No turning back
In 1519, spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived on the shores of Mexico with 11 ships, around 600 men and 16 horses. His mission? To destroy the mighty Aztec Empire and secure Mexico for the Spanish crown. Cortes, despite forging alliances with local tribes who despised the Aztecs, was heavily outnumbered, so the command he issued next obviously caused significant anxiety among his men.
Burn the boats.
His men looked at each other in disbelief. Was he out of his Mind? By having his ships destroyed, he effectively removed any possibility of a safe retreat in case things weren’t going so well; those ships were their get-out-of-jail-free card. What if the Aztecs would gather reinforcements, what if the Spaniard’s own allies would betray them, what if the invading party would fall victim to disease or the countless dangers of the jungle, what if, what if, what if…
How the story ends has been well documented. Cortes started his campaign and two years later he had secured what is now Mexico for the Spanish crown.
Don’t give yourself an easy out when things become tough
Whether Cortes’s story is historically true or purely anecdotal is not known. And to be honest, it’s also not very important whether it is or not. What’s important are a few interesting things we can draw from it.
When he gave the command to burn the boats, what he effectively did was remove any possibility for not moving forward. There simply was no other option. It was, quite literally, do or die. He most likely was fully aware that his men knew what they were up against; he probably also knew that as long as the safe haven of the boats and the retreat to safety they promised was available, they would not give it their all, because they still entertained huge uncertainties about the outcome of that campaign. Taking away that get-out-of-jail-free card brought laser-like focus to the campaign: The Human Mind was being deprived of its favorite “path of least resistance” option. All of a sudden it was not about what’s easiest or most convenient anymore. All of a sudden it was about going out and doing their best and succeeding in the process.
Once you are clear on where you want to go, start removing options
“Burn the boats” is not advocating recklessness or having no Plan B. It merely suggests that Plan Bs might occasionally be overrated or even a hindrance – and that a little boldness sometimes can get things done.
Because we all have boats lying in the harbor of our Mind and soul. Beautiful, proud ships, bobbing gently on the azure blue waters. Ready for us to board anytime when Life gets a little too wild, a little too unpredictable. Our boats are the things we know, the things we believe will shelter us from the perceived dangers of uncertainty. They can take many shapes and forms: Our boats can look like jobs we have been doing for years or decades. They can look like relationships we have been hanging on to for a long time. They can resemble the same circle of friends we have had around us since forever. They can even be something as intangible yet real as beliefs we insist on keeping.
And sometimes, just sometimes, a closer inspection of the beautiful, proud ships reveals that they are rotten below the waterline. They may promise safety and certainty but they will never get us anywhere because they are destined to sink. Yes, they can keep you afloat and prevent you from drowning. But even if they keep you from drowning, you’re still treading water and going absolutely nowhere. Those particular boats simply might not be seaworthy anymore and while they may do their job anchored in the harbor satisfactorily, they will never take you places.
Setting fire to your precious boats by your own hand and watch them go down in flames in your harbor can be one of the most terrifying things you have ever done. The sense of “Oh crap, what now?? What have I done??” can be absolutely overwhelming. On the other side of that decision, though, may lie things you could have never imagined.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having boats in your harbor – if they support you on your journey, not anchoring you down with chains.
Remember, Cortes did just fine.
Interested in a little harbor cleaning yourself? Drop me a line, and let’s talk.