Burn Your Ships.
Today we are covering the benefits of pre-commitment. Giving yourself fewer options is beneficial. As we will see, the oft given advice to “Avoid burning your bridges” can ensure that you fail.
Quick note: I will be using the terms ship burning and bridge-burning interchangeably in this essay.
A short history lesson.
In 711, the famous Iberian general Tariq ibn Ziyad, who gave Gibraltar its name, decided to invade Spain.
He took an army of 7000 Muslims across from Northern Africa to Southern Spain. Once everyone arrived, the commanders asked him what they should do with the ships. Should they leave a garrison behind to guard them? How should they divide the forces between who stays and defends the ships and who goes forward and conquers.
> Burn all ships.
Tariq knew he would be outnumbered from the start and so did not want to dilute his forces, so he created a point-of-no-return.
From there on, it was either conquer or die. The rest, as they say, is history. Spain becomes an Islamic stronghold for close to eight hundred years.
Let’s skip forward eight hundred years to 1519 and discuss Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro (let’s call him Cortés). He was a Spanish conquistador, and was searching for gold and silver. This convinced him to leave Cuba and land in Mexico. He had between five hundred and eight hundred men with him on eleven ships.
During the initial encounters,, the natives gifted the conquistadors a large amount of gold. The natives, quite intelligently, didn’t value gold as much as the Europeans.
After all, you can’t eat it, and it’s a lousy building material.
Quickly, things turned nasty, and Cortés found himself at war with over 200 tribes. Many of his soldiers were quite wary of going inland towards unexplored territory. They preferred to stay near the coast, where they could retreat to the ships if necessary. Cortés had, quite literally, a spark of ingenuity and burnt all his ships.
His small army knew that there was no possibility of retreat. I can imagine that this didn’t make him the most popular man in Mexico. I guess one could judge Cortés’s success on the basis taht Spanish is now the de facto national language spoken by the majority of Mexicans.
So what can we learn from this?
Both Tariq and Cortés created artificial points-of-no-return. This helped them overcome incredible odds to achieve their aims.
I’ve mentioned before that the best way to have rock-solid willpower is to avoid having to exercise it. By destroying any hope of retreat or surrender, both men increased the odds of their success. The point is that it’s pretty easy to make a choice when you only have one option.
You may have heard advice to “avoid burning your bridges.”
This saying comes from the military tactic of destroying the bridge over the river, leading you into enemy territory.
Can you trust your future self?
We often believe that we will act in a different way in the future compared to the present. We all think we will have more time, money, wisdom, and patience.
That’s a story we tell ourselves.
In reality, we need to take concrete steps to constraint our future selves. Almost as if we were dealing with another person, and in some ways, we are!
If you are making mistakes now in the present moment, don’t think that in the future you will not make the same mistakes again. Of course, that is if you don’t force yourself to avoid making them. All decisions taken today will generally be the same in the future. It’s far better to plan and give ourselves no choice but to act how we want in the future.
The more self-discipline you have, the more you can trust your future self, but you should make this assumption:
In the future, I will act in the same way as I am acting now.
This is demonstrated by the fact that many of us perennially put off important tasks. Think of a high school student not doing his homework, a university student not working on his thesis, and a working adult not working on his work project.
Each of them tells themselves that they will do it tomorrow, but when tomorrow becomes today. They will take the same action and postpone it to a new tomorrow. This goes on until there is very little time left, and they are forced to take action. The results are usually not that inspiring.
There is a flip side of thinking of our future selves as an improved version of our current selves. It is that we tend to dramatically overestimate how much work we will be able to complete in a given time frame. The problem is that we are not able to know what problems our future selves will have.
If you are stressed out now, you will probably be stressed out about something else in the future. If you haven’t got time because you are busy in the present, you will probably also find yourself too busy in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, we tend to think of our future selves as entirely different people. Due to the nature of the future, the very best scenario is that we can only have a vague idea of what situations we will find ourselves in.
The vast majority of people hate uncertainty and the lack of control associated with it so they prefer not to think about the future. This leads us to indulge in instant gratification. This is because it’s almost as if another person will have to deal with the future problems caused by our current behaviour.
So the answer is: No, you cannot trust your future self.
So what can be done?
There is quite a lot that we can do to change ourselves. Generally, it involves slowly developing positive daily habits that you can trust your future self to accomplish. You can then build on that until you build your willpower to the necessary extent to trust your future self to make difficult decisions. This can be a long process and, by its very nature, cannot guarantee results. The more you can bring in life your idea of your future self to the way you are now, the more you can rely on your future self.
You might eat healthy day in day out and then find that you go to a party and complete splurge out. This is even though you have been diligent for weeks or months on end.
Sometimes, like in the historical examples I gave earlier, one requires absolute certainty. You need the certainty that you, or others you depend on, will not retreat from hardship.
That’s where ship – or bridge-burning comes into play.
The quick guide to ship burning.
So how does one go about burning a ship? To put it simply:
> It’s the action you take that cannot be reversed and dramatically decreases the number of options available to you in the future. It’s reaching, and surpassing, the point of no return.
This could be anything:
- Telling your boss to go and fuck himself.
- Divorcing your spouse.
- Going for that first kiss.
- Committing a crime.
- Not going to University
- And so on…
I guess that the odd one out in the list above seems to be “Going to University” at a glance. After all, we are told that we will burn our bridges if we don’t go to university, so how can going to university possibly cause us to burn bridges?
Well, everything has an opportunity cost, including going to university. After all, one needs to choose a particular field of study, which will prevent many career and study options for the future.
Almost any action, or series of steps, cause you to burn certain bridges.
The fact of the matter is that you cannot go through life without burning bridges. It’s quite simply a matter of life. It’s what happens.
