What the story of the Gordian Knot taught me about approaching intractable problems

I've just completed a podcast retelling the life of Alexander the Great. 1 of the more interesting anecdotes was how he cut the Gordian knot. This was a knot tying a cart to a post which was intricately bound for centuries. An oracle declared that whoever could undo it would become the next king of Asia. Alexander initially tried to pick it apart, but eventually cut it with his sword.

Another story is the siege of Tyre - an island city a kilometre off the coast. It was the last holdout in Alexander's conquest of the Persian empire - everyone had surrendered save for them. The Tyrians, thinking that their off-coast geographic advantage made them impregnable simply refused to sue for peace. And for a while, Alexander's army seemed to have no way to reach the city. What he did next was obvious but also crazy. He ordered his men to lay a causeway with soil from the coast to the island. It took 7 months, and resulted in several casualties from the Tyrian's sabotage, but eventually, they reached the island and attacked the city.

So many times in my life, I'd always sought the simple and elegant solution. Yet, there were also other times when my counterparts who picked the brute force method got there faster. Not everything in life has a clever and sophisticated solution. Sometimes, the obvious and direct solution is the best one, and you just have to put in the effort and grind.

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