Should You Burn the Ships?

There’s a story about Hernando Cortez who landed his ships in Mexico in 1519 in order conquer the Aztec empire. Cortez was totally committed and allowed himself no option of turning back. In the story it’s said that Cortez – in order to leave no option to flee – burned their own ships. This same story is told by numerous websites (and probably books as well) and it is used to prove that you should ‘burn your ships’ in order to succeed – since you have no option to retreat.

I disagree with this piece of advice in this format.

First of all, when I first heard about the story I thought that it probably has been twisted somehow and I wasn’t even sure if it happened. I made a quick search on google and found interesting point. According to JSTOR (scholarly journal archive) Cortez didn’t actually burn his ships. He did destroy the ships – but didn’t burn them. Some people might think this is semantics, but in my opinion it proves how easily stories change when they are told over and over.

This small part of the story is not the reason why I disagree with the advice of burning the ships. Basically I believe it’s too easy to give advice of ‘burning the ships’ to young people who end up getting in big debt and wasting lots of time, nerves and might even end up ruining the rest of their lives.

Sun Tzu – historical Chinese figure – has also mentioned similar advice, although he was talking about desperate situations. Here’s a quote from translated Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War:

Throw the troops into a position from which there is no escape and even faced with death they will not flee. In a desperate situation they fear nothing; when there is no way out they stand firm”

It’s worth remembering that Sun Tzu is talking about desperate situations and basically about one final way to motivate soldiers. Sun Tzu was not recommending taking young kids and throwing them on the battlefield – in order to motivate them to win. He was not using this as the first way to motivate soldiers. He wrote about it as the last way to motivate.

Yet some authors give the impression that ‘burning the ships’ is a must. This advice for any young kid is – in my opinion – a dangerous one. I don’t recommend people to burn the ships. I personally have found a much better to first experiment in a small scale.

There’s also another story – which also points why this advice is for experienced people. There’s a story about Persians trying to conquer Greek city. To stop the Persians and give Greek city-states time to combine forces, King Leonidas of Sparta led a small detachment of Spartans and Greek allies to the pass at Thermopylae. Leonidas formed his phalanx of 7,000 men to defend the pass in depth, facing Persian army of 250,000 men. They managed to delay the Persians enough.

This Greek story shows us one very interesting point: it was King Leonidas who stayed there. King. It was not young kids who had never touched swords before. It was the king.

Similarly it shouldn’t be the young, inexperienced but enthusiastic indie game developers or internet marketers who should burn the ships. It could be the older, experienced AAA businessman with connections and knowledge who could use this piece of advice. I’m not saying that it’s automatically good advice for experienced people, but I would say that whoever possesses greats skills in marketing, selling, business, production and has experience on being an entrepreneur is in a a bit better position to ‘burn the ships’. I don’t think burning the ships should mean taking big debt, I personally recommend working harder and saving money for couple of years or building the business slowly but steadily by taking baby steps.

I think that it’s too easy to get the impression that you can automatically make money by doing games or having an online business. I really recommend new developers to try first selling games or products by other people, and learning how it goes for you. If it’s easy for somebody else, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be easy to you.

Here’s a quick checklist for you to know whether you should burn the ships or not:

  • Unless you have already build an online business (or several of them) – you should not burn the ships.
  • If you have a great idea that simply needs to be done – you should not burn the ships.
  • If you are making the next hit MMORPG game – you should not burn the ships.
  • If you don’t know what ROI means – you should not burn the ships.
  • If you tend to procrastinate – don’t burn the ships.
  • If you have started lots of new things, but finished just few – don’t burn the ships.
  • If you don’t seem to find enough time for building your business – don’t burn the ships, because there are ways to find and make time if you really want.
  • Before you have sold something online – you should not burn the ships.
  • Before you have grown a long beard – you should not burn the ships (Basically – older and more exprienced people might have lived enough years to have enough knowledge).
  • Before you have tried to work extra hard (without harming relationships with your family or others), saved money, lived 50% cheaper for at least 5 years – you should not burn the ships.
  • Before you have focused on building a business for 5-10 years (not building a product – but a business, they are two different things) and earned real money from it – you should not burn the ships
  • Unless you have extraordinary skills in marketing, sales, business, game production, people skills – you should not burn the ships.

Then the last and most important item to check:

  • If you need to read a checklist about burning the ships or not – you should not burn the ships.

Bottom line: don’t burn the ships, take baby steps instead
I really think burning the ships is not a good idea. I strongly recommend taking baby steps, experimenting with smaller ‘bets’, saving money, living frugally, learning marketing & sales and building business (not just building the products) slowly but steadily.

Those with white belts in Karate won’t go first fight against those white black belts – without getting beaten.

24 thoughts on “Should You Burn the Ships?

