In today’s essay we are going to explore the benefits of pre-commitment and how giving yourself less options can actually be beneficial. As we will see, the oft given advice to “Avoid burning your bridges” can actually insure that you fail.
Quick note: I will be using the terms ship burning and bridge burning interchangeably in this essay.
A short history lesson.
In 711 the famous Iberian general Tariq ibn Ziyad, who actually gave Gibraltar it’s name, decided to invade Spain. He took an army of 7000 Muslims across from Northern Africa to Southern Spain. Once everyone arrived the commanders asked him what they should do with the ships. Should they leave a garrison behind to guard them, how should they divide up the forces between who stays and guards the ships and who goes forward and conquers. Tariq replied “Burn all ships”. Tariq knew he was going to outnumbered from the start and so did not want to dilute his forces and so he created a point-of-no-return. From there on it was either conquer or die. The rest, as they say, is history. Spain become a Islamic stronghold for close to eight hundred years.
Let’s skip forward eight hundred years to 1519, and discuss Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro (let’s just call him Cortés). He was a Spanish conquistador and he was, quite typically, searching for gold and silver. This convinced him to leave Cuba and land in Mexico. He had between five hundred and eight hundred men with him on eleven ships. During their first few encounters with the natives the conquistadors were gifted a substantial amount of gold, most due to the fact that the natives, quite intelligently, didn’t value gold as highly as the Europeans.
After all, you can’t eat it and it’s a lousy building material.
Quite quickly things turned nasty and Cortés found himself at war with over 200 tribes. Needless to say, many of his soldiers were quite weary of going inland towards completely unexplored territory, they preferred to stay near the coast where they could retreat to the ships if necessary . Cortés had, quite literally, a spark of ingenuity and burnt all of his ships so that his small army knew that there was no possibility of retreat. I can imagine that this didn’t make him the most popular man in Mexico. I guess one could judge Cortés’s success by the fact that Spanish is now the de facto national language spoken by the vast majority of Mexicans.
So what can we learn from this? Both Tariq and Cortés created artificial points-of-no-return that helped them overcome incredible odds to achieve their aims. I’ve mentioned before than the best way to have a rock-solid willpower is to avoid having to exercise it. By completely destroying any hope of retreat or surrender, both of these men increased the odds of their success. The point being that it’s quite easy to make a choice when you only have one option.
As I mentioned in the beginning, you may have been given the advice to “avoid burning your bridges”. This saying comes from the military tactic of destroying the bridge over the river that leads you into enemy territory.
Can you trust your future self?
It has been proved, time and time again, that we erroneously believe that we will act differently in the future compared to the present. We all think we will have more time, money, wisdom and patience. That’s just a story we tell ourselves. In reality, we need to take concrete steps to constraint our future selves, almost as if we were dealing with another person, and in some ways, we are.
If you are making mistakes now in the present moment, don’t think that in the future you will not make the same mistakes again. Of course, that is if you don’t force yourself to avoid making them. All decision that are taken in the moment will generally be the same. It’s far better to plan ahead and give ourselves no choice but to act correctly in the future.
The more self-discipline you have, the more you can trust your future self but you should make this assumption:
In the future, I will act in the same way as I am acting now.
This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that many of us perennially put off important tasks. Think of a high school student not doing his homework, a university student not working on his thesis and a working adult not working on his work project. Each one of these people tells themselves that they will do it tomorrow but when tomorrow becomes today they will take the same action and postpone it to a new tomorrow. This goes on and on until there is very little time left and they are forced to take action. The results are usually not that inspiring.
The flip side of thinking of our future selves as improved version of our current selves is that we tend to dramatically overestimate how much work we will be able to complete in a given time frame. The problem is that we are not able to know what problems our future selves will have. If you are stressed out now about something, you will probably be stressed out about something else in the future. If you haven’t got time because you are busy in the present, you will probably also find yourself too busy in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, we tend to think of our future selves as a completely different person. Due to the nature of the future, the very best scenario is that we can only have a fuzzy idea of what situations we will find ourselves in and the vast majority of people hate uncertainty and the lack of control associated with it that they prefer not to think about the future. This leads us to indulge in instant gratification, because it’s almost as if another person will have to deal with the future problems caused by our current behaviour.
