The Three-Headed Dog


"Orcus' warder, blood-besmeared, growling o'er gory bones half-cleared down in his gloomy den."  – Virgil

In Greek myth the three-headed dog, Cerberus, stands guard at the entrance to the underworld. Cerberus' job is to let you into hell but prevent you from ever leaving, perhaps like the valet at the Hotel California.

One head of the dog represents the past, one the present, and the third is the future. Cerberus characterizes all of the negative aspects of each of these time frames. He aims to freeze forward movement and lock us into negative, repetitive patterns. Obsessing about the past, overwhelm in the present, and fear of the future are his methods.

We all have a three-headed dog in the dark regions of our psyche. If we are to live the life we envision, and not the one we fear, we must overcome Cerberus. The past, present and future can be sources of comfort, inspiration and encouragement. Or, they can be a nightmare. The choice is ours to make.

Cerberus kept many of the heroes in the old, epic stories confined to the underworld. But not all. Hercules descended into Hades, defeated Cerberus and returned without harming or killing the hellhound.

Hercules managed to overpower Cerberus by grabbing him by the throat. This is a metaphor that instructs us to find a way to silence the three negative inner voices:

  • The voice of the past that is intent on having us only look backwards. This is the voice that growls, "shoulda, woulda, coulda!"
  • The second voice has us obsessing about deadlines, overwork, and worry about what's on our plate. "Too much to do, so little time," it whines.
  • The third voice spreads fear about what lays waiting for us around the next corner. "What if, what if, what if," it barks 

We can learn much from Hercules about defeating the three-headed dog and gaining freedom from self-inflicted fear and misery.


Hercules wisely consulted the old Eleusinian mysteries for the secrets of the underworld before departing to Hades. No human ever returned, let alone survived, a visit. These teachings provided important guidance for Hercules in his quest to defeat Cerberus and complete the 12th of his epic labors.

Individuals and organizations that use the past as a source of received wisdom can also escape hell. They revel in the memories, examples and stories of past success. As well, they gather wisdom from past exemplars of courage, enterprise and inspiration. Stories of triumphs and victories over difficult circumstances are instructive to present and future endeavors. So, too are the memories of those heroes who paved the way for us. Companies like Boeing, Walt Disney and Apple have rich histories that are remembered and celebrated. Toyota, Hewlett-Packard and Saab are also deeply connected to past accomplishments.

The past can also be a trap. When we become overly tradition-bound or tied to "the way we do things around here" enterprises become anachronistic. Being stuck in old ways of thinking and doing things prevent renewal. Decay sets in. We become mired in the past and lose the ability to be innovative and progressive. This is true of individuals, teams, companies, and countries. Think of Kodak, Nortel and HMV. Even great civilizations, like the Greeks and Romans, fall when the paradigm changes. Despite the illusion of permanence, shift happens.


Hercules was able to defeat the three-headed dog because he was sufficient to the task. He was not arrested by fear of Cerberus' ferocious appearance or reputation. Nor was he overly worried about what might befall him in his encounter with this difficult customer - a beast with three monstrous heads, the tail of a dragon and a back covered with poisonous vipers.

The time to act is here and now. When we are present and ready to seize the moment we can respond with all of our faculties and resources. This "sufficiency" enables our success. We do not allow ourselves to be distracted or divided over what might happen. Individuals and groups who face the present moment like Hercules, and meet difficulties and challenges with courage and resourcefulness, win the day.

The present, however, can be a place of dangerous velocity, inefficiency, and overwhelm. Too many people and organizations chase their tails rather than focus on strategic action. Putting out fires and avoiding the snake pit can take up so much of our time that there is little left for real work. As well, we can spend so much time reporting on past activities that we have fail to get on with the present and future. Think RIM, Sears, and pre-bankruptcy Detroit automakers.


When we see the future as a friend, and not a force bent on destroying us, we meet it with optimism. Optimism always carries its own weather system - adventure, excitement and unlimited possibility. We need such winds to make transitions from our current circumstances to our preferred future.

Despite the odds, Hercules did not waver in his belief that he would prevail in his encounter with Cerberus. He prepared well, and anticipated his own victory by planning the return from hell across the river Styx. Hercules promised Hades, the God of the Underworld, that he would not harm Cerberus. By this agreement, Hercules was permitted to carry out his mission and bring the three-headed dog from hell back to the middle world.

It is important to recognize that Cerberus was not defeated by lethal force. He was defeated with a firm hand. When we use the harsh critic to beat ourselves down we are diminished. We are defeated well before the encounter with Cerberus. The confidence and resiliency to meet the challenge has been lost to negative self-talk.


Cerberus is a difficult challenger but he can be overcome if we are courageous and resourceful. The past, present and future, when managed well, support wise action. Informed by the past and optimistic about the future, the present moment calls us to face our fears and follow our hearts.

Posted on April 16, 2014 .