Cutting the Gordian Knot

The Gordian Knot
Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot

Finding our way through knotty problems

Many of us find metaphors and motifs that recur throughout our lives. For me, the story of Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot has been especially relevant in my work.

According to legend, Gordius, the king of Phrygia, tied a knot (which hitched a chariot dedicated to Zeus to a pole) so complex it was said to be impossible to untie. An oracle later predicted that he who untied the knot would become the King of Asia. Alexander the Great arrived, and after trying vainly to untie the knot, he drew his sword and cut it open.

The Gordian Knot

Since then, the Gordian Knot has become the symbol of an apparently impossible problem—one perhaps solvable only through bold, creative, and sometimes destructive, action.

In many of my projects, the problem seems at first impossible to solve, or even to define. It’s too complex. One can’t possibly appreciate how wonderfully complicated the [product, service, organization, mission, etc] is. Yet we have to do something, we have to tell a story and motivate some action. Cutting the Gordian Knot is guidance to not take problems on their own terms, but by what you need to accomplish.

This is not always so easy, but it is liberating and hopeful.

Celtic knot (illustration)

Since ancient times, knots and mazes have played a dual role of showing both apparently impossible puzzles and as maps or solutions. They contain their own wayfinding secrets.

Wayfinding has also been an enduring interest of mine. There is the actual problem of navigating physical environments—cities, subways, mountain trails—but there is the conceptual problem of understanding the world and the relationships among things in it.

Book cover: City Signs and Lights

Bold decision-making to solve problems is fun and makes for good stories, but for those of us who are designers and builders, it’s only a part of the work. Wayfinding is a relevant metaphor here, too: it is both a goal and a process. We have to convert our creative ideas into solid plans that work, which is especially challenging in the case of complex problems.

Cutting the Gordian Knot might solve a problem, but it might just be the beginning. Nobody said being the King of Asia would be easy.