‘Solving’ the Unsolvable – Pull the Sword from the Stone and Cut the Gordian Knot

The Nature of the Beast

You’re at work, minding your own business. Suddenly, your phone rings. It’s your colleague. You pick up the call, and even before you can say hello, you hear the words you wish you could unhear:

There’s been a problem.”

For most people, just imagining that scenario won’t be a pleasant experience. Problem. That word carries a a certain tightness to it, a sense of unease. An immediate imagining of 1,000 horrible scenarios that could have happened.

And yet, problems will never stop coming up in our lives. Disorder is a constant companion of order. It comes with the territory of life, and that is the nature of the beast.

Society’s Solution Obsession

What then, can we do about this unsavoury yet undeniable human condition?

Conventional thinking says that there are two realistic responses to a problems arising:

Fight or flight.

You either deny your problems and ignore their existence, or you face it head on and solve them. Although in reality most problems get swept under the metaphorical ‘rug’, our society likes to espouse the nobler ‘solution-oriented’ approach.

HR departments worldwide demand ‘solution-oriented’ candidates. Educational curriculums are proudly focused on developing ‘problem solving ability’. Business gurus evangelise the doctrine of ‘solving your customer’s problems’ as the primary objective of any business.

There is nothing wrong with looking for solutions to problems. To state the obvious, if it can be solved, it should be. However, for all the creativity that ‘problem solving’ requires, this paradigm fails to recognise a third option beyond ‘fight or flight’.

And that, is a problem.

Pull the Sword from the Stone and Cut the Gordian Knot

In the year 333 B.C, the young Alexander the Great marched his army into Gordium, the Phyrgian capital of modern day Turkey. There, he came upon an ancient wagon with its yoke entangled in “several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened,” as historians later described it. An oracle had declared that any man who could untie the ‘Gordian Knot’ would become ruler of all of Asia.

Suddenly “seized with an ardent desire” to untie the knot and claim the prophesy, he began wrestling to untie it, but with no success.

Eventually, he proclaimed that “It makes no difference how they are loosed” and drew his sword and cut the knot in half with a single stroke.

Faced with the Gordian Knot, Alexander the Great did not choose to ‘solve’ the problem by untying it, nor did he run from it. He chose a third, more powerful option — he transcended the problem.

Transcending the problem is often simple and obvious in hindsight, but extremely elusive when you are entrenched in the paradigm of ‘solving’ the problem. You go above and beyond the problem itself, diffusing the problem of power and almost making it obsolete.

It is not a matter of complexity. Solving the problem can be much more complex than transcending the problem, as was the case with the Gordian Knot.

To do this, you can’t take the problem at face value. You will need to pull the sword of the ‘paradigm shift’ from the stone, flip the beast belly-up and strike it where it is weakest.

History buffs: I know that I am mixing the story of Alexander with the legend of King Arthur. I don’t care as long as the metaphor lands. Sue me! 😉

Einstein recognised this, and said that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Henry Ford also applied transcendent thinking, saying “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” 

The tech industry seems more in touch with this concept than most others, although they tend to call it ‘disruption’ instead of ‘transcendence’. The product that disrupts the market is the one that goes beyond the solutions that all other products in the market are presenting and transcends it in a radical way.

Instead of a longer and brighter-burning candle, a lightbulb.

Instead of a faster postal system, a telephone.

Instead of a more efficient taxi system, Uber.

But I don’t think that it’s fair for the tech industry to monopolise this way of thinking. By calling it ‘transcendence’, we can apply it to our everyday lives and transcend our personal Gordian Knots.

Transcending a Personal Gordian Knot

I began my journey of self development in my early 20’s. And from the beginning, I’ve been wrestling with one of it’s central problems: self discipline.

There is so much great information on self development out there. Setting goals. Acquiring skills. Building a network of relationships. Positive psychology.

But all the information in the world will not help you if you don’t have the self discipline to consistently follow through on them.

The Gordian Knot

I recognised this ‘problem’ early on, and tried to ‘solve’ it as best I could. I found accountability partners. I tried to control my environment and remove temptations. I tried tracking my habits on a spreadsheet. I carried around a box of tic-tacs to give myself a ‘reward’ whenever I exercised self discipline. I repeated affirmations saying “I am self disciplined”. I took cold showers. I did ‘one more rep’ at the gym whenever I didn’t want to.

All of this helped, to a degree. I was able to build up my self discipline, but the problem remained. I was still fighting myself at every stage to reach for my goals, I was only getting better at fighting. It had become my Gordian Knot.

This continued until I recently had a breakthrough, a way of transcending the problem of self discipline instead of solving it. My breakthrough came from reading two books — ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle and ‘Power Vs. Force’ by Dr. R Hawkins.

Both books talked about a transcendent paradigm, which was so simple yet somehow eluded me for nearly a decade. Instead of trying to ‘discipline’ myself, which automatically implies that I am doing something despite not wanting to, just learn to enjoy doing it by being present to the moment.

To put it simply, Tolle and Hawkins say that no matter what the situation, you can always enjoy the present moment. This is done in two ways:

  1. Accept that just ‘being’ there already feels good. Feeling the sensations of your body and your breathing is enough to make you feel happy. You don’t need anything else in this exact moment. (Try it, it’s true)
  2. All events are pleasant or unpleasant according to your own interpretation. One person might be terrified of being on a roller coaster, while another person is thrilled.

Most bad habits and cravings are there because we believe we don’t feel good in the moment, and by smoking, or eating the cookie for example, we’ll feel good. But once you recognise that you already feel good just by being present and that your ’emotional cup’ is always overflowing, the temptation loses power. A man who is already full does not need discipline refuse a piece of cake.

Instead of making myself go to the gym, I now try to become the person who simply enjoys going to the gym and looks forward to it. Instead of making myself work, I am learning to do it for the enjoyment of it.

Who would you put your money on? A man who forcefully disciplines himself to go to the pool each morning to exercise, or some dude who just really likes to swim?

Please understand that I’m not saying that I have forever transcended the need for discipline and have suddenly become perfect, but I have found a much more powerful and easy paradigm to follow and do my best to reinforce it everyday.

What is a personal Gordian Knot that you’ve been struggling with? Instead of continuing to tug it at with bleeding fingers, why not try pulling the sword from the stone and giving it a big swing?

Sam Lee

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