Don’t burn the boats! Plan instead

Stop — Don’t burn the boats!

The fallacy, misunderstanding or misuse of the instruction to “Burn the Boats”

burn the boats
burn the boats!

Don WinchellJust now·2 min read

This is something you will hear a lot about on the get-rich-quick and even the get-rich-slower circuit. The basic storyline is attributed to everyone from Captain Hernán Cortés to Julias Ceasar to Sun Tzu, the mythical author of the Art of War. The idea is that if you want to accomplish something you must leave yourself no way out, do or die, all or nothing. In the various stories, some general or conquerer is going to take an island or a nation and they get to the enemy shore and then give the order to burn the boats thus cutting off any possible retreat. This story has been popularized by many people including; Tony Robbins, Dave Sharpe, Russel Bunson and many others. While there is a valuable lesson in the story, I strongly suggest there is more to it than what is generally presented.

Burn the boats!

Back to Sun Tzu. The thing is Sun Tzu makes a very big deal out of planning. Planning, planning and more planning when it is the time for planning. Then there is the time to stop planning and take action.

The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many
calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at
all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.

Sun Tzu

Part of the planning process is measuring, evaluating, comparing. Comparing force strength, training, terrain, weather, seasons, morale and so on. But the idea of always getting yourself in a desperate situation is not at all what Sun Tzu taught. Only if all the other measurements of the troop strength and training were favourable, only if the advantages of terrain, weather and timing were favourable and only if the objective itself was worth obtaining would it ever make sense to burn the boats or leave yourself no options.

So dear traveller be careful of dramatic stories taken out of context to encourage you to act without thinking. Many an aspiring millionaire (or today aspiring billionaire) has found themselves in ruin and/or ruined the lives of those around them by misunderstanding the profound teachings of Sun Tzu. To burn your boats may provide an additional advantage of motivation in a particularly close battle. But foolishly or needlessly putting yourself in a situation where burning your boats is necessary would more likely be considered poor planning or worse, it could be akin to throwing eggs against a grindstone one of the actions Sun Tzu most assuredly advised against.

burn the boats

While the advice, concept or reminder of the story to burn the boats may sometimes apply, one may also consider that if you take into consideration the measurements and planning and strategies that Sun Tzu suggests, you should rarely need to destroy hard-won and valuable assets such as boats. If one does intelligent evaluation and planning and you have amassed your resources appropriately to what is needed to accomplish the task at hand, be it an enemy general or starting a business, one may find that rather than having to burn your boats, you can simply overwhelm the opposing force or objective through proper timing, planning, sound strategy and adequate resources.

Sun Tzu also says things like — before the battle is engaged one should gather the 100 chariots, the thousand suits of armour, amass the necessary troops and food to travel 100 li, and only then should one engage the opposing forces. In brief, if one is properly prepared and as Sun Tzu says, you have picked the battles you can win, it should be a rare time when it is necessary to leave oneself no options.If one actually studies Sun Tzu you will likely find that the famous example of burning the boats is only one specific application of applying a specific tactic under very specific circumstances and should not be considered a general rule of thumb.

It seems that many people who claim to care about people will wear their failures and bankruptcies as a badge of honour. Some will goes as far as to make it sound necessary to have many bankruptcies in order to succeed. YES, absolutely it IS necessary to pick oneself up after a failure or wrong decision or “get back on the horse” after falling off. But quite often this attitude of the bigger the failure the bigger the badge of honour may be taken with no consideration being given to the hardship it can cause to other people. Some of these same people will also insist that your welfare is really all they care about. Many times making a leap-of-faith, or going beyound hesitation is required, other times it may simply be impulsiveness.

Sun Tzu taught that it was best to conquer without destroying if possible, and that minimizing loss of life and the destruction of one’s own, and even the enemy’s army, was to be held in the highest regard. This may be something to think about. And while “protracted warfare” or not acting when it is the right time to act is not good, rash action or “bearding a tiger” is also not advised by the Master. Sound strategy, preparation and planning may be better than boat burning.

So as Sun Tzu would say there are only 5 notes in the music scale, but how many millions of different melodies are there? And there is only a limited number of factors of measurement but how many millions of configurations of battles are there? So while burning the boats may be the exact decisive tactic for a particular battle, it may also be the completely wrong thing to do.

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