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The Gordian Knot Approach To Goals And Life

If you’re not familiar with the legend of the Gordian Knot here’s the short version:

In 333BC Alexander The Great marched his armies into Gordium, the capital of Phrygia (in modern day Turkey). There he finds this big rope with a tight, intricate knot. According to an ancient Phrygian prophesy anyone who could untangle this impossible-to-untangle knot was destined to become the ruler of all Asia.

Cocky as he was sexy, Alexander was confident that the prophesy must be about him. So he scratched his chin a bit, studied the knot, and thought about how nice it would be to make all of Asia his bitch.

Eventually a sly smile crossed his face, his eyes mischievously twinkled, he whipped out his sword, and he cut the knot in half.

“Bam! I’m Alexander the fucking Great, bitches!” he shouted while doing a little victory dance. I like to think.

I also like to think that everyone in the crowd groaned with self-disgust and kicked themselves for not having thought of that simple solution themselves. But it was too late for those mofos.

Alexander would conquer Asia. Prophesies and knots don’t lie.

That’s just science.

Hopping in the DeLorean and going back to the future,  we now refer to the Gordian knot as a metaphor for finding creative, simple, solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Boring corporate drones call it, “Thinking outside of the box,” which isn’t half so good a metaphor because–as we all know–knots are cooler than boxes.

That’s just science too.

The Lesson

I’ve known about the Gordian Knot legend for ages, but only really woke up to its power as a handy life rule about a year ago. Now I preach it with the bubbly enthusiasm of 19 year old Mormon missionaries ringing the doorbell and asking you’d like to hear about another testament of Jesus Christ.

Pushing fifty I’ve become more sensitive to time-wasters. Increasingly I want to cut through bullshit, to get to the point, to find the solution, to achieve my goals as expeditiously as possible.

The problem is that I have a knack, historically, of making things far more complicated than they need to be. I don’t think I’m alone here, either. As creative as humans are, we are even more risk averse. This risk aversion translates into consciously or unconsciously trying to anticipate anything and everything that could go wrong. So we hem and haw and procrastinate and hedge our bets.

We over-complicate things.

Back when we were the Flinstones that was a good thing, since a poor decision or misstep could lead to saber-tooth tigers eating your face off. But it doesn’t serve us so well now that we are the Jetsons. Instead it too often leads us to over-plan, to perpetually postpone change until some “better time” in the future. A time that rarely, if ever, comes.

Or we tell ourselves that we can’t do something until or unless we have followed the socially expected steps, earned the “right” credentials, and so on. We too readily believe the sanctioned wisdom that says the only way to loose a knot is to untie it by hand.

Robbins Goes Rogue

In Awaken The Giant Within, Tony Robbins–The Alexander The Great of personal development–tells a story about this.

When younger he signed up for some classes on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) which is, basically, an approach to changing limiting thought and behavior patterns.

So he takes this class and is really excited about immediately using NLP to help people. The instructors and other students were incredulous. “You have to have hundreds of hours of training, and certification, before you can do that!” they whined.

“Whatevs!” Tony answers. There’s no law saying that.” He struts out the door and immediately starts trying NLP on everyone who will let him. He tours the country. He gets on live TV and uses NLP to instantly cure long standing phobias. He becomes a rock-star of the personal development circuit. In short order he also gets rich enough to buy and sell you, me, and everyone we know.

Everyone else in the NLP class–including the experts–believed you had to spend a massive amount of time, and jump through tons of hoops, to achieve the goal of effectively practicing NLP. Tony rejected that assumption. He was able to cut that Gordian Knot because he knew they were making things far more complicated than they needed to be (“Experts” often to this to protect their status).

He knew that the knot was only impossible in their own heads.

Example Knots

Here are some other Gordian Knots I or others I know have confronted:

  • I need to have an MFA before I can be a professional, artist (or writer).
  • I need to get an MBA before starting my dream business.
  • I need a Psychology degree before I can help people.
  • I need to track all my food every day to lose weight.
  • I can’t start on that goal until I know for certain precisely what I want to do with my life.
  • I have to admit I an alcoholic and must go to AA to get drinking under control.
  • To overcome anxiety I need medication.
  • Quitting smoking is/will be a very hard process.
  • I can’t start GoalRebel.com until I’ve overcome all of my own shit and am a perfect example.

All of these, while tempting as excuses, are for the most part utter bullshit.

Here’s why:

If you know anyone who has faced similar, or worse, challenges as you have but has managed to accomplish the very thing you tell yourself can’t be done, then that proves you are wrong and that it CAN be done.

If anyone has sliced though your Gordian Knot it means you can too.

Your +4 Sword Of Gordian Knot Cutting

As with any idea or technique I may write about here on GoalRebel, I am far from perfect at thinking and acting in terms of The Gordian Knot approach. For example, I still tend to think I can’t start a new habit, or break a bad habit, unless I start on the first day of a month.

Which is stupid.

But that’s how it works. We live, we practice, we learn, and hopefully we get better at identifying where we are making things more complicated than they need to be. We start seeing the knots. We pull out our +4 Sword of Gordian Cutting, and we start a’slicing.

If you have a big–or even not-so-big–ambition or goal that you keep putting off I invite you to ask yourself if you’re making it more complicated than it needs to be.

Ask if there might be an easier approach, a better way. Think about anyone you know who has achieved the same or a similar goal. Do some research to find others who have achieved the goal, ignoring those who talk about how hard it is and focusing instead on those who have done it with Alexander The Great efficiency and finesse.

Then, emulate their approach. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

Life is complicated enough, after all. Why make it even harder than it needs to be? Cut those knots.

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