Burn the Ships!

“Burn the ships.” Mark, a coaching client, was in the midst of a career transition. As we explored his options, two clear choices became apparent. Mark observed, "To really pursue my first choice means that I won't be able to keep moving this second choice forward. I'll have to let this one go. And I don't know if I can do that."

Mark's fallback option represented the safe path, one he could comfortably take. It had its pluses and minuses, but he knew he could do that work and be successful. He also knew that he could find work in that field—an important consideration in today’s tough economy.

But Mark’s first choice represented the type of work that he dreamed about, the possibility of creating the type of life for which he had been longing. It wasn’t easy and it would require doing some things that he was uncomfortable doing. There were no guarantees that he would be able to find the right place to do this work. What was the right thing to do?

“Burn the ships.”

That was the challenge for Mark. When Hernán Cortés sailed from Cuba to begin the conquest of Mexico, he wanted to ensure that his soldiers and sailors were not going to back down or desert him. He ordered his ships scuttled. Historians record that order: “Burn the ships.” Cortés needed his men to know that going forward was the only option left for them so they were motivated to fight for their own success—that was the only way to survive.

For Mark, burning his ships would mean saying “no” to the safe way, to going back to the familiar way. He could "survive" with his second choice, but what would the cost be to his spirit and his dream? In choosing the first option, he would be fully committing to a path where the outcome was uncertain—even the path was unclear. What would it take for him to be that committed to his dream work?

To live like it matters requires each of us to burn a ship or two along the way. To think about writing a blog and making it public required some serious ship burning for me. Writing is something I’ve done on and off since high school. As editor of my college newspaper I wrote and published a weekly editorial. I can’t ever recall this reluctance that I feel now in publishing. Finally, this morning, I lit the first match and put it to my ship of self-doubt and am committing to hit the "Publish" button on this blog today. I feel like I am releasing a wave of pent up writing and energy. I do know that there will be times ahead when the wave will recede, but surely if I can do it, this time, I can trust myself to know that the tide will come in again.

My dream is for those people that I have the privilege of connecting with—whether it is in coaching, leadership workshops, collaborating, reading here, or simply talking—that they will be inspired to burn whatever ships they are holding on to so that they can live like it matters. Whatever living like it matters looks like for them.

Oh, and Mark? He found the courage to burn his ship and commit to the less certain, more risky path. He’s finding his way and seeing the possibilities in what’s happening for him right now. It has not been easy, nor is he “there” yet. He has great days and tough days. But what he is doing really matters to him and to those around him, and he doesn't regret choosing the riskier path.

Because you are reading this, I know you are curious and ready to begin, or continue, on your way to living like it matters. I invite you to share your stories of how you've burned ships and what matters to you. Your story can give others the push that they need to light a match. Or share what's holding you back—it is a powerful way to begin to release your energy to go forward. Here are two reflective questions to get you started.

  • • What ships are you longing to burn?
  • • What will it take for you to light the match?