Why you should set fire to your ships

crossroads
Next to my bed, two dozens books are staked high. I have dipped in and out of all them, but am unable to part with even one. I know that sporadic reading won’t help me achieve any real insights, despite the many hours I put in, and that I should really devote myself to one book at a time. So why am I still juggling all twenty-four? I remember listening to former President Mbeki’s radio interview saying he is reading three books at the same time (not simultaneously, if you know what I mean) . After succumbing to my urge of reading three books at the same time, I realised it is not for me.

I know of a friend a while back who was dating three women. He was in love with all three (so he says) and can imagine starting a family with any of them. However, he simply doesn’t have the heart to choose just one, because then he would be passing up on the other two for good. If he refrains from deciding, all options remain open. The downside is that no real relationship will develop. So why was still juggling three of them, even though he knew he had to choose one?

In the third century B.C., General Xiang Yu sent his army across the Yangtze River to take on the Qin Dynasty. While his troops slept, he ordered all the ships to be set alight. The next day, he told them: ‘You now have a choice: Either you fight to win or you die.’ By removing the option of retreat, he switched their focus to the only thing that mattered: the battle. Spanish conquistador Cortes used the same motivational trick in the sixteenth century. After landing on the east coast of Mexico, he sank his own ship.

Xiang Yu and Cortes are exceptions. We mere mortals do everything we can to keep open the maximum number of options. We grow up being told we should get a good education so that we can have options.

So why is it that when we have so many options we are unable to decide or prolong to decide, why do we act so irrationally? Because the downside to such behaviour is not always apparent. In the financial markets, things are clear: a financial option on a security always costs something. There is no such a thing as a free option, but in most other realms, options seem to be free. This is an illusion, however. They also come at a price, but the price tag is often hidden and intangible: each decision cost mental energy and eats up precious time for thinking and living.

We are obsessed with having as many irons as possible in the fire, ruling nothing out and being open to everything. However, this can easily destroy success. We must learn to close doors.

A business strategy is primarily a statement on what not to engage in. Adopt a life strategy similar to a corporate strategy:

write down what not to pursue in your life.

In others words, make calculated decisions to disregard certain possibilities and when an option shows up, test it against your not-to-pursue list. It will only keep you from trouble but also save you lots of thinking time.

Think hard once and then just consult your list instead of having to make up your mind whenever a new door cracks open. Most doors are not worth going through, even when the handle seems to turn so effortlessly.

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