How to Achieve Great Things by Burning Your Boats and Cutting-Off Your Retreat Routes

Famous quotes and sayings are great and invaluable nuggets that provide inspiration in the face of difficulties and uncertainties. Often, a dissipated and worried mind finds focus and motivation just by reading one appropriate quote, or a saying by another person who has experienced the same situation and overcame. Many noble achievements have been made possible by inspiration drawn from reading and carefully digesting what another person said about a particular challenge, problem or circumstance.

One does not need to read a whole book to find strength in the moment of weakness, or inspiration in the moment of desperation. When it comes to finding inspiration in moments of doubts and uncertainty, many people have found Napoleon Hill’s quotes as invaluable and very helpful resources.

This article is the first in a series of articles about self-motivation. In this series, we shall consider some of the most inspirational quotes by select authors on one of the quotes and famous sayings websites I just recently created. In this article, we shall touch upon the need to burn all sources of retreat in our undertakings, as advised by Napoleon Hill.

Burn the Boats

“Every person who wins in any undertaking must be willing to cut all sources of retreat. Only by doing so can one be sure of maintaining that state of mind known as a burning desire to win – essential to success.” – Napoleon Hill

“When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.” – Tu Mu

The Story of Alexander the Great

On October 1, 331 BC, with an army of 35,000 men, Alexander the Great defeated the Darius the king of Persia in one of the most decisive battles in history! Alexander’s army was greatly outnumbered by the Persian enemy. Historians agree that Darius’ army was made up of between 200,000 to 1,000,000 men. Yet in a series of dramatic and superior tactics, Alexander managed to defeat the Persians and route them.

Alexander was a military genius, and arguable the best military general that ever lived. However, something dramatic and decisive happened before this battle, which many historians believe may be responsible for this great victory.

Upon arriving the shores of Persia, Alexander and his army discovered that they were visibly outnumbered. Clearly at a disadvantage, his men lost heart and pleaded with their young leader (Alexander) to delay the attack. He was urged to go back and get more men and reinforcements. Alexander responded by ordering the men to burn their boats. As their only means of retreat went up in flames, legend has it that Alexander turned to his men and said, “We go home in Persian ships, or we die.”

This act of burning their boats sent a clear message among his army that to survive, they must win this war. They placed themselves in a “no retreat, no surrender situation.” Buoyed by this realization, Alexander’s and his men charged with a singular resolve, to win at all costs. It was with this same resolve that, at the battle of Issus, Alexander’s men forced Darius to flee, leaving the field and victory to Alexander and his army.

The Story of Hernán Cortés

In the 1519, a Spanish con­quis­ta­dor, Hernán Cortés, set out with 600 Spaniards to conquer Mexico, which was rich in priceless treasures of gold, silver and precious Aztec jewels among others.

This daredevil, daring undertaking was made further insurmountable by the fact that for more than 600 years, superior conquerors with greater military hardware and human resources who attempted to colonize the same region had failed woefully.

Aware of this, Hernán Cortés decided to do it differently. After landing with his military force of 600 men on the lands Mayans, Cortés prepared his troops by long oratory and careful speeches. However, before embarking inland to face his enemies, he commanded his armies to burn all their boats! By this singular act, he and his men destroyed their only exit strategy! By these decisive three words – BORN THE BOATS – there was only one resolve within his camp: victory! For defeat meant a certain death. Owing to this singular act, Cortés became the first man to conquer Mexico in 600 years!

This is the attitude necessary for success! For a person to succeed at great things, that one must cut off all escape routes and any means of retreat. Often, many great projects are abandoned at the verge of success by retreating just prior to a breakthrough. Adversity is a tempting premise for retreat. However, having no means of retreat, but forging on despite great difficulties is the surest way to great accomplishments.

The Story of General Tariq Ibn Ziyad

General Tariq Ibn Ziyad was a Muslim general who led the Islamic conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711-718 A.D. His famous military conquest of Spain happened when Musa Ibn Nusayr, the then Governor of North Africa (present-day Morocco) was approached by Count Julian to help him bring down the kingdom of King Roderic of Spain. It is recorded that when Roderic came to power, Julian, a nobleman, sent his daughter to the court of the Visigothic king to receive an education. However, the king (Roderic) raped Julian’s daughter. Julian was incensed. Following that, he vowed to bring down the kingdom of Roderic.

After Julian entered a treaty with Tariq, he secretly conveyed the Muslims under the command of Tariq across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain.

Tariq and his men were vastly outnumbered by the Spaniards. His arrival at the shores of Spain made the Spanish King both surprised and angry. He publicly vowed to crush the invaders and push them into the sea to drown.

