Alexander’s Knot: A Different Way to Solve Hard Problems

There’s a legend about Alexander the Great.

There was a certain knot in the city of Gordium. An ancient oracle prophesized that the one to loosen it would be destined to rule over all of Asia.

Historian Peter Green tells the story of Alex his acclaimed Alexander of Macedon.

“In Gordium, by the temple of Zeus Basileus, [Alexander] found what he sought. This was an ancient waggon [with] one very odd feature: its yoke was fastened to the pole with numerous thongs of cornel-bark, in a complex multiple knot of the kind known by sailors as a Turk’s-head. An ancient oracle had foretold that anyone who contrived to loose this knot would become lord of all Asia. This was a challenge which Alexander found irresistible.”

At first, Alexander struggles:

“One characteristic of a Turk’s-head knot is that it leaves no loose ends visible. For a long while Alexander struggled with this labyrinthine tangle, but to little effect. At last he gave up, ‘at a loss how to proceed’. A failure would have been the worst possible propaganda: something drastic had to be done.”

Now, the stuff of legend:

“Alexander, exclaiming ‘What difference does it make how I loose it?’d drew his sword and slashed through the tangle at a single stroke, thus revealing the ends carefully tucked away inside.”

Sometimes, it’s better to cut just the not.

Gordian Knots in Life

Let’s apply this story—this mental model—to modern life.

I’m most productive in the morning. This is because I’ve set up a powerful system of habits… My morning ritual—diet, meditation, joint prep, etc.—is set up so that I’m in the best possible condition to do good work.

As a result, my mornings almost always go well.

Evening, though… Evenings are the opposite. I can’t quite figure them out.

In the evenings, I’m tired. I’m low on willpower, probably hungry and feel like I’ve done “enough.”

Because of this weakness, I get caught by wasteful internet time. If I get pulled by social media or YouTube, it may take 4 hours or more to get out. To be honest, many days I’m too weak to resist.

Enter the Gordian Knot.

Yes, I could try to track down all the “triggers” or environmental cues that are making me waste my evenings. Yes, I could try to set up a system of habits that keep me from failing. But…

Do you see the problem?

This is a lot of work. It might take a few months to a year to tackle this project. All the willpower spent to untie this knot means less time elsewhere solving other, more important, problems.

So, we cut the knot instead.

Instead of solving the problem, you can take the problem and remove it from your life.

Recently, I’ve noticed my evenings are much better if:

  • I stay in an AirBnB that doesn’t have WiFi (I travel constantly)
  • I leave my laptop and phone in a locker or friend’s house (No access to Internet)

Instead of surfing the web, I’ll actually go out to events or spend time with friends.

Similarly, I kept myself from overspending in college by freezing my credit card in a block of ice.

By removing the source of the problem, I cut the knot.

Would it be better to directly work on my media addiction? Of course.

But the world is filled with knots to be untied, and we can’t get to all of them. When you don’t have the time—or the means—to sow up a wound, it’s okay to cauterize it.

Sometimes, you gotta cut the knot.