A Rule for Solving Unsolvable Problems: Cut, Don’t Pull

A fashion maxim that works for the rest of life, too

It would probably surprise a lot of my current colleagues to learn, but I once worked “in fashion.”

I loved this part of my magazine job precisely because I’ve never been all that interested in how to dress. As a story editor, I could look at the subject unburdened by, well, a refined sense of style — a beneficial quality because my job was to take the fashion department’s ideas and present them in a way that made sense to any reader, regardless of their sartorial predilections.

When you come at fashion that way, you’re able to see it for what it essentially is: clothes, dressing, fabric, and thread. A pair of pants becomes an object of utility and design. You look at it as history, too. You begin to see almost every type of clothing in terms of its more utilitarian antecedent. The little straps on the shoulders of jackets? They kept your bayonets in place! A tweed jacket? That’s just water-resistant camouflaging outerwear for Scottish hunters! (So much of men’s clothing design can be traced to the military or hunting.)

You also see fashion as a series of rules, from the style rules — “There should only be one-quarter-inch of shirt cuff showing past your jacket” or “Never button the bottom button of a coat” — to the guidelines for care and maintenance. These guidelines helped me see order in the universe of fashion and style, which can otherwise seem highly idiosyncratic, determined only by the whimsies of fashion editors and designers.

Because they’re so clear-cut, these rules are ripe for universal application. And no rule has been more broadly applicable for me than this one: “Always cut; never pull.”

It’s something a colleague in the fashion department said to me once at a men’s magazine I worked at in the 2000s. He was referring to threads. Don’t pull threads. Always cut them. You pull a thread, and you don’t know how long you’ll be pulling or how much damage you’re doing to the larger structure. But if you cut it, you’ve contained the damage, neatly and cleanly. You’ve lost a little thread, sure, but no one will notice.

I still think about that all the time.

Say you’re writing and you’re having trouble with the next sentence. Cut the paragraph off. Move on to the next one. Say what you need to say and end it. Don’t draw it out and meander. Don’t create new problems to solve.

Say you’re having an argument with someone. If you keep arguing and pull on the threads of that conflict, plenty of new conflict will present itself. What would happen if you just stopped, either by apologizing or owning your role in it? Or stepping away for a bit to let things cool down?

Say a colleague is asking you to make a decision on something after a period of deliberation. You could keep investigating the situation. You could ask more questions. You could seek additional context. But are you just pulling without a plan, hoping things will tear off? What if you simply said yes or no or made a clear recommendation for how to proceed, ending the discussion and allowing other things to progress?

Try that. Don’t pull on a thread. After all, there are other threads attached to it, and those may come loose, too.

When you cut instead of pull, you’re left with something slightly different and slightly, well, less—but it’s something clean and intact. And more importantly, it’s over. You’ve cut the thread and put the scissors (or pocket knife) away and moved on to other decisions, other work, other opportunities.

Author, Works Well With Others: Crucial Skills in Business No One Ever Teaches You // writing about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way

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