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.