41st Edition: Burning The Boats 🛶
How to avoid returning to a former situation (by making it virtually impossible)
Happy Wednesday, I hope you’re having a wonder-full week.
A metaphor to move forward
“You burned the boats.”
Those four words have been on my mind since I heard them last week at Startupfest.
I was explaining to my old colleagues and some founders I’d worked with that leaving District 3—the startup hub I used to work for—was scary but vital to starting my own business. Here’s why:
Despite conventional wisdom to “start a business as a side project before quitting your nine-to-five,” I knew in my gut that wasn’t an option. Ever worked for a non-profit? If so, it won’t come as a surprise that I didn’t have the time or energy to take on more in my former role. And besides, I’ve always performed best under pressure—when I’m 100% invested in one outcome: success.
So I “burned the boats” as my former colleague said.
“To burn the boats is a metaphor for destroying any safety net you have. To go all in and decide to go after it regardless of the outcome. It originated [in 1519], from the conquering of the Aztecs by Cortez. Once they reached the shore of Mexico Cortez decided to tell his men to burn the boats. Meaning they would either die or conquer the land.”
I first “burned the boats” in 2014. At age 24, I booked a one-way ticket to London with no job, no apartment, and no contacts to jumpstart my life abroad. It was simply me, two overly packed suitcases, and the mindset that I would make it as a Londoner.
I mentally burned the boats that could take me back to the safety of Montreal. I vowed to spend at least one year figuring things out for myself—meaning I wouldn’t jump on a flight home or turn to my parents for financial help no matter what. And while there were many “character-building” challenges, I managed to overcome them.
The lesson here is to make difficult decisions upfront to minimize self-doubt and the likelihood of quitting down the road. Burn your boats back to a former situation you have no interest in returning to and you’ll have greater motivation to move forward.
Having returned to Montreal in May 2020 after moving on from London to live in Sydney and Paris, I now have a monumental sense of independence. Because when I “burned my boats” to Montreal in 2014, I was really burning my youthful mindset. I was embracing adulthood by becoming my own safety net. Ever since I made that shift, I‘ve been less afraid to take on new challenges—like starting my own business.
Risk sharpens the mind
There’s a scene in Modern Family where the dad decides to fulfill his dream of walking a tightrope. He starts practicing on a wire he suspends a mere six inches above his lawn and quickly becomes discouraged when he can’t cross it.
The dad is ready to give up when his son weighs in on the problem.
“Maybe you keep falling because part of you knows that you can fall.
Maybe if the wire was much, much higher you wouldn’t fall.”
After a moment’s pause, the dad declares his son a genius and the pair tear off to set up a higher wire.
It turned out the son was right. Without the option to lightly step down onto the grass should he lose his balance, the dad was ultra-focused. And guess what? He crossed the entire yard—even with the added distraction of his wife and daughters joining as spectators.
Sometimes high stakes give us the motivation we need to rise to a challenge.
🔥 CHALLENGE #1: What safety net must you give up to go after your dream? Whether it’s launching or scaling your business, today’s a great day to burn your boats.
🔥🔥 CHALLENGE #2: How can you help your students or teammates burn their boats back old situations or habits?
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Have a wonder-full week,
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