So the answer is: No, you cannot trust your future self.
So what can be done? There is actually quite a lot that we can do to change ourselves. Generally, it involves slowly developing positive daily habits that you can trust your future self to accomplish. You can then build on that until you develop your willpower to the necessary extent where you can trust your future self to make difficult decisions. This can be a long process and by it’s very nature cannot guarantee results. The more you can bring in life your idea of your future self to the way you are now, the more you can rely on your future self.
You might eat healthily day in day out and then find that you go to a party and complete splurge out, even though you have been diligent for weeks or months on end.
Sometimes, like in the historical examples I gave earlier, one requires absolutely certainty that you, or others that you depend on, will not retreat from hardship.
That’s where ship – or bridge – burning comes into play.
The quick guide to ship burning.
So how does one go about burning a ship? To put it simply:
It’s the action you take that cannot be reversed and dramatically decreases the number of options available to you in the future. It’s reaching, and surpassing, the point of no return.
This could be anything:
- Telling your boss to go and fuck himself.
- Divorcing your spouse.
- Going for that first kiss.
- Committing a crime.
- Not going to University (Read This).
- And so on…
I guess that at a glance the odd one out in the list above seems to be “Going to University”. After all, we are told that we will burn our bridges if we don’t go to university, so how can going to university possibly cause us to burn bridges? Well, everything has an opportunity cost, including going to University. After all, one needs to choose a certain field of study, and that in itself will preclude many career and study options for the future.
Almost any action, or series of actions, cause you to burn certain bridges.
The fact of the matter is that you cannot go through life without burning bridges. It’s quite simply a matter of life. It’s what happens.
It’s completely unavoidable.
With that fact in mind, it makes no sense to ignore the way we burn bridges. We should embrace this and see how bold we can be with it. You don’t have to go as far as Cortés or Tariq to gain the benefits of strategic ship burning.
The benefits of ship burning.
Controlling your future self.
The most important and useful benefit of burning your ships is that you are able to directly control your future self. By limiting your future options, you can insure yourself against any acts of “cowardice” that your future self might suffer. This, of course, requires a strong belief that you are right.
This is extremely useful when you have a tough task to complete and you set up the conditions which will increase the chances of completing your task.
I often follow this when I want to study for a certain amount of time but I worry that I might procrastinate or else be distracted. I walk to a coffee shop about fifteen minutes away from my apartment, which I know does not have wifi. There I can use my laptop without the usual online distractions. Of course, I could just turn of my wifi at home but the point is that I want to make it difficult enough (i.e. a fifteen minute walk back home) that it’s not worth taking the action to quickly check something online. I often find that I work at least twice as efficiently as I do at home. The coffee is also nicer.
Obviously this is not an extreme example of burning ships but it’s an example of an easy way to integrate a ship burning into your daily life.
Another trivial example is how one can place your running kit by your bed the night before to ensure that you will go running first thing in the morning.
It forces you to prepare as well as you can.
You can bet that both Tariq and Cortés didn’t take their duties lightly. They were in a life or death situation and so one can imagine the preparation they submitted themselves (and their soldiers) to. Nothing is unnecessarily left to chance. If you set yourself up into a situation in which there is no turning back, you can bet that you will want to be prepared for it. It’s natural.
Shows everyone that you mean business.
Let’s take another example from history and go back to the Cold War. When one thinks about it, it’s quite amazing that all the nations involved, especially the United States of America and the Soviet Union, managed to have enough restraint to avoid causing a nuclear armageddon.
There were plenty of reasons for this, but one that particularly stands out is the clear threat that all nuclear powers gave to their enemies.
Clear policies and protocols were put in place for an automatic retaliation to a nuclear strike, future, potentially extremely difficult, actions which would lead to the death of millions of people were decided ahead of time. Ironically, it was this level of pre-commitment to nuclear retaliation which insured that nobody fired a single missile.
The Soviet Union was not under the impression that it could get away with a nuclear strike on the United States because the United States had already burnt its ships on the topic of retaliation. The opposite scenario was also true.
The interesting fact here, which applies to many ship burning examples, is that the very act of burning one ships may well have been the cause of success. Would Cortés have conquered Mexico if he had his flotilla waiting offshore?
Maybe, maybe not.
Burnings bridges can actually increase your creativity. While it may appear counterintuitive, it does make sense. Limitations improve creativity by narrowing your field of focus and burning a bridge is just another type of limitation. Why does it work? Well, it gives you a lot less to think about. Forcing yourself to make some decision from the onset frees you up to be creative within that framework.
Let’s imagine you want to write and publish a book of poems in a year’s time. You could just write as it comes to you, but you may spend a lot of time thinking about form. This in itself is not a bad thing, but you may find that given so much choice, you become paralised.
If you burn a bridge and announce that you will publish a book of Haikus, which is a type of Japanese poem that consists of three lines of five, seven and five syllables.
Haikus are Easy, But sometimes they don’t make sense, Refrigerator.
Suddenly the whole discussion on form is out of the window because you have given yourself a rigid form to adhere to and you can concentrate on getting your message across.
Our minds love a challenge and when you place an unusual constraint on yourself, your mind has to look for unconventional ways to surpass this limitation. The result is that creative flourishes and you gain a new skill.
I call that a win in my book.
The fallacy of the safety net.
The main argument against burning your bridges is that you might regret it later if things go wrong. It might all go wrong.
I say, so what?
Things do go wrong in life. Nothing ever goes exactly as planned but always having a safety net will only ensure one thing: that you don’t do what you really want to do.
What do you think could have happened to Cortés or Tariq if they had not burnt their ships? They might have succeeded anyway or they might have failed because they were aware that they could retreat to safety at any time.
Life is not about always being safe.
Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. Tyler Durdern, Fight Club
Think of all the great things that have been accomplished. Inventions, artistic triumphs, social upheavals, do you think that these things were accomplished by playing it safe?
Evolution itself thrives on risk taking. True, many risks do not pay off, but those that do can give you back all your effort one hundredfold. It’s all about being smart, applying the 80/20 rule and having the cojones to actually get out there and do something.
When not to burn your ships.
While it may appear that I am advocating unbridled risk taking, it’s actually quite the opposite. As I alluded to earlier, you need to be sure that you are right before you burn your ships. This requires a solid plan and a even more solid conviction that the plan can work. Granted, things may not go to plan but that’s life. Nothing is certain and, as I have often mentioned, we have very little control. Burning your ships is a tool you can use to help you control your own future actions according to your current beliefs, hence it shouldn’t be something you do lightly.
The problem with burning your ships is that you not only have to know you’re right, you have to make sure that you will be right in the future when you might appreciate the possibility of retreat. As we cannot predict the future, this is obviously impossible. You cannot be sure that you are right about something that hasn’t happened. There is always a degree of uncertainty.
So does that negate the whole practice of burning your bridges? Of course not! If we took that attitude we would never leave the house because we wouldn’t even be certain that we would arrive to work safely. It’s all about intelligently calculating your risks. Do you think Tariq would have burnt his ships when he got to Spain if he didn’t truly believe that he could beat his opponents? Tariq was confident of his abilities as a general but at the same time he kept in mind that war in unpredictable and things don’t always go smoothly. Wise people know this and handle the ups and downs as a natural part of life. Tariq couldn’t be sure that his army would see this in the same light and so cutting off the option for retreat was a good call.
So, as usual, it all requires a good deal of thinking.