Burn the boats

Burn the boats

“I decided to burn the boats” He said to me without blinking.

“You what now?” I replied.

He burned the boats. He was setting up an entrepreneurship (boat pun intended) in Vietnam, teaching English in an innovative new way. And was running out of money. Fast.

Staying in a cheap hostel, nourished by the complimentary breakfast and a bowl of noodle soup. No lunch. Living on a budget of 8 $ a day.

If we rewind to just before he said he burned the boats you would have heard me ask why he didn’t get a job, or worked for accommodation in the hostel. But he didn’t want to. He wanted to be stressed, to make every coin count, to be on the edge of homelessness and poverty.

When the Spanish conquistador Cortés arrived on the shores of what is now modern-day Mexico, determined to conquer the Aztec empire, he ordered his men to burn the boats (ships) they had arrived on. Without the means to escape his men would not consider it an option and commit to victory instead.

My friend wanted to keep his entrepreneurial spirit sharp. He wanted to commit to victory. He knew that if he got a job (especially in a hostel with an abundance of alcohol and party people), he would not be as committed to seeing his visions through and his chances of success would decrease.

He could have decided on safety, teaching English at a local school, making a bit of money while he built his company in his spare time. Little by little. But he knew that if he did, it would be too easy for him to become comfortable and settle in his safety when entrepreneurship became hard.

Instead he burned the boats. He dedicated his life to his project, and worked on it 16 hours a day because otherwise he wouldn’t make it – he was running out of money and had to go home when he did. There simply was no other option for him if he wanted to finish his project. An exemplary feat of dedication.

Seeing your visions through takes dedication. The bigger they are, the more dedication you need.

And burning the boats is a great way to stay dedicated.

To burn the boats is a metaphor. These are actual boats and not for burning

Today we abstain from setting things on fire (please don’t set a real boat on fire). But making it more difficult to give up and commit to succeeding is a great strategy to help us reach our goals. To keep us dedicated.


How to burn the boats in everyday life

Let other people know your commitment

Telling others what you’ve planned to achieve is a great way to make it more difficult for yourself to give up. You don’t want to lose face by failing so you put social pressure on yourself to succeed. And few things are as powerful as social pressure.

The more detail you share, such as when and how to achieve it, the more pressure you put on yourself.

Usually we don’t like to put pressure on ourselves because it doesn’t feel good and it can be stressful, but social pressure is different. It doesn’t break you because if you fail, the worst consequence is that you do lose face. Which can be slightly painful, but not irreversible. And remember: what you want to achieve will benefit you, so you’re doing yourself a favour.

If you want to become dedicated to succeeding, pressure might be just what you need.

I’ve done this with almost every project I’ve started, from quitting smoking, to writing a novel, and it works. As soon as you say the words out loud to someone else (preferably someone close to you) they become real. And so does you commitment.

The more I said it and the more people I said it to, my commitment grew because it became more real with every word. When I decided to write a novel, I didn’t tell anyone for months because I wasn’t sure if I would actually do it. But what I was really doing was avoiding commitment. As soon as I started telling people, I committed and I worked harder and more often with each person I told.

Share your commitment with others and reap the results. It requires almost no extra work and is probably one of the easiest pieces of advice to implement.


Put obstacles in your escape route

If you’re a firefighter, this might be counterproductive. If you’re not and your escape route is mental, continue reading.

It can be difficult to take the plunge to completely burn the boats and continue beyond the point of no return, where you can’t go back. But you can make the road to surrender more difficult – and thereby less attractive.

Telling others of your commitment is one of those strategies. My friend deciding not to have the safety of an income is another.

Burn the boats and make your escape route less accessible

If you have difficulty committing and seeing you projects through, it could help you to have an escape route like the one on the right.

Keep those obstacles in mind when escape becomes attractive – because at one point it will.

Remember that the goal of this exercise is for you to commit to reaching what you want. You’re doing this for you. If you have problems committing and give up when it becomes tough, you need to make that escape route less accessible and attractive.


So, make a commitment to yourself, by making a commitment to your projects, and see them through. Escape might seem sweet at times, but in the long run you’ll feel unfulfilled in life if you don’t achieve your goals. Burn the boats.

Click one of the buttons below and share this advice with someone close to you who would be happier if they could find more dedication in life.

All the best.

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