In 333 bc, Alexander the Great, on his march through Anatolia, reached Gordium, the capital of Phrygia. There he was shown the chariot of the ancient founder of the city, Gordius, with its yoke tied to the pole with an impossibly complex knot – The Gordian Knot.
According to legend, whoever could untie and solve the mystery of this knot would conquer all of Asia and the entire known world.
Alexander the Great approached the knot and looked at it for a moment. I can imagine him cocking his head to the side and examining it, taking in the puzzle and the implications of solving this legendary challenge and tradition.
He then unsheathed his sword and violently smashed through it, cutting the knot in half.
Alexander the Great went on to conquer the entire known world.
Alexander’s private teacher as a kid growing up was non-other than Aristotle, who taught him philosophy, government, politics, poetry, drama, and the sciences. Most importantly, he taught young Alexander how to think for himself.
We should all be so lucky.
We have all been through schools that were essentially teaching us to clock in and clock out to the sound of bells like a factory. We were taught to remember facts fed to us and to obey authority and follow the rules. We were taught to exercise our freedom by voting for one of only two choices forced upon us. We were essentially taught to be useful, but to think within a very nice and convenient box that limits the shit out of us and leaves us living banal and uninteresting lives with little to no original thought, true creativity, nor real impact.
Alexander was taught how to question and to think, and to think not just outside of that box, but to crush it if it held him back from greater possibilities.
When I was a kid, I went to really hardcore and conservative Christian pre-school. I actually got suspended and sent home several times for having hair that was too long . Girls got sent home if they wore pants. I had my ass beat many times for being a class clown and making kids laugh at the teachers. This place was no joke, and it probably wouldn’t last a minute without getting lawsuits today, but to their credit, I learned to read there at the age of four. When I got to kindergarten at a public school, there were five or six of us kids who came from this pre-school and we thought that the kids who were crying were retarded or something. They put us at our own table and gave us more advanced things to do while other kid pissed themselves and ate paste.
Anyway, one day an official-looking man came to school and took each one of us from this table away for a while one by one. When it was my turn, I was brought into a small dark office with a small table in the middle. On the table were some various puzzles and other things. In one portion of this testing, I was asked to assemble little tiles into various color patterns and shapes while the man timed me for speed with a stopwatch and scribbled notes on a pad. He would show me a picture of a pattern and I would have to recreate it, etc. At one point he showed me a pattern which was essentially the same pattern as the previous one, only upside down. The man hit the stopwatch for me to begin. I got up and spun the little table around 180 degrees to face him. The pattern was now upside down. I had broken the unwritten and assumed rules about how it was supposed to be done, but I’d solved this problem in literally one second.
I will never forget the man’s reaction and the expression on his face for the rest of my life.
I didn’t think much about it at the time. I don’t remember thinking that I was trying to be a clever smartass. I just wanted to solve it and “win”. I didn’t think it was a big deal until I saw both this man’s mouth and stopwatch drop. I honestly don’t know if the test was officially over, but he said that was enough and he let me go. The next thing I knew, I was offered to skip the 1st grade. I didn’t, (I’m actually glad my parents didn’t approve of that) but I ended up going into reading classes with kids a couple years ahead of me, and was lucky enough to be admitted to a Montessori-type of summer school the next year (which was a real blessing considering the fact that I was no stranger to food bank government cheese in my home growing up), where I was introduced to and subsequently become obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology and military history, as well as drama among other things. I read Greek myths in elementary school on my own like they were Harry Potter books, which seems unfortunately odd now. I was a sporty kid, but looking back I guess I was always a closeted geek behind closed doors. I was weird by most standards, and hopefully I still am. When I heard about The Gordian Knot story, it really hit me deeply somehow at that early age. Something about it really resonated and never left me.
Then, I remember the story about Captain Kirk in the Star Wars movies and the infamous Kobayashi Maru test that nobody but Kirk passed at the Starfleet Academy. This story stuck in my imagination as a kid as well. The test was designed to be impossible and to never let anyone pass. It was a no-win scenario designed to test character. Kirk won by sneaking in and reprogramming it. It was basically The Gordian Knot all over again.
The stories and sagas of Alexander’s unique creativity, questioning, and open-minded thinking that led to his unprecedented conquest and victory are still being told in films and in song thousands of years later today.
An excerpt of the lyrics from Iron Maiden‘s – Alexander the Great
“A Phrygian King had bound a chariot yoke
And legend said that who untied the knot
He would become the master of Asia”
So, what does all of this say to us and how can we use these stories to our advantage in our lives and in the real world today?
Don’t be a fucking drone.
Don’t be a fucking sheep.
Fight the temptation to be concerned about “likes’ and being afraid to think and behave differently than the herd and the masses.
Fight the comfort and phony sense of security that comes with doing what you were taught and told.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” –Marcus Aurelius
“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” –John F. Kennedy
“It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed.” –Albert Einstein
“Yes, Kālāmas, it is proper that your have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kālāmas, do not be led by reports, or traditions, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, not by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, not by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’. But, O Kālāmas, when you know for yourself that certain things are unwholesome, and wrong, and bad, then give them up… And when you know for yourself that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.” –Buddha
“I dare say a good many… would have kept quiet and thought about keeping on the right side of the Chief, but I’m afraid I’m not much good at that.” –-Richard Adams, Watership Down
“At the age of four, you were an artist. And at seven, you were a poet.” –-Seth Godin
“It’s weird not to be weird.” –-John Lennon
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – -Krishnamurti
“Any fool can make a rule, And any fool will mind it.” –-Henry David Thoreau
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” –-Ralph Waldo Emerson
“He who joyfully marches to music rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.” –-Albert Einstein
“One must renounce the bad taste of wishing to agree with many people.” –-Friedrich Nietzsche
“We will either find a way, or make one.” –-Hannibal
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” –-Friedrich Nietzsche
What is The Gordian Knot in your life?
What is the puzzle or the problem that is keeping you from creating what you want?
I’m as guilty as anyone of losing what I had as a kid, the ability to feel and think like I could conquer the world and to do anything. The ability to create without any judgment or second thought, and no concern about banishment or the approval of others. I had that as a kid. I think most of us do, but we have it beaten out of us at some point over time. Those who can retain it and/or reclaim it sit on a goldmine of possibility.
If Alexander the Great tried the conventional and safe approach the way he was supposed to, he would still be working on it, and we wouldn’t have been great. He would have been Alex the Random Greek Guy. Nobody would have ever given two shits about him, and he would just be another normal guy living a life of quiet desperation. His great grandkids probably wouldn’t even know his name much less us today.
Are you being a nice guy and following the rules, not rocking the boat, and doing and thinking like everybody thinks and does on Facebook and Instagram?
If you are, there is some truth about you inside of yourself that is burning to rise up.
It’s there, or you wouldn’t have read this far. You probably wouldn’t even have seen this blog or listened to the podcast.
Take an honest look inside and see if you’ve been giving in…
Fuck that noise.
Cut the fucking knot, and be the man you were born to be.
Hack that knot in half and be the man who you really are.
Conquer your entire known world.
This article originally appeared on Triumph and Disaster Blog and is republished here with permission.
Photo credit: Getty Images