Burn Your Boats

Despite our best laid plans and intentions, sometimes things just don’t go our way.

It’s the reason we have backup plans and Plan B’s. It’s why we’re researching our next move while still trying to make headway with the goal we’re working on. It’s why we create pacts with our girl/guy friends in order to not end up alone and unmarried.

We have backup plans, and some of us, backup-backup plans. We think we’re the MacGyver’s of our life, ready for anything at a moment’s notice. Life is unpredictable, but we rationalize that we are always prepared with an arsenal of options.

I’m someone who lives with a game plan, what I call a “GP” for short. From the moment I wake up, everything from where I’m going to what I’m teaching is detailed to the “T” with a “GP”. Does that mean I can’t go off-the-cuff? Of course not. If I’m honest, some of my best classes to date have been the in-the-moment-fly-from-the-seat-of-my-pants-classes. Why? Because I had to figure it the F out in the moment. I didn’t have time to reach for a backup plan and in some of those instances, I didn’t have a lesson with me that day because I hadn’t planned on teaching that particular class.

The moment we’re put to the fire, we can do-or-die, or we can do-or-sigh – and most of us when put to the test with no other option but to figure it out, do just that.

But, I’m not gonna lie, there’s something very comforting in having a plan. And a backup plan (and because I’m neurotic like that, a backup-backup plan. You can never be too safe, you know?).

The reason backup plans are so enticing is because they provide a sense of security, a safety net that we can jump to should our original plan not go as intended. Empirically we know that life is unpredictable and the path to success is not an easy one, but knowledge and acceptance are two very different things. When given the choice between sticking to our plan A through the difficult and uncertain moments and jumping ship to Plan B which seems safer, our brain will choose the safer option every damn time.

Retreat is easy if you have the option.

This isn’t to say that options are bad; just that options, when it comes to our goals, dreams and pursuits, give us a false sense of control and detract from the real priorities at hand.

When I was in the early days of recovering from my eating disorder, my life was full of backup and contingency plans. My goal was to be recovered but when I didn’t like the number on the scale (even though I promised myself I wouldn’t get on), when I ate something that was “bad”, when something in my life was not exactly how I wanted it to be, instead of dealing with the difficult feelings of shame or allowing myself to not be ok – to invest in the hard parts of recovery – I reached for my backup plan and my backup-backup plans.

I’d rationalize it was only this one time. I’d promise myself never again. I’d have a little less to eat and tell myself that I wasn’t back in the eating disorder because, well, it wasn’t like I didn’t eat. I’d work out a little more and I’d tell myself it wasn’t the same as before because I didn’t spend as much time at the gym. The cleanses, diet pills, missed meals and time at the gym became the quick-fix backup plans that made me feel like I had a clean slate to work toward my recovery. But instead of finding recovery, I’d find another excuse, another reason, another option that felt easier and safer than the path I said I wanted to be on.

Options make us feel safe and satisfy our need for control, giving us an out when things get tough.

You know the phrase, “when the going gets tough…the tough gets going”? Well, when the going gets tough and you have a backup plan, you’re likely to reach for that than to persevere on.

It’s why many leaders throughout history have gone to great lengths to avoid a backup plan. Ancient military commanders would burn their boats when they arrived at the battlegrounds to banish any thought of retreat.

The concept of burning boats traces back to 1519 when Hernan Cortes led a large expedition consisting of 600 Spaniards, 16 or so horses, and 11 boats to Mexico with the goal to conquer an empire that had amassed a fortune of gold, silver and precious gems. For well over 600 years, many had fought to take the Aztec treasure and none had succeeded. (Some date this concept of burning boats even further back in history, to the times of Julius Caesar – in his conquest of England – or even the Ancient Greeks. Regardless, the scenarios and impact were similar).

But the day that Cortes and his troops arrived on the shores of Mexico, Cortes said three simple words that changed everything: burn the boats.

Cortes told his men, “Burn the boats because if we’re going home, we’re going home in their boats.”

Cortes and his army took over the Aztec empire and its wealth, not because they were more capable or sizable – in fact the opposite was true. Instead they won because they had to win. There was no other option. It was either do-or-die.

Burn Your Boats

At its essence, burning boats represents a point of no return, a psychological commitment where you recognize that you have crossed a line never to cross back. There is no hedging, no looking over your shoulder. Everything now – all thoughts and efforts – must be focused on succeeding in this new reality.

Despite the fact that I’ve been working on my eating disorder recovery for over ten years, even with maintaining physical health and nourishing food habits for the last two years, I only burned my boats five months ago. Up until that point, I still had my “outs”, my backup plans, other options and excuses.

A combination of hearing my son tell me his belly was sticking out – something no doubt he picked up from me – to not wanting to wake up each day with the kind of crippling anxiety that would render me incapacitated to live my daily life and do the most basic and mundane things, had me burn my boats.

It was terrifying to not have the missed meals, cleanses and diet pills as my backup plan. It was terrifying to think that there were lines I would never cross again, habits I would no longer engage in.

I will never forget the day my trainer said, “Give me an hour and I can change your mind set about food.” I laughed at him. What could he teach me about something I’ve been dealing with for most of my life?  In the end, I gave in and I listened because I had no other options.

When you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, the game changes.

I won’t say that the mindset was an overnight thing, or that it’s been an easy road since making the decision to burn my boats – because it hasn’t been. But, when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, the game changes.

If you burn your boats, you put yourself in that do-or-die situation and it lights a fire under your ass. Those are the moments you find out what you are truly capable of. It’s where your talents and gifts come out – things you didn’t even know you had in you: resiliency, tenacity, grit, determination. It’s where you discover how truly resourceful you are. And it’s literally where you make things work and figure it out because you don’t have any other option.

Whether we face a true crossroads or simply want to achieve great things in our careers, personal lives – or both – we must approach our decisions with a level of commitment that will drive us definitively forward. 

We fear failure and so we operate and run different businesses with the belief that if one business fails, the other will save us. But it rarely does and instead minimizes the likelihood of any success.

We fear rejection or other undesired outcomes in our personal relationships, so we float around and don’t take the necessary risks needed to find and sustain deep, fulfilling relationships.

There are times in our life when we do need to make decisions, even when we are unclear which path to travel. We gather as many facts as we can, measure the risks and then use our best judgment and the insights of others to guide us forward. But, once we make our decision, we have to be willing to stick with it and not allow fear and second-guessing to derail us. Instead of focusing on the what-ifs, we must 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 that we invest into a process. Once you have completed your discernment process, you have to be willing to burn the boats behind you and trust your inner voice to pursue your dreams, never looking back.

What are the boats in your life that are keeping you from accomplishing what you really want? What vessels in your mind are keeping afloat the fear and doubt and frustration that hold you captive?

If you’ve got a burning desire to produce an album, to venture into a new career, to have a fulfilling relationship – what boats do you need to burn?

Just because we’ve burned boats in one area of our life, doesn’t mean there aren’t others to burn.

Just because I’ve burned the boats for my eating disorder, doesn’t mean that it’s smooth sailing when it comes to my professional pursuits.

If I want to write my book, what boats do I need to burn? If I want to run trainings and teach teachers, what setbacks am I prepared to suffer for it? If I want to create and design my own fitness formats, where do I need to invest and spend my time and energy?

Whatever prevents you from achieving your goals and dreams is a boat that must be burned.

This week, strike a match to the anchors of your past and introduce yourself to the victories of your future.