Burn The Ships

“Is this what I want to be? This? Is this all I’ve got—is this everything I can give? Is this going to be my life? Do I accept that?”

-Jocko Willink

When Hernan Cortez arrived in the new world in 1519 with 600 men, one of his first directives was to burn the ships that brought them across the Atlantic. The message was clear: there is no going back.* 

This might seem a bit extreme. Cortez couldn’t have known what the future held, or what lurked in those thick jungles before him. Why wouldn’t he have kept the option of a speedy retreat open? For all he knew, that option could’ve saved lives, including his own.

But he burned the ships.

A mere two years later, Cortez had conquered the mighty Aztec Empire.

Without getting into the morality of Cortez’s actions, there is a great lesson we can take from his approach. You increase the chances of getting what you want when you increase the difficulty of backing out.

“Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision; instead we are always changing the vision.” -GK Chesterton

How To Follow His Example

This is something I think about often this time of year. It’s a time of envisioning who we could be, and setting new goals to get us to that version of ourselves. It’s also notoriously a time of failing at that process. I think there’s a danger to dreaming things we never enact. It seems to cause, as Jordan Peterson puts it, a “spiritual sickness.” We see what could be – our potential – but we often only take a few steps in that direction before we decide it’s too hard, or we convince ourselves it’s not that important, and we head back to our ships. But that dream doesn’t go away. It gnaws at us, suggesting that not only is it important, it is vital to our development as a human being.

I’m inspired by people who put this principle into action. Boy, is it scary, but if the goal is important enough, then facing a bit of fear is worth it. 

Tim Ferriss tells the story of once giving his friend an unflattering picture of himself in his underwear; he asked that the picture be posted online if he didn’t hit his health goals by a certain date.

He also tells the story of a Jewish man writing a check to the National Socialist Nazi Party and asking a dedicated friend to mail it in if he didn’t reach his goal. Guess what? He reached his goal.**

What do both of these examples have in common? These people wanted something so badly, they were willing to purposefully increase the consequences of failure, to the point that failure would be more painful than actually working towards their goal.

Another way to burn your proverbial ships would be to take away any chance of failure at all. For example, I once decided to start sleeping on the floor to help my bad back (an idea I got from Katy Bowman), but kept finding myself crawling back into bed when the floor became too uncomfortable. So, I burned my ship by giving my bed away. It was challenging at first, but I eventually learned to sleep comfortably on the floor and my back feels much better.

Light The Fire

Again, I’ll be the first to admit these examples seem extreme. I’ll also be the first to argue that your personal growth, success, and fulfillment is worth taking some extreme measures. It increases your chances of developing discipline. And the better we become for ourselves, the better we can be for others. 

So this year, while you’re making your resolutions, I’d encourage you to take your dreams seriously enough to burn your ships. Believe in yourself enough to take that risk. Send a signal to your subconscious that you believe you’re capable of bigger and better things, and you’re willing to put something on the line to prove it. And please share with us and others how you’re taking away the option of retreat. Whether it be hiring a personal trainer, signing up for a float membership, or finally proposing to the love of your life, we’ll all benefit from your inspiration.

I’ll be doing the same.

Here’s to seeing by the light of the fire we start in 2022. Cheers.


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*While Cortez did destroy his ships, it has been noted that he most likely did not burn them. I chose to use the imagery of burning the ships both because of its acceptance in the cultural narrative and it’s just so dramatic that I feel it really drives the point home.

**I ended up being unable to find the link to Tim telling this story, but I promise you it happened. I hope you can be inspired by the courage of this man regardless of whether there’s a citation or not.