top of page

Burn the boats philosophy

This isn't just my story. It's every story, and it's all of history. Burning the boats as a strategy for success goes all the way back to the Old Testament. "In ancient times," writes Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, "Israelite armies would besiege enemy cities from three sides only, leaving open the possibility of flight. . . They understood that so long as the enemy saw that they had an escape route available, they would not fight with utmost earnestness and energy."

Sun Tzu, the great Chinese general, military strategist, writer, and philosopher, echoes the same point. "The leader of an army he wrote in his classic guide to military strategy, The Art of War, "carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand. He burns his boats and breaks his cooking pots." He gives his men no option to return, and the only way they will eat again is to eat the food of their enemy.

Five centuries later, Julius Caesar sailed his army from Rome to the Irish coast, looking to conquer England. As their ships arrived, and he and his men saw themselves greatly outnumbered, there was ample reason to retreat. But Caesar was set on completing his mission and wanted to make sure his fighters-and the ones they would soon be up against-knew that there was no exit strategy. This would have to be a fight to the death. "Burn the boats!" Caesar ordered, and then there was no way home.

More recently, in 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian turned president of Ukraine, was under siege from Russian invaders when the United States offered him a plan to evacuate. The entire free world had concluded that Ukraine had no chance of overcoming the full weight of the Russian army and that if Zelensky didn't abandon Kyiv soon, he would meet his demise. But the Ukrainian president proved himself a student of both history and psychology when he took to the airwaves to reject the offer from US president Joe Biden. "I don't need a ride; I need weapons," he said.

Zelensky signaled to his Russian opponents and the world- that he had given himself no way out. He had burned the boats and was prepared to fight to the death. His defiance proved contagious, and with those simple words, he inspired his country -and ultimately all of NATO-to resist the invasion.

I was in a hotel in Pittsburgh with the New York Jets-their playoff hopes in the 2010-11 season quickly evaporating after two consecutive losses-when Our emotive head coach, Rex Ryan, summoned fire and brimstone to awaken something deep inside his players. With his face bright red and his voice cracking, jowls animating every word, Rex told his team about the legend of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, outnumbered as he tried to conquer the Aztecs in 1519, demanding8 his soldiers burn the boats and give themselves no chance to turn back. As the New York Times later reported, "They burned their boats! [Rex] shouted. 'I'm only asking you to give me seven weeks!"

"The Jets surged from the ballroom," the Times continued, "filled with adrenaline. Several said later that they could not sleep. The Jets went on to topple the Steelers, their signature win of the season."

It was thrilling. I truly believe the burn the boats analogy activated a switch inside our players to unlock another level of effort they did not know they possessed. The quote has stuck with me ever since I recognized that the philosophy had been guiding my decisions long before I was able to put it into words.

This tidbit is from Burn the Boats by Matt Higgins

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

A few of us put everything on the line. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and the CEO of Tesla, comes to mind. Buoyed by an unshakable faith, he plowed most of the $180 million fortune he accumulated a

We often think of frontiers as wild places at the edge of the known world, full of risk and danger, and so while they might make a great movie setting, we tend to avoid frontiers in our own lives. We

Martin Chalfie is a soft-spoken man with a relaxed way of describing complicated topics. He is a professor in the Biological Sciences Department at Columbia University, conducting research on the nerv

bottom of page