BURNING THE SHIPS — or — WHAT THE SPANISH CONQUISTADOR HERNAN CORTEZ CAN TEACH US ABOUT OVERCOMING FEAR AND DOING WHAT SCARES US
In the early 16th century, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez became famous for a wartime strategy that, by way of combustion, removed backing out of battle from the crew’s menu of options.
Legend has it that upon landfall in Veracruz, Mexico, headquarters of the mighty Aztec Empire, Cortez instructed his crew to “burn the ships” before storming the shores, thus limiting the crew’s options to fighting and, well, fighting.
As captaining tactics go, it’s pretty bulletproof. No ships = no retreating. Everyone fights. Or drowns. Or fights first, then drowns. Or drowns accidentally on their way to fight. Point is, fighting is the only option.
On the surface, it’s a little ruthless. Okay, it’s a lot ruthless. But if you unpack it and look beyond the captain’s complete disregard for his crew’s lives, a powerful idea arises from the smoldering, shippy ashes:
When your only path is forward, you might as well go forward hard.
The logic is solid, regardless of the undertaking: running a marathon, doing standup, speaking in public, conquering a new land by ruthless force, or in my case, moving from San Francisco (arguably the ad and tech world’s biggest, lucrative-est market) to Minneapolis (home to a thriving, yet much smaller scale ad market) as a freelancer.
For me, I was able to rationalize the big, scary move by extrapolating Cortez’s directive into a few helpful themes.
YOUR GUTS ARE SMART
Brains are dumb. Brains are assholes. Brains are responsible for nightmares, insomnia, paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and near constant streams of anxiety about things that haven’t even happened. Like, for instance, the ever present feeling your career will grow tired, fall asleep, and get smothered to death with a casserole-filled pillow.
Guts, on the other hand, are geniuses. They’re focused and they’re binary. Yes, no. Good, bad. Fight, flight. Guts keep you out of dark alleyways, shady pool halls, and free Barenaked Ladies concerts. Your guts have your back. Your guts keep you alive. Your guts have evolution on their side.
When we were making the decision to move, my brain was saying, “Are you NUTS?! Why would you leave this?! Your career is going to die a slow, frigid death!” But my guts were singing a different tune, “Do it! It’ll be fun! Make the move, support Allison and her great new gig, you’ll be fine. You’ll hook up with new folks in MN or travel to work and your career will not die a slow, frigid death, we promise.”
The guts were pumped about it, felt the positives, and said go toward the new, exciting light. The brain was being an asshole.
Trust your guts. They’re way smarter than your brain.
DELUSIONAL OPTIMISM IS A PRETTY GOOD -ISM
The internet defines delusional optimism as predicting a positive outcome despite overwhelming evidence that the outcome will, in fact, be negative.
It’s like thinking positive on steroids: it’s believing positive. Of all the -isms in the world, delusional optimism might be the most practical, self-preserving, sanity-saving system of faith you can convert to.
Think about it. What’s the best way to convince yourself you won’t fail? Telling yourself you won’t fail. Over and over and over again until you not only start believing it, but you subconsciously start making decisions, changing behaviors, and acting with a purpose you might not otherwise have had if you’d just let yourself think you’re screwed. It works! I know because I’ve told myself it works!
Another way to put it is to lie to yourself. Or, LIE HARD: WITH A VENGEANCE. Lie that whatever you’re doing will be great. Lie that your worries are unfounded. Lie that despite all the logical reasons the big scary thing might go ass up, you’re just getting ahead of yourself and despite all, overwhelming odds, the outcome will be net positive.
That’s the beauty of our friend delusion. It’s the sociopathic lovechild of Supreme Confidence and Warrantless Optimism that’s totally on our side.
To put it in practice, let’s go back in time to Cortez’s crew and give them a delusionally optimistic point of view on the battle:
If we don’t have ships and we lose, we can’t leave and we die. But if we just win, we won’t NEED ships AND we won’t be dead. Therefore, we’re totally going to win.
See? The math works.
EMBRACE THE BUTTERFLIES
If you’re not nervous about moving halfway across the country and leaving your friends, contacts, professional momentum, the world’s best climate, inspiring geography, wine country, the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Buccaneer, Russian River Brewery, Tennessee Valley trailheads, your beautiful Pacific Heights apartment, outrageous singletrack trails, proximity to the Neverending Fountain of Silicon Cash Money, and a host of other wonderful things behind, you’re a lunatic.
But when it comes to doing something you actually want to do, those nerves get cliche and start calling themselves Butterflies.
Using myself as an example again, moving from SF to MN made me both nervous and anxious. Nervonxious. Those portmanteau’d butterflies arrived via two different streams: the nervous excitement of moving back home, and the powerful torrent of professional uncertainty.
I’ve been fortunate to move and live all around the country. For me, the moving is the fun part. It’s one of the million pleasures of working in a business I absolutely love. But this time around I’m freelancing, so I had no gig, no security, no gang of like-minded people to hitch my wagon to. So the River of Professional Anxiety continues to dominate the flow. New city, no contacts, no momentum, no nothing. It feels a lot like starting over.
But you know what? Fuck it. That’s okay. Let’s start over. Let’s bring everything I’ve learned in the last decade and bring it home. Let’s embrace the butterflies. I’m excited to be here, I’m excited for Allison, and I’m excited to be back in Minnesota. It’s fucking beautiful here, even in the winter. Hell, especially the winter.
What I’m saying is being nervous is good, so long as it’s in service of something you actually want to do. If you’re truly into it, that tingle in your tummy parts is a good sign. Just remember:
Butterflies, good. Flop sweat, bad.
THE THREE ‘ITS’
I think Ghandi said it best: On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers wanted. A loose interpretation of that would be that you’re the only one who controls your life. And not only your life, but your attitude, outlook, behaviors, actions, and future. If you make a big, scary decision, it’s no one’s responsibility but yours to own it. So do that.
Okay, so you’ve owned it. Now what? Well, the first thing you should do is just say fuck it, if I’m doing this I’m going to do this. Fuck it equals freedom. Fuck it equals accountability. Fuck it equals jumping and finding wings on the way down. To put a Ron Swansonian spin on it: Never go half ass on anything. Always full ass. Fuck it, whatever it is. Fucking it is the best way to own it.
After successful implementation of the first two ITS, the third IT is the icing on the IT cake. Believing in yourself (and all of your self-talking BS) is arguably the most important part. If you don’t believe it’ll work out, believe you’ll grow, believe in the benefit of putting yourself out there, this whole rhetorical house of cards comes crashing down. I’m sorry, it’s tacky, but it’s true. You gotta believe in a thing called love, just listen to the rhythm of my heart.
To summarize and reiterate, the 16th century Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez is not to be celebrated for the means to which he achieved his brutal, violent, empirical ends.
But rather, it’s his insight that by removing safety nets and looking only ahead, we have no choice but to charge forward, own our choices, and to fully commit to doing the things were are scared of.
Park the boat. Light the match. Deep breath…