Burn the Boats
How far are you willing to go to achieve the things you want for your life…
Is this even a question you’ve asked yourself and answered honestly?
I want to discuss a concept that has been at the forefront of every turn my life has taken for the past five or six years. That concept is, “Burn the boats.” It can also be communicated as, “Burn the ships,” but “boats” seems to be a little more all-encompassing. All ships are boats, but not all boats are ships, if you catch my drift.
What does it mean?
To put it bluntly and somewhat literally, it means, “Conquer or die,” “Sink or swim.” A more nuanced meaning would be to leave yourself with no other option than to succeed at whatever it is you are trying to achieve. Retreat and failure are easy when you have the option to do so – so leave yourself no way back.
The origin of “burning boats” is often traced back to a story associated with the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernan Cortes. In 1519, Cortes led a large expedition to Mexico. The goal being to capture a magnificent treasure said to be there.
Upon arrival, Cortes destroyed his ships. This sent a clear message to his men: There was no turning back. They would either wim, or they would perish.
Within two years, Cortes and his men had conquered the Aztec Empire.
This all sounds terribly romantic and inspiring (the concept, not the mass murder), like a million other things you could read on the internet today – but what if you put this strategy into practice instead of being inspired for 5 seconds and then scrolling on to the next thing? What if you chose to move only forward towards the pinnacle of all things you want, burning every bridge behind you, leaving no way back; your only option being to eventually attain the thing you want, or rock bottom failure (metaphorical death). Does it still sound romantic? Or does it sound terrifying? How hard would you fight for the thing you want if failure meant death? The answer is… you would pull every trick, every bit of knowledge, and every ounce of motivation, belief, and energy in your being to achieve that one thing. And you know what… you would more than likely be successful. If you’re looking for that one person who will change your life – take a look in the mirror.
To eliminate the need of extrinsic motivation by forging intrinsic motivation through absolute dire necessity is what lies at the core of this concept. You don’t need anyone or anything to motivate you, pick you up, or give you a little nudge when you’ve burned your boats and left yourself with no other options besides victory.
But how many people put themselves willingly into this position? Not very many, because we humans love the path of least resistance, and quite frankly… it’s terrifying. If we have the choice for something easier in the short term, we will choose that over long term sacrifice and suffering nine times out of ten – even if the long-term payoff is tenfold what the short-term payoff is. Comfort and safety over discomfort and growth.
How to apply it
Now that we understand the concept of burning one’s boats, how can we apply it to work in our lives? It’s one of those things which are easier said than done, and there is no easy way to do it. However, the hardest part isn’t figuring out where or how to apply it, but finding the courage to light the match. Don’t be afraid to take the risk – Fortune favors the bold.
I can’t give you a pep talk that will convince or inspire you to burn your boats and seize that which you want. That’s not what this post is about. The entire point of this is to burn your boats and watch the incentive and motivation to succeed become innate and indomitable – because it will. The closest I can get to giving you a pep talk in applying this strategy to your life right now is this: Trust yourself. Trust that you are capable of far more than you know, because you are. Trust that when it comes down to the wire and you are forced to perform or crawl away on your belly and die – you will perform in splendid fashion.
You can apply this strategy to your health, your career, your relationships, extracurricular goals, anything. You can apply it literally, or if you’re mentally strong enough you can create the conditions inside your own mind. I will give you two examples of how I’ve done it both ways, and then you’re on your own.
When I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, I couldn’t do it without making some drastic changes in my life. I had a successful small business and no reason in the world to jeopardize the comfortable life I had built and was continuing to build for myself. However, I decided my long-term happiness and fulfillment needs were not being met, so I decided to do something else that essentially didn’t have a guaranteed tangible payoff or secure future. Nevertheless, I wanted to do it because I was sure if I did it, it would lead me to something else. Something better. I trusted that notion with everything. I burned my boats and I closed everything down in order to pursue this one thing I wanted – to hike the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t even have a plan for afterwards. I was leasing out the equipment associated with my business (a Personal Training Studio), so that was essentially a “way back” to what I was doing, but I had no intention of going back to it. So I set my boats aflame, went to hike the Appalachian Trail, succeeded, came back, and finished burning the boats by selling everything off. Then I picked up exciting work on fishing boats and parasail boats by day and worked on writing a book by night. By closing off the one avenue that would lead me back to where I’d come from, I was forced to keep good on my self-made promise to move forward and only do things which would bring me or lead me to the joy, happiness, fulfillment, and adventure I craved.
To another end, you can burn your boats metaphorically within your mind. This is the way I apply this strategy to my life the most these days. But how? I simply decide I am going to do something, then devote myself to it 150%, like nothing else in the world exists – and I don’t stop until it is finished, achieved, or reached. If I decide I am going to write a book… I sit down and I begin writing with every spare moment I have until I inevitably end up with a book, good or bad. Everything else takes a backseat. That’s how this works. You keep going, grinding, chipping away until the job is done. Act as if there is nothing else, and there will be nothing else except the goal and success.
Whatever it is I decide to do, then that’s that. I’m going to prioritize everything which is necessary for me to do or have that experience I desire. If I must quit a job, I quit the job. If I need more money, I find a way to make more money. If I have too many expenses, I find a way to eliminate some expenses. I don’t care what it takes, because in the end, if I do it, it works out. For some people it may take more than others because they have far more factors to consider; but, at the end of the day, you will either play it safe, make excuses and settle for “good enough,” or you will burn your boats and watch the apex of your true desires become yours, because that is the only outcome you’ve left for yourself, and you are stronger and more capable beyond your own estimations. Don’t take my word for it, just light the match and see what happens…