Don’t Burn Your Ships

Several years ago I heard a story about the importance of commitment to motivation:

A general sailed over to an enemy country with his army. While the army slept, he burned the ships down. When they awoke, he told them, since they had no way to get back, they would have to conquer the enemy territory or face exile.

Initially, this seemed like a great parable. If you want to commit to something, cut off your escape routes. Write a letter to your boss saying you’re quitting, and have a friend mail it if you don’t start working on your ideal career in thirty days. Pay for a billboard informing the public you’ll pay $100,000 to anyone who catches you smoking. Force yourself to perform.

Now I’ve realized that this attitude is stupid. While it may increase your motivation to continue, it reduces your motivation to get started. And, as Woody Allen said, “half of life is just showing up.”

Why You Shouldn’t Burn the Ships

First, the ship-burning metaphor assumes that success is entirely within your control. Generally it isn’t. Even with a burning desire to succeed and a great strategy, you can still fail. And failure means you’ve stranded yourself without an alternative route.

If you quit a high-paying job to start an online business, you may go bankrupt before you succeed. You would be intensely motivated the entire time, but it might not be enough. If you had started the business part time, gained some experience and jumped ships when it was in a condition sufficient to pay your bills, that would be smarter.

An Experimental Philosophy

The second reason ship-burning is counterproductive is that it increases the costs of experimenting. I’ve found that the majority of opportunities for improvement and successes have come, not from back-breaking work, but from exploring randomness.

Most major boosts in income for this website have been, not from doing twice as much work, but from finding alternative ways to make money. I started with advertising, moved to affiliates and finally discovered that sales was the most sensible business strategy.

Improvements in many areas of life rely on experimenting and exploring new things. If you take a ship-burning approach, you’ll be hesitant to start. When failures become expensive, you can’t experiment. Unfortunately, experimentation is often necessary for success.

If I were trying to find a girlfriend, I wouldn’t set a deadline for myself. Deadlines promote hard work, but they don’t promote spontaneity. When you have rigid goals, you’re not going to “waste” time exploring unknown opportunities. A friend of mine told me he met his wife on a spontaneous trip to Mexico with two strangers. That might not be an opportunity you explore if your focus is too narrow.

Instead of Burning Ships, Build Bridges

Instead of making it impossible to go back, build a bridge for yourself that allows you to go forward. Darren Rowse, wrote about his strategy for becoming a full-time blogger. He used a monkey bar metaphor: make sure your grip is firmly behind you before you grasp the next rung. It may not be exciting or heroic, but it’s a more rational strategy for achieving your goals.

I’ve said before that I intend to run this business full-time once I graduate from university. Based on my income last year, there is a high likelihood that will work. However, if I’m not earning enough money, taking on part-time work to sustain me until I do is an acceptable strategy. I’m not going to pursue my dreams with less vigor, and my likelihood of success will go up.

The easier you make it to transition between two states, the more likely a switch is. When I decided to become a vegetarian, it started as a test for 30 days. I’m not sure I would have started if I felt it was an unbreakable, lifelong commitment.

What’s the Limiting Constraint?

When you follow goal-setting or productivity advice, it’s always important to keep it in context. Every suggestion that myself or other writers make is designed to use a particular resource that we feel is lacking.

When I suggest following only one thirty day trial per month, that is because I believe focus is the limiting resource for most people and doing 3-5 trials squanders that resource. When I suggest using weekly/daily goals instead of working an eight hour day, that is because I feel energy is the limiting constraint, not the amount of time you have.

Similarly, if you suggest to someone that they burn their ships, then you must believe that motivation to work hard and continue towards a goal is the limiting resource.

I argue that motivation to continue often isn’t in short supply. Burnout, overwork and stress are not rare, and they are often the direct result of too much motivation to continue. I’d argue that instead, motivation to get started and patience while continuing are the limiting constraints, and both of these are harmed by a ship-burning philosophy.

When you cut off your escape routes, it becomes harder to get started. I’m going to require a lot more momentum to become a vegetarian if I feel I’m permanently attached to that lifestyle. Second, patience is reduced. If I have only 6 months to survive with my business, I’m not going to have the patience to watch it grow slowly, instead I’m going to constantly drive for short-term wins out of desperation.

Following advice always needs a context. Little advice is absolute, it’s simply relative based on the advice-giver’s opinion of what’s needed. If motivation to continue is truly the limiting factor then, by all means, set fire to the ships. But if it isn’t, you may only be hurting yourself and reducing the chances you’ll actually reach your goals.

  • Valentino

    interesting, but I’d like to hear more about “sheep-burning”… ; ) just kidding! great article, really..
    I’m prone to this ship-burning strategies, but of course, it’s a weakness… keeping all the bridge alive require more strength, but as you proved, it’s best

    I’ll raise only one exception: ex-partners!

  • Positively Present

    Great advice here. It’s important not to burn your ships or you really will leave yourself stranded.

  • sadg

    It was actually the conqueror Hernan Cortes who sunk his boats, thus the saying. And it worked pretty good as they defeated the Aztecs if I recall correctly. In the Art of War is written that a cornered enemy with no escape will fiercely fight til dead, so you should let him at least think he has an out. It’s also written that you shall build bridges for retreating enemies. There you go again.

    While your point is valid for some, there are some other types of personalities who work way better boat-sunk.

    And by the way, Hernan Cortes did sink all of his boats… but one. The one he needed to keep a connection with the kingdom of Spain for supplys and stuff. I guess that kinda proves your point in a way.

