“Burn the boats!”

It was just three words that Hernán Cortés said to motivate his army, but they changed everything. The year was 1519 and Cortés, a spanish conqueror, had landed in Mexico with 500 soldiers, 16 horses and and a few cannons on 11 boats. He was on a mission to bring down the Aztecs and take their treasures, something that many before him had tried and failed at.

But even though Hernán Cortés was determined to be the first to conquer the Aztec Empire, he could see his army waver. His soldiers weren’t fully convinced that they could win this battle and much rather would have liked to return to Spain than risk their lives.

So Cortés gathered his men to give them one last motivational speech before combat. Everyone expected a passionate talk about the fame and riches that were awaiting them, but instead they only heard him say those famous three words: “Burn the boats!”

Why burning the boats is relevant

The rest is history. Left with no backup plan, with no second option, the Spanish soldiers literally fought for their lives. They knew that the only way to ever get home again was to conquer the Aztec Empire, so they could return to Spain in the Aztec ships. The Spanish army ended up winning the battle, paving the way for the colonisation of entire South America.

So why does this story still matter today?

To burn the boats has become a synonym for making a drastic decision that cuts off all other options. If you really want to fully commit to something, there is no better way to do that than to eliminate all alternatives.  If there is no way back, you have to move forward or die.

So burning the boats can be a very powerful tool if you want to apply emotional leverage on yourself. It creates enormous pain for being passive and enormous reward for taking action. It can help to push you beyond of what you thought was possible.

When people want to burn the boats

Having a comfortable alternative to taking action can often hold us back. The Spanish soldiers couldn’t stop thinking about returning to their home country and thus weren’t fully focused on the mission ahead of them. They needed to burn the boats before they were willing to fully commit.

Many people nowadays take a similar approach when making major life decisions. They try to nudge themselves into the right direction by cutting off all comfortable alternatives. They drop out of college in order to pursue their passion. They break up with a “sort of ok”-partner to find the real love of their lives. They quit their jobs to found their own companies.

Once you commit to such kind of extreme measure, the safety net is gone. You are choosing the struggle over comfort and have to do everything in your power to succeed.

What most people get wrong when they burn the boats

Unfortunately, many misunderstand the implications of burning the boats. Cutting off all alternatives doesn’t automatically make you succeed. Burning the boats didn’t make the Spanish soldiers succeed. Taking action did. Burning the boats was just a catalyst.

So when you decide to burn the boats and go all out, keep in mind: if it doesn’t work out, you’re fucked. 

If you quit college but don’t take action afterwards to find something better, you are just unemployed and without education.

If you break up with your partner to find someone more suitable but don’t take action afterwards, you just become lonely and isolated.

Burning the boats is a drastic thing to do and should not be used lightly, especially when making major life decisions. Going past that point of no return should be reserved for people who know that they will take action after. Unmotivated people with low ambition and low internal drive on the other hand should not try to artificially motivate themselves by burning the boats. For when it is ‘sink or swim’ for them, they are likely to sink.

How to decide if you should burn the boats

So the main thing to consider when making huge decisions is this: How well do you know yourself? Be honest: How determined are you really? How passionate? How willing are you to go past your capabilities and push your limits? How will you react when times get tough? In short: how much action will you actually take after burning the boats?

You can try that out before fully committing. Set yourself a small goal and see if you achieve it. Put yourself in situations where action is needed and see if you do execute. This way you can get to know yourself better without exposing yourself to too much risk right away.

And if you then still feel like you want to jump in with both feet and you are confident enough to believe in yourself, by all means: burn the boats and never look back.


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