Naughty Knots


I love to untangle knots. Transforming a hot mess of tangles into a straightforward length of cord—now that’s satisfying. Recently I faced a major tangle challenge: a conundrum of knotty mobile frames. We’d fashion each mobile frame by forming two chopsticks into an X and tying a length of fishing line to each corner. We gathered the tops of the lines at the X’s center and attached an ornament hanger. We weighted the lower portions of the string with clear pony beads. Stay with me, there’s a point here, I promise.

During transport, the mobile frames got, well, a little too well acquainted. I wanted to use them for a creativity class, so challenge on. Just imagine the mess created by intertwined ornament hooks, chopsticks, clear beads, and almost invisible fishing line. What to do?

At times I tackled the simple problem: ah, I see the trouble here and—problem solved. Other times I dealt with the weighty knots; I hung an ornament hook, determined which four lines belonged to its mobile, freed the lines around it, and the other mobiles dangling from my working mobile pulled that mobiles’ lines taut. In short, the law of gravity helped define what belonged where. Sometimes I addressed the problem closest to me, working from the inside out or from the top down. And when the tangle was just too naughty to navigate, I intuited. I’d get it wrong occasionally: especially when two lines had intertwined so tightly I couldn’t determine which direction would free them. But when I erred, I learned something: just do the opposite. After an hour and a half, fourteen mobiles hung free, ready to invite children to create.

Now why did I treat you to a reading of the Knotty Olympics? Because each day we face tangles. We might not be able to right them with clever fingers, but the principles I learned with the mobile frames apply.

Problem solving’s first and hardest task is determining what the problem is: what needs untangling and why. Problem solving sets a thing free to serve its true purpose. And we have within us an abundance of resources for doing that.

  • We might start with the simple: that aspect of the problem we can easily see and fix.
  • We might let the laws—of nature, of our home or office, of our nation—clarify and support our work.
  • Sometimes we begin with that aspect of our knotty problem closest to us, the one in which we’re most invested and/or have the greatest potential for success.
  • And, at times, we intuit. Go with our gut. Use the Force, if you will.

But here’s the unifying aspect to all these options: patience with ourselves. Untangling knots with hasty, frustrated fingers tightens tangles; mistakes made under self-reproach teach us nothing. Our lizard brain, which knows nothing of nuance, kicks in. When we’re patient with ourselves and with the process, however, our mistakes become powerful teachers.

So next tangle time, we can call on our resources—internal and external—exercise patience, and roll up our sleeves. And whether we celebrate our success with a “Eureka!” an “Aha!” or simply a satisfied sigh, we’ll know we not only set the tangle cords free, we’ve freed ourselves in the process.



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