About two months ago, I was having another restless night. I hadn’t slept a good night’s sleep in weeks, and when I did sleep it was often plagued by night terrors and other calamities that I often have when I am stressed or troubled. Normally I’d watch a show or play a video game to help me fall asleep, but I’d burned through all the familiar content options I could think of. That night, I was both restless and bored. With no better option I turned to a fiendish friend—the YouTube algorithm.
Normally I hate algorithms on principle. They tend to know me better than I know myself, and that creeps me out. Indeed, right there front and center on the “recommended” page was a video entitled: “A Sudoku With Only 4 Given Digits?!” I was weirded out by this, because I had left behind my days of feverishly solving sudoku puzzles when I was 13 and discovered cooler passions like Minecraft and “having friends.” There was no way the algorithm could know I’d find this interesting. Yet, I very much found this title intriguing, because even at my best I was a pretty lousy puzzle solver, and this seemed really hard.
The video comes from a YouTube channel called “Cracking the Cryptic,” hosted by a duo of British geniuses: Mark Goodlife and Simon Anthony. Mark has become the second grandfather I never had, and I will invite Simon to my wedding even though he does not know I exist. In the video, which is their most popular video ever, Simon tackles an incredibly difficult sudoku with such an infectious passion for the logic and brilliance underlying the puzzle that it shook me to my core. Along the way, he explained every step, and when he finished I felt like I had just finished cracking the enigma code despite the fact that I wasn’t doing anything at all, just watching my screen. I slept a full eight hours that night.
This is all a very roundabout way of saying that, in this life, sometimes you’ll never know how the things you do will affect other people. For Mark and Simon, I am sure they never imagined that by recording videos of them solving sudoku puzzles they would be drastically improving the quality of life of a college student an ocean away. They surely could not have foreseen that their puzzles would be one of my only comforts in a pandemic.
Which is to say, it’s very well possible that all of us on Earth are doing something and are completely unaware of the profound effect it has on someone. Maybe your Instagram stories are giving people extreme joy without your knowledge. Maybe your essays are so good that they give your professors the strength to keep grading into the late hours. Maybe the extra five dollars you tipped the delivery person was what they needed to refill their gas tank and make it home that night. You never know, but it is possible—and it is a good reminder that whatever it is you do, it could be saving someone’s life.
Vincent Rendon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @VinceSagebrush.