When starting a new venture, should one "burn the ships" so that they have no choice but to succeed? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Throw "new job burn the ships" or "entrepreneur burn the ships" into Google and you'llmust . Those are just some random links from the first page of results for each search. I didn't even look at the next pages to see how deep that rabbit hole goes. (Perhaps it'd be better to say "how deep that ocean goes.")
The metaphor refers to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 1500s, led by Hernán Cortés. After conquering Veracruz, Cortés motivated his men to continue the highly dangerous mission -- or, you might say, de-incentivized them to discontinue it -- by scuttling (sinking) the ships that had carried them from Spain to the New World. Over time, as this bit of history became legend, the narrative changed to say that Cortés burned the ships, which is probably a more dramatic mental image to most people. Also, I did find one link that (mis)attributed the entire tale to Christoper Columbus instead of Cortés, so why let facts get in the way of a good story?
In any case, the modern business worldand business writers love the idea of "burning the ships" as an analogy for commitment. The idea is that if you leave yourself no direction to proceed but toward your goal, then you must proceed toward your goal, and you will succeed at it. Very often, writers touting this story throw in a good dose of shaming as well -- saying you're not really committed, or even that you'll never succeed, if you don't burn your ships. Sometimes they cite their own personal stories, or those of a famous businessperson, as proof.
There is an indisputably important point in the story: you can't half-ass something and expect to succeed. You certainly won't succeed if all you do is plan and research, and you never go on to the execution. But do you really need to go all-or-nothing?
I say no, for two reasons.
1) Cortés and his men were in a highly political, life-or-death situation. You are not. Let's say you'd spent weeks on a wooden boat (not a cruise ship or a yacht), and you've landed in a place unlike any you'd ever seen before. This strange new place is filled with people who call the place home and would rather like to stay in it. It's your job to conquer or kill them. They will definitely respond by trying to kill you. Doesn't it actually sound kind of reasonable to get back on the boat and go home?
Cortés was no fool. He knew that what he was doing was unbelievably dangerous, and that any sane man would cut and run at the first opportunity; in his case, the stakes were high enough that it may have been stupid not to scuttle the ships. Cortés was working at the behest of the Spanish crown to secure Mexico for colonization. Failure didn't just mean that Spain might not get to colonize Mexico -- it could very reasonably be seen as treason. And if France, England, or anyone else had beaten him to the same turf, he'd go down in history as the guy who mucked it up for Spain. So, he made sure that cutting and running wasn't an option.
But what about you? What's going to happen if you don't commit 110% of your life to your new venture? Will someone else in your niche kill you because you weren't sufficiently prepared? Will historians cluck their tongues as they pen the paragraph about how it could have been you who succeeded, but it wasn't? What king is going to put your head on a block for messing up? Let's have a little perspective, here.
2) "Burning the ships" simply isn't how most businessmen succeed. It's romantic, it's exciting, it speaks to our collective American fantasy about hard work and determination being all you need to guarantee success. But it just ain't true, if you take a look at even a few of the biggest names in self-made business success. Mark Zuckerberg didn't quit Harvard to found Facebook -- he did it in his dorm room. Sara Blakely researched the hosiery business and founded Spanx in her apartment while working full-time selling fax machines. YouTube was created while its founders were employed full-time at PayPal. Netflix was built on a $2.5 million start-up investment from Reed Hastings, along with the lessons he and Marc Randolph had already learned from founding and running similar businesses. Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington likewise built Valve Corporation on the backs of lucrative first careers at Microsoft. And Oprah Winfrey, one of the most legendary of all American success stories, simply worked her way up -- starting with a high school job at a local radio station. Even Richard Branson started his first business, a magazine, at age 16 while still living with his parents; interviewing musicians for the magazine flowed into Branson advertising and selling records in the magazine, then opening a record store, and finally founding the Virgin record label. The first time he "burned the ships" was when he sold the record label to EMI for half a billion GBP -- to support a little company called Virgin Airways.
And yes,and did quit Facebook to start Quora -- after years of experience working on the cutting edge of social media and making connections throughout Silicon Valley.
Everyone loves the idea that if they just dream big enough and fight hard enough, they'll succeed -- and I think this feeds into the dangerous myth that "burning the ships" is in fact the only way to succeed. Little could be farther from the truth. Like so many other things, most successes in life aren't about dramatic leaps and bounds -- they're about doing good research, making smart plans, and then putting in the grind, bit by bit, day by day.
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