego Mindstorms robot.  The fact that the program wouldn’t run past the first move did not take away from our pride in his efforts.

Owen’s Rubik’s robot looked like this

At this point Jake took up the challenge.  We joke in our family how eerily similar Jake and I are in our personality characteristics but when it comes to Hungarian geometry puzzles we clearly differ.

Solving one side was easy.  Lesser men (like his father) may be satisfied by such trite victories, but not Jake.  Day after day he struggled to organize the other colours without mixing up his first side.  Eventually he got the top row which results in a T-pattern around the cube.  A huge accomplishment. . . but also more squares to mess up as you work on the remainder.


When you take on a challenge there is always the risk of failure.  Things got frustrating for several weeks as Jake tried to work out the second row.  When he became visibly upset I did what any well-meaning father would do and offered to YouTube it.

“No, daddy. I want to do it myself.  I want to see if I can figure it out.” Dogged persistence is so rare, especially in an eleven year old.

About a week later Jake got the second row.  He was so happy.  For an introverted kid who sometimes seems to live in the shadow of his more obviously academic older brother, it was a moment of well-deserved pride. 

See, do, teach

Around this time I remember sitting down with Jake in the kitchen and asking him to teach me.  I hoped I had matured enough in the last three decades to have a little more success.  To my surprise, he was a natural.  Clear, patient, enthusiastic.  Not only did he have a thorough understanding of the process he had developed, he was a gifted teacher – even when the student was his own father.  It was a surprisingly enjoyable role reversal.

Alas, that final row proved to be Jake’s nemesis.  He tried for weeks, refusing to give in to the dozens of YouTube videos calling his name, promising quick results with a few final sequences.  But eventually his desire to see the puzzle complete overcame his waning enthusiasm to do it all himself. We did a little research and found the last obscure algorithms he needed to solve it.

Jake can now routinely solve the Rubik’s cube in under two minutes, his fingers a whirling blur of spinning coloured squares.  If there are spectators, he will look up with a smile without slowing down.  “It’s just muscle memory,” he explains.  His fastest time is 1:14.  What’s more, while on this trip he has taught his curmudgeonly 42 year old father how to do it too (which is the greater feat?).

Better an ‘oops’ than a ‘what if’

This post doesn’t have so much to do with travel (we didn’t even make it to Hungary!), but everything to do with family and our hopes as parents that our children will surpass us. 

It also makes me think about how we face challenges that are both scary and exciting.  In 1974 Erno Rubik stumbled upon an engaging geometry puzzle.   He could have remained an architect but instead he pursued it until it became one of the most iconic toys of all time.  About a year ago, our family watched a documentary about another traveling family and realized we wanted to pursue a similar adventure.  We had a million excuses to put it off, but instead we ran with the idea knowing there was no better time than now.  Eight months ago Jake picked up his brother’s Rubik’s Cube.  Like his father, he could have solved one side then resorted to peeling the stickers off, but instead he decided not to give up until it was solved.  Now his proud dad is writing a blog post about it for the world to read.

How should we respond to those scary and exciting opportunities that come our way?

A few months ago we were jostling through crowds in the Dublin Airport.  On the walls were various sayings.  One caught my eye and stuck:  “Better an ‘oops’ than a ‘what if . . .'”.

‘Nuf said.


    1. “Given” is the title . . . about a family with two very young children who travel around the world. The whole thing is narrated by the little boy. It’s beautifully done.

  1. Perseverance sure pays off! I absolutely love experiencing our kids surpass us in their ability to do various things. It’s exciting and humbling.

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