  1. Pingback: Burn The Ships « So I Quit My Job

  2. Tom

    Ummm… You can’t cite to JSOR. That’s a data base. Major fail there. Why don’t you cite to the article you found, since your link is broken? For example: According to AUTHOR, Cortez didn’t actually burn his ships. CITATION FOR ARTICLE ACCESSED ON JSTOR. Etc… Anyways, that part just irked me. If you are going to cite to JSTOR instead of a real citation, than you shouldn’t cite at all!

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  10. Jake Birkett

    Jeremy: Yeah anyway I enjoyed the film as did I with Sin City (which I found better). I concede that it’s not meant to be a history lesson, but some people may go away with some inaccurate infomation.

    Reply
  11. Juuso - Game Producer Post author

    @Jake & Jeremy: According for what I read, there was first 7500 phalanx (or something) for three days, and then in the end the final 300 were left there… etc.

    @Jake & Zeha: I though it was just about “if you want to go into the Indie game production business, should you burn your ships? i.e. should you give up your day job?” => this might be the usual situation where ‘burning ships’ is referring.

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  12. Jeremy

    “300″ was based on a graphic novel.. Which in turn was only loosely based on history. Why do people try to point out errors in 300 when it was never meant to be a history lesson? And if they do try to point out errors… Why don’t they ever mention the mythical creatures!? :P

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  13. Jake Birkett

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Thermopylae shows you how inaccurate the movie “300″ was. Where were the other 6700 troops (and slaves) in the movie? Also in the movie they talk about “freedom” yet the Spartans had tons of slaves. Also King Leonidas says the Persians can back to their “little boys” or something, yet the Spartan warriors were homosexual for a large part of their training.

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  14. Jake Birkett

    “If you need to read a checklist about burning the ships or not – you should not burn the ships. ”

    haha I didn’t get this far in the article ;-)

    Zeha: I though it was just about “if you want to go into the Indie game production business, should you burn your ships? i.e. should you give up your day job?”

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  15. Juuso - Game Producer Post author

    Programming? Maybe in game production it could mean that you don’t give yourself chances to start a new project. You could promise to eat a pile of dog poo if you don’t finish the project – this way you’ve kind of ‘burned your ship’ and cannot turn back… you must finish the project (or you will end up eating dog poo) :)

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  16. ZeHa

    Okay and how do you relate this to GameProgramming? Does it mean, you shouldn’t force yourself ultimately to finish your project just because you started it? Or does it mean exactly the opposite? It’s exactly this point that I don’t get ;)

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  17. Juuso - Game Producer Post author

    @Zeha: I suppose I explained in too little detail when I mentioned: “‘burn your ships’ in order to succeed – since you have no option to retreat.”. Basically ‘burning the ships’ could be interpreted so that you don’t give yourself no other choice, but to succeed. Cortez destroyed his ships – which meant that they could not go back and retreat. They had to conquer Aztec empire.

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  18. ZeHa

    I’m sorry but I don’t really get for sure what the metaphor of “burning the ships” means. But throughout the whole article you only talk about “it’s not a good advice to burn the ships” etc, and if you didn’t get the exact meaning of the metaphor, you don’t understand the whole article.

    The problem is, I’ve got a somehow vague interpretation of that metaphor, but I’m not quite sure and it could also mean the opposite. Perhaps you could just explain it a little more – for me it just doesn’t pop right out of the text :/

    Reply
  19. Juuso - Game Producer Post author

    @Derek: Yeh.

    @Jake: absolutely. I think Jay’s comment regarding the “The line between brave and foolhardy (and out-and-out stupid) can be pretty thin.” was a good one.

    “do what you love, and keep doing it” is what I’d say. It’s tricky to say when there’s an exit plan… I think of it bit like if somebody is walking across a desert. You just have to keep going, day after day – without focusing to the ‘exit plan’.

    > “You often hear people talking about something they want to do and then they go “but if it doesn’t work out blah blah”. Well this is focusing on the negative and proves their mind is not focused on success like a laser.”
    Very well put.

    Reply
  20. Derek Pollard

    Great post.

    Telling people to burn their ships might be fine for some people, but often that type of advice will simply lead to fear and therefore inaction in the less experienced.

    Reply
  21. Jake Birkett

    However I would say this: If you spend ages building a contingency plan/exit plan and focus on that a lot then you are not focusing on making money and being successful as much as you should be. You often hear people talking about something they want to do and then they go “but if it doesn’t work out blah blah”. Well this is focusing on the negative and proves their mind is not focused on success like a laser.

    Reply
  22. Jay Barnson

    There’s also the fact that the burning (destroying) of the ships was as much to demoralize the enemy as to force commitment on his own troops. The Aztecs saw full well that their enemy was so confident of victory that they cut off their own retreat. So the strategy actually had many layers to it — something that should be evaluated when considering your own strategy.

    The line between brave and foolhardy (and out-and-out stupid) can be pretty thin. I have a friend who used to be a volunteer for Search & Rescue, and she’d frequently tell us stories of the bodies she had to pull out of people who bit of more risk than they were prepared to chew.

    That being said, I think if all else is relatively equal, the scales will usually tip in favor of the bold and aggressive response to adversity.

    Reply

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