An Unorthodox Approach to Academic Breaks

By: Dan Dankert

During Spring Break last year, I decided that I wanted to do something different during the break. Instead of sleeping in every day, playing video games, binging Netflix, and eating more Casey’s breakfast pizza than I care to admit to, I decided to try something different. I watched this video from the Wall Street Journal of a guy who challenged chess master Magnus Carlsen to a game of chess, though he knew very little about the game. He had one month to learn as much as he possibly could about the game, and then take on one of the all-time greats. He didn’t beat Carlsen, but I found the idea of trying to gain considerable skill in a short amount of time by devoting yourself to that one goal intriguing. I thought it would be really cool to try something similar, and I did just that over Spring Break last year.

Instead of trying to “master” something over the course of a month, I just tried to learn something that I wasn’t familiar with in roughly a week. I decided to learn the Rubik’s cube. I had a Rubik’s cube when I was in high school, and could never solve more than one side at a time. I bought a new Rubik’s cube (my old one was missing a few stickers), watched some YouTube videos, and read some guides online. I took this info, developed a strategy, and learned the basics. Learning the cube is actually pretty easy. You essentially solve it layer by layer. Here is the video I really tried to rely on to learn the cube:

Shout out to Noah Richardson for this fantastic guide!

It took me three days to have the basics from the video down pat. At the end of day three I was able to solve the cube, only checking notes about 1/3 of the time.

I spent the next day or two working hard to get faster at solving the cube without making any mistakes. I learned some principles that weren’t spelled out anywhere, but made a lot of sense and helped me solve quicker. I drilled different steps of the method that I found tricky, trying to make sure I was sharp in identifying what needed to be done, and turning that awareness into action as quickly and as accurately as possible. I was picking up speed, and I was starting to use my cube without thinking about patterns or algorithms; I was just doing them. In those two days, I began to solve the cube almost every time I tried without making any mistakes, and to my surprise I was starting to solve the cube incredibly fast, but my times had peaked at just over one minute.

There are multiple ways to solve a Rubik’s cube, and they get more complicated but faster as you go. I picked up the next way to solve the cube, and spent the next couple days working hard to learn it. I can do it, but I never reached the same level of mastery as I did with the basic method. If the break was only a couple days longer I feel like I could have become very good at that method as well. By the end of the week I had come a long way in my understanding of the Rubik’s cube. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on all things pertaining to a Rubik’s cube, but to this day I can still solve a Rubik’s cube rather quickly.

With Thanksgiving break and Winter break right around the corner, I want to challenge you to also pick up something. Here are some ideas of things you could try to learn:

  • How to write poetry
  • How to cook something complex (like authentic Japanese ramen)
  • How to make a podcast
  • How to blog
  • Learn about a specific culture (I recommend Korean culture 안녕하세요)
  • How to play a certain game well (Chess, Go, Catan)
  • Basic web design (I recommend HTML & CSS by Jon Duckett)
  • Learn about a historical figure (check out John Adams by David McCullough)

For me, I am going to be teaching myself how to paint. I have never been particularly good at art, but I have always enjoyed it greatly. I have been having this idea for a painting that is a sunrise over the ocean for some time now, and I’v already watched a few videos on the different kinds of paint and paintbrushes so that I can buy that stuff ahead of time. But I will be doing something similar as to what I did before: I will be doing research, and trying to develop a skill. At the end of the week I will try and put what I have learned into action and try to actually make a painting that reflects my vision and I will post an update at the end of Thanksgiving Break.

Comment below if you plan on challenging yourself to learn something new, I want to see what everyone is interested in learning!

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