Commitment Strategy

When to burn your ships and burn your bridges

About 500 years ago, on landing in what’s now Mexico, Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernán Cortés burned* his ships to motivate his troops to focus on their invasion of the Aztec empire. 

The actor Thomas Jane, who had gotten his start in India’s Bollywood, sold his car on arrival in Los Angeles in order to pay for acting lessons. He then lived on the street, and in a shed, until his career took off. Just as Cortés before, Jane liquidated his vehicle as a mechanism for advance.

They both traded mobility for motivation. They both worked.

People talk a lot about being careful not to burn bridges. It usually centers on some disagreement at work or involving money. Essentially, the term is deployed as a warning not to let some minor trouble shatter a profitable partnership. It’s typically brought up in the negative.

But burning ships is often given a positive spin. A grudging respect. It’s looked at like something we should tip our cap to, for someone who’s got guts and grit.

But burning bridges and burning ships are a little too similar to elicit different responses. To burn a “ship” is a strategy that destroys something physical to gain or signal commitment, while to burn a “bridge” is a strategy that destroys a relationship to gain or signal commitment. They’re both underutilized out of fear. They both should be used more often. 

We should burn both when the risk of status quo is greater than then harm done by the loss of either. We should burn both when the gain from the shock is greater than the asset’s loss.

Choosing the flame recognizes morale is often more valuable than a physical object. That’s why Napoleon once said that at war, the “moral is to the physical as three to one.”

That said, it’s still tough to choose commitment by dispatching stuff (things and people). We can see stuff. We can’t see morale. We can’t see motivation. We can’t see will.

But we know it’s there. 

To burn ships and bridges takes willpower. It privileges the moral over the physical. It’s getting more from less. Done right, it creates power. And when the energy created in that choice exceeds the value of the stuff…well, get your gas and grab your matches. It’s time to burn.

I’m all for it. When the time is right, burn. Burn big, burn bright, burn those ships and bridges because their fires will light the way to success. 

Why do we keep around ships and bridges that aren’t going anywhere?

My own bias in this is that I see too many people compromise. Give in. Cling to bridges to nowhere and ships that’ll never sail. Holding on to such poor personal infrastructure is a sign of low self-confidence, a belief in dependence on others for success. Of course, success is often validated socially, but this sort of dependency hobbles progress.

There is no free lunch, no costless gain. To burn a ship or burn a bridge is to recognize that every objective is a cost/benefit analysis. Particularly when it comes to strategy, because there’s an ongoing competition with a hostile adversary or environment. On the first day of the bloodiest campaign of the American Civil War, commander of Union forces Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant told a reporter, “If you see the President [Lincoln], tell him, from me, that, whatever happens, there will be no turning back.” He went on to grind the Confederates down until they could fight no longer, a choice to which his predecessors would not commit. 

It may be that in the end, to burn a ship or bridge is less important than that the person is willing to burn the ship or bridge. Because this isn’t about enjoying flames or liking big bonfires. It’s about being willing to dispatch assets that others wouldn’t, in order to commit to advance on a particular target. 

So when the time’s right, I say burn, baby burn.

*“Burned” may be a bit much—Cortés certainly destroyed them, but would have salvaged as much supply as possible before rendering the ships unusable.

*Afterthought: “I don’t need time. I need a deadline.” (Duke Ellington)

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Really, what do you think? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt