Burn Your Boats But Not Your Bridges

Burn your boats but not your bridges: commit to your startup but don’t do anything that damages relationships or would not allow you to build on prior shared successes with others.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.

An excerpt from W. H. Murray’s 1951 book, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

I think that commitment fundamentally enables us to see possibilities. When Murray talks about “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance” I think the decision to begin shifts our frame of reference, enabling us to see possibilities.

A variation on this theme is “burn your boats.”

One chapter that I have found very useful in the “Art of War” is “11. The Nine Situations” (bold added)

  1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war recognizes nine varieties of ground: (1) Dispersive ground; (2) facile ground; (3) contentious ground; (4) open ground; (5) ground of intersecting highways; (6) serious ground; (7) difficult ground; (8) hemmed-in ground; (9) desperate ground.
  2. When a chieftain is fighting in his own territory, it is dispersive ground. [So called because the soldiers, being near to their homes and anxious to see their wives and children, are likely to seize the opportunity afforded by a battle and scatter in every direction. “In their advance,” observes Tu Mu, “they will lack the valor of desperation, and when they retreat, they will find harbors of refuge.”]
  3. When he has penetrated into hostile territory, but to no great distance, it is facile ground. [Li Ch’uan and Ho Shih say “because of the facility for retreating,” and the other commentators give similar explanations. Tu Mu remarks: “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.”]

Matthew 19:21-22 tells of a similar requirement for a serious commitment at the start of forming a team.

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when the young man heard these words, he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.

“Burn your boats” has two meanings for me: get your team committed and pick battles that are worth it for you to win and not worth the trouble for major competitors to engage in. At the time you are getting your team formed, you must get them to make a serious commitment to success.

Picking terrain for a battle that you can’t retreat from but that your competitors can

The concept of picking terrain for a battle that you can’t retreat from but that your competitors can appears in Xenophon’s Anabasis in Book 6 Section 5

“For my part, I would rather at any time attack with half my men than retreat with twice the number.

As to these fellows, if we attack them, I am sure you do not really expect them to await us; though, if we retreat, we know for certain they will be emboldened to pursue us. Nay, if the result of crossing is to place a difficult gully behind us when we are on the point of engaging, surely that is an advantage worth seizing.

At least, if it were left to me, I would choose that everything should appear smooth and passable to the enemy, which may invite retreat; but for ourselves we may bless the ground which teaches us that except in victory we have no deliverance.

Xenophon’s Anabasis in Book 6 Section 5

I think the challenge is to commit to your new team without damaging past relationships. Prior shared successes always prove useful in new contexts: even if it’s not the current team it will be with the opportunities that your next success (or setback) creates.

My shorthand for this is burn their boats but not your bridges.

Some quick closing thoughts

  • My old Stanford professor, William Linvill, used to define a decision as “the irrevocable commitment of resources.” In that sense you haven’t really embarked on your strategy until you realize that you are committed.
  • From “Soul Proprietor” in the August 2000 Fast Company
    “Strategy is all about commitment,” says Tyler. “If what you’re doing isn’t irrevocable, then you don’t have a strategy — because anyone can do it. That’s why burning the boats is so important. I’ve always wanted to treat life like I was an invading army and there was no turning back.
  • My father always liked to point out that “to not make a decision is to make a decision,” which is also one of the lessons from Boyd’s OODA loop (Observe – Orient – Decide – Act).

And now to end where we began: the folks at the Goethe Society have determined that Murray was working from a very loose translation of Faust 214-30 by John Anster:

Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

which is also inspiring.

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