August 14, 2018

To Be Successful, Burn Your Boats


Article by Naphtali Hoff

“If you want to take the island, you need to burn the boats.” — Tony Robbins

Nearly five years ago, I was facing an important decision — a career crossroads that, depending on its outcome, would greatly impact my professional future. I had spent the past 15 years in education as a teacher, principal, and adjunct professor. I was leaving a school principal post at the end of the school year and debating whether to seek another similar post or to transition into coaching and consulting. I left both doors open for a while before committing firmly to the latter. I hung up a shingle and got to work.

The first year was tough. Compounding the fact that I was trying to build credibility, brand myself, and make meaningful connections in a new field, I was also dealing with a family relocation across the country. As you can imagine, my phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the wall during the first few months. But even then, when I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills, I had no regrets. I was committed to my new direction and had burned my boats. There was no looking back.

The concept of “burning boats” is often traced back to an apocryphal story associated with the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés. In 1519, Cortés led a large expedition to Mexico. The goal: capture a magnificent treasure said to be held there.

Upon arrival, Cortés destroyed his ships. This sent a clear message to his men: There was no turning back. They would either win, or they would perish.

Within two years, Cortés and his men had conquered the Aztec Empire.

(Some trace the concept even further back in history, to the times of Julius Caesar or even the Ancient Greeks. Regardless, the message stands.)

At its essence, “burning boats” represents a point of no return, a psychological commitment to crossing a line you can never turn back from. There is no hedging, no looking over your shoulder. Everything now — all thoughts and efforts — must be focused on succeeding in this new reality.

Whether you are facing a true crossroads or simply want to achieve great things in your career or personal life, you must approach your decision with a level of commitment that will drive you definitively forward. If you lead others, you must find a way to gain their commitment to ensure you all work together toward a common goal.

“Burning boats” is a useful concept for business decisions as well, especially at times of great market and/or organizational change. Kodak, for example, had to burn its boats to reinvent its business model when it made the transition from selling film products to offering digital services, too. Darwin E. Smith, CEO of Kimberly-Clark, made a strategic decision to sell his company’s paper mills and invest the money in brands like Kleenex and Huggies. At the time, Smith was mercilessly ridiculed by the media. However, the strategy turned out to be a brilliant maneuver, as Kimberly-Clark subsequently outperformed Procter & Gamble and gained full control of Scott Paper.

Too often, we see examples of would-be entrepreneurs holding on to their jobs while trying to set up new businesses. This suggests a lack of faith in one’s own business model. Other entrepreneurs operate multiple businesses under the belief that if one business fails, the others will save them. These choices might make sense from the perspective of holding on to a life preserver, but they minimize the likelihood of success.

The same holds true in personal relationships: We fear rejection, so we float around, never taking the risks necessary to find and sustain deep, fulfilling relationships.

There are times in our lives when we need to make decisions — even when the correct path is unclear. We can only gather as many facts as we can, measure the risks, and use our best judgments and the insights of others to guide us forward. Once we make a decision, we have to be willing to stick with it. We cannot allow fear and second-guessing to derail us. Instead of focusing on the what-ifs, concentrate on the task at hand and the steps needed to be successful.

Safety nets and escape routes can protect us from pain and injury, but they also tend to reduce the effort, focus, and commitment we invest in a process. Once you have made a choice, you have to be willing to burn the boats behind you.

Trust your inner voice. Pursue your dreams. Never look back.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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