Burn the Ships


June 2021

last updated:

Constraints breed creativity, focus, and life.

There is a saying in the startup world that no matter how much money you raise, it will always last you around 18 months. When it comes to accomplishing goals, it seems we always find a way to use as many resources — time, money, people — as we have at our disposal. The thing is, when constraints do exist, success is not only possible despite them, but often because of them. This is because constraints shift the question from whether it can be done, to how it can be done. The answer to this is usually surprising.

Breaking Bad is a masterclass in storytelling, and happens to be the perfect example of constraints breeding life to a project. Vince Gilligan, its creator, credits their success in part to their willingness to “paint themselves into corners”. The demise of Gus Fring, the hidden ricin pills, and Walt buying a machine gun to strap to the trunk of a car are some of the iconic moments the writers had no idea how they would follow at the time they were written. They deliberately embraced passages with no clear exit but that they found intriguing — knowing they would spend the subsequent months banging their head against the walls of the writing room until they figured out how everything would pay off.

The key insight here is that constraints are not only imposed on us; they can be deliberately self-imposed. Beyond embracing external constraints, we can choose to force our own hands as a way to bring out the best in us. The trick is that self-imposed constraints still have to be real. Breaking Bad writers couldn’t recall episodes once they aired. Tesla and SpaceX have no option but to deliver when Elon Musk announces crazy projects to the world. And Spanish conquistadores couldn’t navigate back home… because they burned their own ships.

Next time we’re tempted to extend our lifelines one way or another, let’s take a moment to reflect, because we might just need the exact opposite. We might just need to burn our ships.

Special thanks to Phoebe, Joseph, Kesava, Ben, Alex, and Julian.

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