    Damn this whole world of greys.

    À bientôt! 🙂

  • Anthony

    “Don’t burn your ships” – Wise advice. Many people mistake passion for foolishness. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing your passion. You just shouldn’t compromise your future in the process.

  • Scott Young

    There are situations where ship-burning makes sense. I’ve just found as a general strategy for life it fails more often then it works.

  • Enrique S

    I think the burning the ships story is a metaphor for trying too hard. People have a tendency to want to stick to the plan, and this eliminates any chance to improvise. I find that when I try to force things to happen, it feels unnatural, and I put myself under the gun. By keeping an open mind, I’m able to adjust my focus on what works, rather than locking myself in to a path that may be the wrong path.

  • Igor

    Nice point.
    Ship-burning will unnecessary put more stress on you and reduce possible enjoyment during the ride.

    I just want to say, since you often mention it, 30 days concept is NOT first set out by Steve Pavlina. He took it from Earl Nightingale’s audio book “The Strangest Secret in the World”. Steve just didn’t want to give him credit, so he said he created it and made a story about how he did it. And he does it very often.

    Congratulation on your blog, good work.

  • Scott Young


    It wasn’t actually set out by Earl Nightinggale either. If you read ancient Stoic writers, there is mention of similar ideas revolving around one month. But, your point is well taken.

    I credit Steve because he was the person who popularized the idea within the personal development blogging community, and his explanation/personal use of the idea, encouraged me to try it myself.


  • Anelly

    I think that there is a point when burning your ships might creat yuo a panic situation. At least that would happen in my case. There is no turning back but either very good solutions for the future. So, what’s next?

  • Daniel R

    The fact of the matter is in the commitment, not the actual act. If a person is not committed (decided to overcome any obstacle that gets in the way until success is achieved) then no matter how many ships they burn, they will fail.

    The motivation and belief must be present before any “burning of ships” is done. Otherwise it is simply a foolish act that will result in ultimate failure.

    In my experience, people today are always looking for the safety net, not because they can’t do without, however they may want to change their minds in the process. In the days of conquering nations, there was no changing of minds. You either did or died.

  • hermes handbags

    Nice point.
    Ship-burning will unnecessary put more stress on you and reduce possible enjoyment during the ride.

    I just want to say, since you often mention it, 30 days concept is NOT first set out by Steve Pavlina. He took it from Earl Nightingale’s audio book “The Strangest Secret in the World”. Steve just didn’t want to give him credit, so he said he created it and made a story about how he did it. And he does it very often.

    Congratulation on your blog, good work.

  • Setema

    Great article. I coach, speak, an author, etc. and this is a fantastic approach to the whole “burn your ships”.

    You’re right…when people have motivation and drive, then they can be smart about which path gets them to the goal fastest and safest.

    Thank you for your work. I look forward to reading your work.

    God Bless.


  • SquareNinja

    I strongly disagree with your interpretation of the parable in relation to the general populace.

    Let’s look at it this way; for the highly motivated, such as yourself, there may be no need to burn the ship, because you would proceed forward regardless of there being a way to retreat or not.

    However, for the average Joe who needs motivational books and slogans all over his room to motivate him… he needs that ship burned to the ground! For the lazy, average person… what motivation is there for them to get out of their daily doldrum of a life?! None. Absolutely none.

    For the unmotivated, if not pushed or shoved, they will stay on that same monkey bar and never go forward.

  • Sirwilliamf

    I enjoyed your article and the point is well taken–there is profound wisdom in avoiding hasty actions, maintining flexibility, and having an escape or plan B. My only contention would be that context makes all the difference. A friend of mine recently told how he helped encourage a young mother to quit smoking, and how she destroyed all her cigarettes in front of him to solidify her committment. When you KNOW that going back is a bad decision then I say–burn baby, burn!

  • Barry

    What is most easy = to give advice
    What is most difficult = to be oneself
    what is most powerful = necessity, for it overcomes all things

    When there is no way back we become the greatest inventors, the most creative and perform at our best
    Courage is an attribute of the winners, certainty is the holy grail of success

  • Morgan

    When you burn your boats, you’re saying “succeed or die.” When you do this in terms of your career, you’re saying you’re willing to destroy everything you own, destroy your credit, and even be homeless (or worse) in order to succeed. There’s nothing noble or courageous in putting yourself in that kind of situation. You’re simply placing yourself in a bad scenario when you don’t have to.

  • Martin

    What I like about this article (I am first time visitor to this website) is that it puts this advice-mentality – which I feel has even grown since 2009 when the article was written – into a context. Not every good advice is appropriate for everyone at any time.
    My favourite example: Some people really need to understand: “If you want the best for yourself, you also should want the best for others.” While others really need to hear: “If you really want the best for others, you also should want the best for yourself.”

  • Crom_Cake

    Yeah I know it is an old thread, but I had to comment! “Now I’ve realized that this attitude is stupid. While it may increase your motivation to continue, it reduces your motivation to get started.”
    Your doing it WRONG. But you nailed the solution on the head, you do it AFTER you get started…you know, like actually LANDING before you burn the ships? lol. I just imagined you as a military commander trying to follow this advice for the first time. Still in your home port the day before you set off: “Admiral Young, why the F#$% are the boats destroyed?..”

    I advocate a less black and white approach to wisdom/advice. It is often very situational, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it right away. Just my $2…=D