The Gold Bar Riddle

I am going to tell you a riddle. Not just any riddle, the greatest riddle. You see, I believe this riddle, and the lesson in its answer, can be life changing. At least it has been for me.

Before I tell you the riddle, let me warn you. Its answer doesn't come easily to most. While the answer is not easy, it is simple. I first heard this riddle more than 15 years ago and I have been asking people for as many years. Although I have not tracked the exact results, I would estimate that less than 10% of the people I have shared the riddle with were able to solve it. I didn't. After a couple of weeks I eventually gave up and begged the person that told me the riddle to give me the answer. Clearly, we didn't have the internet.

This riddle is often referred to as the gold bar riddle.

I'm going to share the riddle with you now. You'll have to scroll down further if you want to read the answer. I am sure there are many different versions of this riddle (I do not know its origin), here goes the version as told to me:

The Riddle

You are near the edge of a vast desert (think Sahara) and are being chased by a murderous gang of criminals. Neither you, nor the gang are equipped to traverse the desert. If you do not cross the desert you will certainly be killed. When you reach the very edge of the desert you see a man with a camel and what looks to be enough supplies to get you across the desert. You explain your dilemma and the stranger tells you he can take you across the desert, a journey that will take seven days. As you barter with your would-be savior, he spots a bar of gold in your bag, a 7-inch bar of gold.

"I will take you across this desert to your safety. In return you must give me an inch of gold every day for seven days," the stranger said. "But you may only make two cuts." Although parting from your gold bar wasn't very appealing, it was better than the alternative.

How do you do it? How do you give one inch per day for seven days while only making two cuts?

Rather than continuing to scroll down, bookmark this page and think about the riddle for a few days (or just a few minutes if the answer comes to you quickly) and then come back to check your answer (which follows just past the photo below).

 photo courtesy of Ricky Brigante,  Flickr

photo courtesy of Ricky Brigante, Flickr

The Solution

Are you ready for the solution? Did you spend some time thinking about it? Or did you just scroll down?

Here's the solution. The first cut is made at the one-inch mark. For the first payment, you give him the one-inch piece. On the second day, you make the second cut, splitting the remaining six-inch bar in two: a two-inch and a four-inch piece. Then you give him the two-inch piece and take back the one-inch piece. 

Right about now, the rest of the solution will likely be rushing to your mind. Yes, it's as simple as making change.

On the third day, you give him the one-inch piece and let him keep the two-inch piece.

On the fourth day, you give him the four-inch piece and take back the other two pieces.

On the fifth day, you give him the one-inch piece and let him keep the four-inch piece.

On the sixth day, you give him the two-inch piece, take back the one-inch piece and let him keep the four-inch piece.

On the seventh day, you give him the one-inch piece and let him keep the other pieces.

You get across the desert and, most importantly, you live.

The Lesson

There's the riddle and its solution. But I promised you life changing.

I have asked hundreds of people this riddle. I have facilitated some very fun group discussions based on this riddle. Throughout the years I have been asking people this riddle, I have observed a predictable pattern. 

Most people that aren't able to solve it are paralyzed by not being able to determine where to make BOTH cuts. On the other hand, people that solve it quickly, or solve it at all, are more likely to make the first cut fast.

Therein lies the magic. The backstory is important. You aren't randomly presented with a seven-inch bar of gold to cut. You are at the edge of the desert, running for your life. Remember the murderous criminal gang!?!?! You have to move! Now!

If you were truly faced with that situation, with the gang rapidly approaching, you wouldn't casually sit there and think about solving the riddle. You would say, "DEAL!" and you would make your first cut. Although at the start, it can seem as if there are a great number of possible solutions, but if you just focus on the first cut, the only possible place to cut jumps out fairly quickly.

That small fact changes the riddle slightly. You are no longer trying to figure out two cuts over seven days, but one more cut over six days. And you just bought yourself some time and space to think about it.

The lesson is that you will certainly die if you don't start. OK, that's dramatic. But if your goal is to live, start with what you know you can do. Said another way, don't wait until you have everything solved, everything perfect, before starting something. A twist on the old saying, "Don't let perfect be the enemy of good." For me, it should be "Don't let perfection get in the way of starting."

Throughout my life and my career, I have found that I can accomplish more when I start something quickly, often before I have everything perfectly in place. I still, occasionally, find myself paralyzed by trying to solve for everything when I should be focused on what I should do first. Then I think of the seven-inch bar of gold and get to work, I know I will be rewarded for early action.