As Roderic approached with his vast, superior and formidable army, the Muslim invaders were shaken and many of the soldiers began to loose heart. When Tariq noticed this, he gave the most decisive orders of the expedition: He ordered his men to burn all the boats that had brought them across the strait of Gibraltar into Spain. After his orders were carried out, Tariq addressed his men thus:

“Brothers in Islam! We now have the enemy in front of us and the deep sea behind us. We cannot return home because we have burnt our boats. We shall now either defeat the enemy and win, or die a coward death by drowning in the sea!”

With this speech, the North Africans charged at their enemy with only one resolve – to win! The Spaniards were bewildered and defeated. King Roderic, with his great army was routed.

Today, the famous rock – Gibraltar – is named after this great general, Tarig. The name “Gibraltar” is the Spanish derivation of the Arabic name Jabal-at-Tariq, meaning “mountain of Tariq”

Practical Applications

The three events above, both from history, clearly indicate that success is often made possible only when there is no any route for retreat. This is somewhat like the sage suggestion to put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket carefully! Cutting off your retreat routes helps you to focus your mind, energy and devotion on achieving whatever it is you have set out to achieve. A whole book can be written about the importance of burning one’s boats. In this discourse however, we shall just consider only a few applications, especially as it touches upon dealing with seemingly impossible situations.

Make up your mind that nothing you set out to achieve is impossible: One of the retreat boats every serious man and woman need to burn is the fallacy that the things you desire to do or achieve are impossible. This boat must be burnt in every project you set out to accomplish. And this boat must be burnt always at the onset of every project. Whatever you set your mind upon to achieve, you must firmly believe that it is possible to achieve it, or else you might as well just not bother to even try!

Jesus Christ, while teaching His disciples, told them “All things are possible to him who believes!”

Is it possible for you to be the wealthiest man in your country? The answer is, ALL things are possible to him who believes! Do you believe it? If you do, then it is definitely possible!

In 1906, Simon Newcomb, a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, a leading authority in the search a flying machine, declared that “The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be.” Two months after this declaration, the Wright brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, demonstrating once and for all that “impossible” is always just an opinion!

Below are carefully selected quotes I have compiled from some of the greatest sages in history. Read these quotes carefully and digest their essence!

  • “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” – Charles R. Swindoll
  • “It always seems impossible until its done.” – Nelson Mandela
  • “Nothing is impossible. Some things are just less likely than others.” – Jonathan Winters
  • “The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.” – Fridtjof Nansen
  • “By striving to do the impossible, man has always achieved what is possible. Those who have cautiously done no more than they believed possible have never taken a single step forward.” – Mikhail Bakunin
  • “To achieve the impossible; it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.” – Tom Robbins
  • “The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” – Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done.” – Robert A. Heinlein
  • “The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a man’s determination.” – Tommy Lasorda
  • “I wouldn’t say anything is impossible. I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and put the work and time into it.” – Michael Phelps
  • “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” – Louis D. Brandeis
  • “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” – Alexander the Great
  • “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.” – Pearl S. Buck

Burn all the retreat boats at once – or go home! Every now and then, we all need to evaluate our lives and fish out the retreat boats which are hindering us from achieving the things we desire to achieve. Once these boats are identified, they must be burnt at once. Leaving these retreat routes open often hinder us from the progress we desperately seek.

A man may desperately desire to make his marriage work, however, because he still keeps extra marital affairs, his resolve to make his marriage with his legitimate spouse work will be hindered. In this instance, all extra marital affairs are escape routes that must be burnt. If these boats are burnt and done with at once, his mind will be free to focus on making his marriage work. A half-hearted resolve is almost always destined fail!

For some people, their present jobs are the retreat boats which must be burnt at once! If you desire a better and more fulfilling job, often, the only way to get that better job is by letting go of your current job. A cup that is full cannot be filled any further. For a cup to receive new and fresh content, the current content must be thrown out. The cup must be emptied. Empty your cup of the content you do not like. You are taking the right step. You are burning the escape boats of your life. This is often a necessary step towards your desired progress and success.

For some, they may find it necessary to withdraw from certain substances which they frequently abuse. Many people use substances such as beer and other drugs to temporarily ease their minds and escape reality. However, that is only temporal. Those substances are retreat boats luring us aware from the lives of fulfilment and success we hope for. Once such substances are identified as escape boats, we must emulate the great generals and military strategist above. Like Hernán Cortés, we must burn these escape boats and forge on with single-mindedness to victory.


In the Fast Company (August 2000), the entrepreneur Troy Tyler said “Strategy is all about commitment. If what you’re doing isn’t irrevocable, then you don’t have a strategy – because anyone can do it. That’s why burning the boats is so important. I’ve always wanted to treat life like I was an invading army and there was no turning back.”

All great military strategists, business gurus and life coaches place great importance on burning your boats and cutting-off all escape routes. If you desire to achieve something great, you must do likewise! I wish you the best in your pursuit of greatness!

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Source by Mark Melton

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