Burning The Ships – The Proven Way to Breakthrough Motivation

Do You Need A Little Push?

Have you ever heard the expression "burning the ships"? Today I want to talk to you about what burning the ships has to do with motivation, and how you can use it in your life.


In our vernacular, the expression burning the ships has come to mean eliminating all your options so that there is only one path forward.

Origin of the phrase

The saying is rooted in several military conquests of the last 2,000 years. There is Julius Caesar’s attack on Britain in 55BC (where some accounts indicate he was outnumbered 10-1), Alexander The Great’s battle against Persia in 334BC, and Cortes’ attack on the Aztec empire in 1519. While researching this topic, I also found similar examples from Burma in 1538 and China in 207BC.

Today the wording burn the ships is more symbolic, since the ships were sometimes sunk or destroyed by some other means and in one case there were no ships at all. Rather, a Chinese General ordered a bridge destroyed after his troops crossed a river to battle their larger and stronger enemy.

While the details vary, the general storyline goes that a military leader is faced with daunting odds, often out-manned and out-gunned by his opponent by 5 or even 10 to 1. He realizes that his troops are demoralized and likely to desert him if they know they have the option of retreat. So, to eliminate that option, he orders his ships to be burned, which creates a much higher level of commitment and motivation.

Motivation as a weapon

It’s seems logical that, in life-or-death scenarios like these, a person would be supremely motivated. But this idea can even work in non-life-threatening situations. Psychologically, there are a couple reasons it works so well. The first reason is pretty obvious, and is the one described in the examples above: fear of potential pain. But the potential pain doesn’t need to be torture and/or death for it to provide sufficient motivation. In fact, it doesn't even need to be physical pain.

The second reason burning the ships works is because it can cause psychological or emotional discomfort. This discomfort can manifest itself as embarrassment, loss of social status, or being shunned by your social circle, or even society as a whole. Thousands of years ago, being shunned by your clan was usually a death sentence, so humans beings have developed an instinctive desire to seek acceptance by our peers. One of the primary ways we do that is to maintain consistency between our words and actions.

This desire for consistency is one of the primary tools of influence, as described by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his landmark book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Armed with this knowledge, a shrewd person can influence (and some would say manipulate) another person by exploiting this trait. But this knowledge doesn’t only have to be wielded by other people. You can use it to your advantage by burning your own ships.

You're doing it wrong

Unfortunately, the most common way that people unwittingly burn their own ships is by procrastination. When you leave something undone until the last minute, you invoke both aspects of this psychological tactic. Rushing to finish the task or project at the last minute will undoubtedly cause you pain, in the form of stress, lots of hard work, and probably lost sleep. It also likely has the potential to cause you social embarrassment and loss of status if you don’t finish or do a poor job. Procrastination is not the way to use this tactic to your advantage.

Going public

If you want to take advantage of the social element of burning the ships, you need to make a public commitment about something that you want to accomplish, but where you have struggled with motivation in the past. I need to make an important point here, though. It’s critical that whatever you commit to aligns with your values, or you may set yourself up to fail before you even start (I discuss this idea in another video).

This idea of using public commitment to inspire motivation is used by many organizations, for example ones geared toward weight loss. With those groups, you publicly declare a weight goal and then attend weekly weigh-ins in front of your peers. While there is certainly social pressure applied by that kind of commitment, it doesn’t inspire the kind of motivation you need to achieve the maximum chance of success. If you don’t stick to your diet and, as a result, don’t make your weight goal, you will experience some social and psychological discomfort. However, those consequences aren't significant enough to overcome other factors that may be holding you back. To do that, you need to up your game.

For example, let's say you want to do charity work but you never seem to find the time to participate in local events. You could volunteer to lead a committee that raises money to fund scholarships for local kids in low-income families. Failing to fund those scholarships would have some pretty severe social consequences for the families who depend on them, and would thus provide plenty of motivation.

If you want to lose weight but can never stick with an exercise routine, you could solicit donations to a local charity that require you to complete a 10k run or triathlon in a time that you know is a stretch for you. You would tell the charity about your commitment, and their anticipation of those much-needed donations would provide the social pressure.

It’s important to note that your progress must be clearly visible, not just the proclamation of your commitment and the end result. Otherwise, you lose the benefit of the social pressure to keep you moving forward. It is even more effective if your progress is obvious without you having to communicate it to everyone. If your status updates are the only way people know how you're doing, you’ll be more inclined to “forget” to send those updates when things aren’t going so well.

Fear is your friend

If you want to utilize the fear element of burning the ships, you need to make a commitment that will cause you significant physical discomfort if you do not accomplish the goal. For example, let’s say you want to grow your business revenue by 100% in one year, but you never take the time to plan how you’re going to do it. You could negotiate a contract with a customer that would help you achieve that goal if executed well, but that would put a severe strain on your business if you don’t perform. When faced with the possibility of losing your business and your source of income, you would be extremely motivated to do whatever it takes to make it work.

I have a similar example from my own life that I can share on this topic. I recently decided that I wanted to start my own business, which is what prompted me to create The Motivation Mindset. For a time I considered trying to build this business on the side while I continued to work my corporate job. Aside from the fact that it would have taken much longer to do it that way, I decided that I wanted to give myself an extra level of motivation. So, I decided to take the jump into entrepreneurship “without a net”. I can tell you from personal experience that it definitely provides a much higher level of motivation knowing that I have to make this business work in order to support my family than if I had maintained my steady income.

I’m sure there are a million different ways to use this kind of pressure and motivation in your life. Please let me know what you come up with and how it works for you by leaving a comment below.