It’s completely unavoidable.
With that fact in mind, it makes no sense to ignore the way we burn bridges. We should embrace this and see how bold we can be with it. You don’t have to go as far as Cortés or Tariq to gain the benefits of strategic ship burning.
The benefits of ship burning.
Controlling your future self.
The most essential and valuable benefit of burning your ships is that you can control your future self. By limiting your future options, you can insure yourself against any acts of “cowardice” that your future self might suffer. This, of course, requires a strong belief that you are right.
This is extremely useful when you have a challenging task to complete. You set up the conditions which will increase the chances of achieving your task.
I often follow this when I want to study for a certain amount of time, but I worry that I will procrastinate or else be distracted. I walk to a coffee shop about fifteen minutes away from my apartment, which I know does not have wifi.
There I can use my laptop without the usual online distractions. Of course, I could turn off my wifi at home, but the point is that I want to make it difficult enough (i.e., a fifteen-minute walk back home) that it’s not worth taking action to check something online. I often find that I work at least twice as efficiently as I do at home.
This is not an extreme example of burning ships, but it’s an example of an easy way to integrate a ship burning into your daily life.
It forces you to prepare as well as you can.
You can bet that both Tariq and Cortés didn’t take their duties lightly. They were in a life or death situation, and so one can imagine the preparation they submitted themselves (and their soldiers) to. Nothing is unnecessarily left to chance. If you set yourself up in a situation where there is no turning back, you can bet that you will want to be prepared for it.
It shows everyone that you mean business.
Let’s take another example from history and go back to the Cold War. When one thinks about it, it’s pretty amazing that all the nations involved in nuclear weapons did not end up going to war. Especially, the United States of America and the Soviet Union managed to have enough restraint to avoid causing a nuclear armageddon.
There were plenty of reasons for this, but one that particularly stands out is the clear threat that all nuclear powers gave to their enemies.
Clear policies and protocols were in place for an automatic retaliation to a nuclear strike. Future, potentially complicated actions that would lead to millions of people’s death had been ahead of time.
Ironically, this level of pre-commitment to nuclear retaliation ensured that nobody fired a single missile.
The Soviet Union was not under the impression that it could get away with a nuclear strike on the United States because the United States had already burnt its ships on the topic of retaliation.
The opposite scenario was also true.
The interesting fact here, which applies to many ship burning examples, is that the very act of burning one ship may well have been the cause of success. Would Cortés have conquered Mexico if he had his flotilla waiting offshore?
Maybe, maybe not.
Burnings bridges can increase your creativity. While it may appear counterintuitive, it does make sense. Limitations improve creativity by narrowing your field of focus, and burning a bridge is another type of limitation.
Why does it work?
Well, it gives you a lot less to think about. Forcing yourself to make some decision from the onset frees you up to be creative within that framework.
Let’s imagine you want to write and publish a book of poems in a year’s time. You could write as it comes to you, but you may spend a lot of time thinking about form. This in itself is not a bad thing, but you may find that given so much choice, you become paralyzed.
If you burn a bridge and announce that you will publish a book of Haikus, which is a type of Japanese poem that consists of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.
Haikus are easy,
But sometimes they don’t make sense,
Suddenly the whole discussion on the form is out of the window because you have given yourself a rigid structure to adhere to. Now you can concentrate on getting your message across.
Our minds love a challenge.
When you place an unusual constraint on yourself, your mind has to look for unconventional ways to surpass this limitation. The result is that creativity flourishes, and you gain a new skill.
I call that a win in my book.
The fallacy of the safety net.
The main argument against burning your bridges is that you might regret it later if things go wrong. It might all go wrong.
I say, so what?
Things do go wrong in life. Nothing ever goes as planned, but always having a safety net will only ensure one thing: that you don’t do what you want to do.
What do you think could have happened to Cortés or Tariq if they had not burnt their ships? They might have succeeded anyway, or they might have failed because they were aware that they could retreat to safety at any time.
Life is not about always being safe.
Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing.
Think of all the great accomplishments.
Inventions, artistic triumphs, social upheavals. Do you think the people involved were playing it safe?
Evolution itself thrives on risk-taking. Actual, many risks do not pay off, but those that do can give you back all your effort one hundredfold. It’s all about being smart, applying the 80/20 rule, and having the cojones get out there and do something.
When not to burn your ships.
While it may appear that I am advocating unbridled risk-taking, it’s actually quite the opposite. As I alluded to earlier, you need to correct yourself before you burn your ships. This requires a solid plan and an even more solid conviction that the plan can work.
Things may not go to plan, but that’s life.
Nothing is inevitable, and, as I have often mentioned, we have very little control. Burning your ships is a tool you can use to help you control your future actions according to your current beliefs. Hence it shouldn’t be something you do without thought.
The problem with burning your ships is that you not only have to know you’re right. You also have to make sure that you will be right in the future when you might appreciate the possibility of retreat.
As we cannot predict the future, this is impossible. You cannot be sure that you are right about something that hasn’t happened. There is always a degree of uncertainty.
So does that negate the whole practice of burning your bridges? Of course not! If we took that attitude, we would never leave the house because we wouldn’t be confident that we would arrive to work safely. It’s all about the intelligent calculation of your risks.
Do you think Tariq would have burnt his ships when he got to Spain if he didn’t believe that he could beat his opponents?
Tariq was confident of his abilities as a general, but at the same time, he kept in mind that war is unpredictable and things don’t always go smoothly.
Wise people know this and handle the ups and downs as a natural part of life. Tariq couldn’t be sure that his army would see this in the same light, and so cutting off the option for the retreat was a good call.
So, as usual, it all requires a good deal of thinking.