In Burn the Boats: Toss Plan B Overboard and Unleash Your Full Potential, American businessman Matt Higgins provides the blueprint he used to go from a desperate sixteen-year-old high school dropout caring for his sick mother in Queens, New York, to a shark on Shark Tank and the faculty of Harvard Business School.
Burn the Boats is about not becoming hesitant when your instincts don’t match what the world is telling you to do. The key to unlocking potential is to embrace your highest competitive advantage: you are the only one who has the full story of your life. YOU are the one subject about which there will never be a greater expert in the world.
To accomplish something great, you have to give yourself no escape route, no chance to ever turn back. You throw away your backup plans and you push forward, no longer bogged down by the infinite ways in which we hedge our own successes. Over time, our primitive instincts have been supplanted by conventional wisdom that pushes us to make contingency plans. The words “You never know” echo in our brains on an endless loop.
We are so out of practice tapping into our own internal navigation systems that when we’re about to make a bold move, our first impulse is to undercut it with a backup plan. In other words, we no longer trust our instincts. Yet the act of building a safety net is precisely what forces you to need one. If you’re someone who’s worried you won’t succeed, you’ve already failed.
Deep down, we all know what we are capable of. We all see visions of our future that no one else ratifies. Too often, conventional wisdom and external pressures sway us off course. From the time we are old enough to articulate our instincts, we are conditioned to dismiss them in favor of the institutions that govern us, and the people who are paid to know better. The advice of others may keep us safe from catastrophe—don’t put foil in the microwave!—but it also keeps us from tapping into our own unique brilliance.
Be the driver of your life
You have to be in the driver’s seat of your life. Justice won’t be meted out on your behalf. If you sense that you are being exploited, or being held back from your time to shine, you can’t stew in your own resentment and wait around to be recognized—or, even worse, indulge in self-pity. The law of compound interest applies as much to ideas and achievements as it does to money. The faster you secure new accomplishments, the more time you have over the course of your life to reap the fruits of exponential growth.
No matter what you achieve, it’s so easy to convince yourself that it’s not enough, that you’re not enough, and that the vultures are waiting to take you down at the first sign of weakness. But whether the vultures are real, or just the voices in our own heads, we can’t let them peck apart our self-esteem.
Before we can burn the boats, we have to be confident in who we are, unafraid of being felled by the forces gunning for our demise. We have to take back the power from those who seek to tear us down, from our past shames and failures, and from deep within, destroying all doubts, and steeling ourselves for the hard work of success. This chapter will cover the principles I believe are so critical to overcoming the past and readying ourselves for an unlimited future.
Ignore the Naysayers
We can’t let detractors win. To make progress in our lives, we have to ignore the negativity and pursue our ambitions no matter what anyone else is saying. Life is a constant tug-of-war between creators and destroyers. Creators are destined to win in the end—that much has been preordained, borne out over history—but that doesn’t make vanquishing the destroyers any simpler.
Lamenting that there are naysayers trying to tear you down is like wishing there was no gravity. The higher you rise, the more people will try to put you in your place. But you don’t have to let yourself be attacked. Instead, look upon the critics as a source of useful data, a proxy for some inevitable percentage of the population that will reflexively reject your idea. They test and strengthen your resolve. If you can’t defend the merits of your business to someone questioning its need to exist, then maybe it doesn’t need to exist at all. And the naysayers prove that there is alpha—the possibility of increased reward—in risk-taking. If everyone saw the wisdom of an idea or had the courage to pursue it, there would be no opportunity to move first, to break out before others see the potential.
Your shame can become your strength
Your shame can become your strength, too. Whatever you worry is holding you back is just a part of your story. Everyone has parts of their story that they ruminate about, hide from the world, or feel embarrassed to discuss. But once you realize that we all hold those kinds of secrets inside, their power over you diminishes. No, you can’t mistreat people, and (fortunately) we’ve seen especially over these past few years that actual bad behavior—bigotry, discrimination, harassment, and worse—can in fact be justifiably punished. But simply being human, and sometimes letting that humanity show? That’s a triumph, not a problem.
Opportunity: Lightning vs Thunder
You’re never going to be able to capitalize if you wait until opportunities are obvious and de-risked. I think of it like the difference between lightning and thunder. Light travels so much faster than sound. We see the flash and then there’s a long pause before the rumble. Most people don’t act on the lightning. They wait for unmistakable confirmation in the sound of thunder.
Except that information arbitrage only works if you’re acting alone, not if you wait for the herd. It’s easy to follow in someone else’s path. It’s far harder to start from scratch, to build up from nothing, to “create a market where none existed before. That’s where you find the biggest chances for breakthrough success. Act on the lightning.
You Can’t Predict the Timeline of Success
The reality is that when you’ve passed the tipping point, you won’t wonder about it—it will be incredibly obvious. If you don’t know whether you’re early or late, I’ll bet almost every time that you’re early, and that there’s still plenty of upside.
You need to structure your big bets in life to give yourself time to be right. It’s hard enough to be right; it’s impossible to predict exactly when you’ll be right. Maybe you’re very wrong in micro-terms, but Nostradamus when it comes to the macro. I tell people it takes at least three years for a startup to stabilize, five to reap the harvest—and almost never less, no matter the product.
All the Best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.