Untangling the chain: why both strategy and intuition matter

Last weekend, as my husband and I were getting ready to leave town for my birthday celebration, I discovered that the necklace I wanted to wear had become hopelessly tangled in the drawer of my jewelry box.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. The dozen or so delicate strands, joined at each end by a wide bar and meant to lie one inside the other, had knotted over and over one another and become entangled in other necklaces plus a number of dangly earrings and bracelets. (What can I say? I don’t spend a lot on my accessories and have a bad track record when it comes to their care.)


I still had to take a shower and get ready before we could leave, and my frustrated, hurried picking at the knots didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere.

So I turned to my husband Jon, whose methodical, detail-oriented approach to problem-solving seemed much better suited for the task.

He shook his head (as methodical, detail-oriented people are apt to do when faced with the sort of mess an impulsive, big-picture type like me can make) but set to work on the unpleasant job.

When I got out of the shower a few minutes later, I watched Jon and his strategy became clear: choose one strand and work on it until it becomes straight and unkinked, then move on to the next.

For a while, it worked: he’d made quite a lot of progress in a short time.

But eventually, hunching over a tangled mess started wearing on him, and a few times as soon as he’d straighten one strand it would make the next one worse. “I’m not even sure this is possible,” he sighed, and laid the necklace carefully down on the bed to take a break.

I picked it up again to give it another shot. But this time, as if by magic, the twists and loops began to rapidly untangle themselves. I found that I almost wasn’t even looking at the strands as I unwound them, working backward to dislodge the knots.

Instead, I was somehow going by intuition: sensing the weight of the metal as I grasped entire clumps and shook them free at once, almost without effort; feeling the way the entire necklace should hang together, rather than focusing the individual parts.

In no time the necklace – which had looked like a hot mess just two or three minutes before – lay smooth and untangled in my hand, and I got to wear it to my birthday dinner after all.


Now, I wasn’t about to gloat to Jon about the fact that I managed to untangle the necklace in the same careless way I’d gotten it messed up in the first place. After all, his strategy and process had set the untangle in motion, creating the foundation for me to finish the job.

But at some point, focusing so intently on one strand at a time had started to frustrate him and was actually making it harder for him to make progress. It was time to hand the project over to me so my internal compass, driven by a sense of the big picture, could take over.

It’s not that one of us was right or wrong, or that either approach was better.

Every project, whether it’s writing a book or starting a business or untying a mass of knots, needs both intuition and strategy to succeed.

Every goal requires both a squinty-eyed stare at the details and a broad, dreamy gaze at the big picture to come to fruition.

It turns out there are a lot of similarities between untangling a chain and launching a big idea: in both cases you need a mixture of chaotic chance-taking and steady, forward motion; of clumsy fumbling and strategic planning.

The trick is this: most of us aren’t particularly good at mastering both of these approaches. I remember when I was younger, I used to put both “detail oriented” and “big-picture thinker” on my resume. It took me several years to realize that I couldn’t really claim both as a particular strength. (Griping about punctuation errors as a hobby does not necessarily, it turns out, a “detail oriented person” make.)

And I felt somehow “less than” because of it.

When naturally-organized productivity experts made smug comments about how the state of a person’s desk or purse or glove compartment are a reflection of how much she cares about her work or how successful she’s likely to be, I’d feel guilty and anxious.

When I first started writing for magazines and found that I could never start an article at the beginning and end at the end, but had to start somewhere in the middle and then “write outward,” I wondered if there was something wrong with me.

Really, I’d chide myself, how hard can it be to just do things in order? To make a plan and stick to it? To be methodical and organized and detail-oriented?

As it turns out, for some of us it’s pretty darn hard.

And you know what? That’s OK. We can train ourselves to create workarounds to some extent, but more importantly, we can learn to stop feeling sheepish about the abilities we lack and focus on nurturing the strengths we have in spades.

When we stop feeling lesser because we can’t seem to figure out what to do with all the moving parts of an idea, it frees us up to ask other people for help, to choose the right tools to help us make sense of all the details, or to just give ourselves more time to allow everything to settle into place.

At some point in every large project I’ve ever completed, there has come a point where I was able to let intuition take over. But usually, to get to that point, I had to stop resisting the uncertainties and quit trying to override my natural chaotic, big-picture thinking pattern to force my brain into behaving the way a different kind of person’s brain behaves.

When I get mired in trying to force a process I just frustrate myself. And not surprisingly, the projects I’ve started but never finished are most often the ones where I’ve tried to make my brain do things it doesn’t naturally do.

Whether you’re a big-picture, intuition-driven or detail-oriented, process-operating person, embrace it.

You are not incomplete or incompetent: you’re one vital part of a process that almost always takes more than one kind of person to do well.

To make progress, ask for help from somebody on the other side of the fence. Partner up with people of all types. Find a person who will read your long, meandering brainstorming emails and help you find clarity with a well-placed suggestion or two, or who can cobble together a big-picture vision from the details that consume you.

Invest in the right tools to help you do a better job at what doesn’t come naturally. Rely shamelessly on the workarounds that help you fake it.

But most of all, learn to love that beautiful brain of yours. Because it takes more than one kind of person to make a dream reality…or, as it turns out, to untangle a necklace.

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