Burn the Boats: 3 Ways to Apply This Simple Philosophy

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I was about three months into my decade-long marketing career when I knew the field wasn’t right for me. But, what was right for me was the stability of having a job, health insurance, and a career path with potential for progression.

Fast forward about nine and a half years later and I finally built up the courage to let go of that sense of safety and take a risk in quitting my job, doing some volunteer work, and applying to graduate school without a plan B.

I burned my boats.

And, although it happened later in life than it could have, I did ultimately reach my goal of having a fulfilling career. But it took having the courage to take everything off of the backburners and focusing solely on my primary goal in order to get there. It took the courage of setting fire to my boats.

In this article, we are going to look at the origin of the saying, “burn the boats” and then dig into three ways you can apply the concept to your life to help you on your journey toward achieving your goals. 

Let’s start by looking at a bit of history.

The History of Burning Boats

The notion of burning the boats dates back to 1519, when Hernán Cortés led over 600 Spaniards on an expedition to Mexico to secure a large treasure that was said to be located there.

When they arrived at what we know today as Veracruz, Cortés sensed some disloyalty among his men, so he took away their ability to leave their mission by “burning the boats”. 

In doing so, he was able to send an unmistakable message to his troops that there was no going back; their options were to obtain the treasure or die trying. Cortés’ men stood behind their leader, which ultimately led to the successful conquest of the Aztec empire.

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We put the concept of “burning the boats” in quotes because, in reality, Cortés didn’t actually burn the ships, rather he abandoned them on shore after removing useful components that could help the troops build and reinforce their settlement in Mexico.

Still, he rendered the ships useless in terms of traveling, so he removed any perceived safety net that his men may have been holding onto.

So how did this myth become an iconic historical lesson? By taking away their ability to leave Mexico, Cortés was able to ensure that he had enough men to gain power over the significantly larger local armies they were facing.

He was even able to increase the stability of his army by using the military and technological advancements that comprised the ships to help support his team on land.

Can you think of a time that you had to eliminate all temptations of turning back to ensure you reached a personal or professional goal?

In this article, we are going to look at three ways that you can apply “burning the boats” to your life to help ensure your success.

Let’s get started.

Burn the Boats: 3 Ways to Apply This Saying to Your Life

1. Identify What You’re Holding Onto

So often in life we don’t pursue our goals because it would require letting go of our safety net. What are the ships in your life that you’re holding onto? And more importantly…why?

Maybe you’re fearful of letting go of the comfort of your current, stable job. Is that because you’re nervous that you might fail at your endeavor and end up begging your boss to take you back? 

Or maybe you’re refusing to let go of a business deal that you know is going to hurt you in the end. Do you feel a sense of obligation to hold onto the professional relationship? Or what’s preventing you from cutting ties?

Pinpoint what is holding you back from moving forward with what you really want and analyze why you’re hanging on so tightly.

Then compare that reason to the potential benefit of achieving your ultimate goal and determine if it’s worth it to hold yourself back.

If you need a little push, watch the video below to learn about a 7-step process for getting out of your comfort zone to find success in any area of your life.

2. Leadership

Think of any areas of your life in which you’re a leader, or where you could be a leader. How focused are you in that leadership role and how committed are you to the process?

If you keep your “ships” available to maintain a fallback strategy, the people you’re trying to lead will recognize that weak spot in your commitment to the very change that you’re trying to drive. 

If you’re not fully committed, your team won’t be either. But, by burning your ships and taking away any chances of going back to your old ways, you will be able to build a team that’s as committed to your goal as you are. 

For example, if your company is struggling to make ends meet, you may need to make a drastic change, such as removing those from the company that aren’t adding as much to the bottom line as they’re taking away. Make a clear statement by getting rid of the people on your team who are holding you back.

This will send a message to the rest of your employees that you’re serious about moving forward with only the most beneficial people on your team and you’re willing to make any organizational changes that you need to that are in the best interest of the company.

3. Trust Your Judgment

Often, you will see business people staying in their regular jobs while trying to simultaneously start their own business. But in doing so, they’re sending the message that they don’t completely trust that their business model will take off.  

Entrepreneurs may also try to run multiple businesses at once, thinking that if one of them fails, the rest of the businesses will fill in that gap.

While having this safety net might make you feel more comfortable, it also requires you to spend time working on multiple endeavors without giving any of them your full focus and attention, which can ultimately reduce your likelihood of success.

This same idea applies to relationships as well. Because people often fear rejection, they avoid taking the risk that’s required to maintain a committed and fulfilling relationship. They hang onto those two or three people on the backburner just in case a new relationship doesn’t work out. 

Even if you’re not sure what the right decision is, sometimes you just have to make one. You have to go off of the knowledge that you have, calculate the risks, and trust your judgment to guide you on the right path.

And, once you make your decision, you have to be willing to commit to it without second guessing yourself down the road. You have to forget about what “could have” been and focus on whatever is right in front of you.

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How focused are you in that leadership role and how committed are you to the process?

Final Thoughts on Burning the Boats

Whether you’re facing a crossroads in your professional life or you simply want to achieve something specific in your personal life, you have to face your decisions with confidence and commitment that will act as a driving force to push you forward. 

You have to learn how to put your fears aside and act decisively in life so you can stay focused on your goals and set aside any distractions that may otherwise be making noise in the background.

Having these safety nets might make you feel more comfortable, but they will ultimately reduce the amount of effort you’re willing to put into any one project.

So consider the boats that you’re keeping around in your life and what you could do to get rid of them. This will help you focus more on your purpose in life and waste less time on meaningless endeavors.

Sometimes, not letting go of the past stops you from moving forward, even if you've burned your boats. Learn how to let go by reading these articles:

Finally, if you want to level up your productivity and time management skills, then watch this free video about the 9 productivity habits you can build at work.

Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.

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