Burn the Boats

Not a lot is known about Hernán Cortés due to the unreliability of the information, but one thing is understood for certain – his initiatives brought about the end of the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s and captured immense riches for himself.

He accomplished what so many others before him had tried – but failed.

What set Cortés apart?

His techniques for motivating himself and his troops – and a brilliant philosophy for overcoming adversity.

Prior to embarking on the final leg of his historic voyage, Cortés recruited many sailors and troops to help with the impending siege. He personally interviewed each person to ensure not only that they were aligned with the mission, but to implant within each of them the sense of what success would feel like.

Every person on board Cortés’ eleven ships was single-handedly committed to achieving the goal.

Until they became disillusioned, and failure was imminent.

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Why I No Longer Hate Toll Booths

During one of my college years, I lived off campus and drove to the city every day to attend classes. The only way into the city required crossing one of two bridges, both of which had steep tolls – at least from the perspective of a financially struggling college student.

The toll booths would inevitably cause anxiety-inducing traffic backups, particularly on exam days. I wasn’t smart enough to envision a future like E-ZPass, but I certainly had the sense that there’s got to be a better way to manage toll collection.

For me, the traffic jams and toll payments were major blockages to my youthful sense of peace. If both could be done away with, life would be much better.

But would it really?

Most of us would say that we’d prefer not to have any adversity in our life. Or, at least a substantial lessening of our existing troubles.

But there’s another way of looking at adversity – one that completely changes our worldview.

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The Flip Side of Labeling

I hated labels. Abhorred them.

It likely started growing up as the only Jewish family in an intolerant neighborhood.

We don’t like your kind. You don’t belong. Get out of here Jewboy.

And those comments were from some of the more “friendly” folks.

Being shorter than many of my classmates didn’t help either. Nor having a strong affinity for academics.

Label. Label. Label.

In most cases, labeling is a form a judgment. It’s a way we can create a clear distinction between us (the good ones) and them (clearly not like us).

But there is a form of labeling that can actually be quite helpful and empowering.

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Urgent vs. Important

Consider what you would do if you received two life-changing phone calls. In the first call, you learn that you’ve inherited $20 million – no strings attached. In the second call, you are informed that you have a rare and incurable disease and have only 10 years left to live.

What would you do differently, and in particular, what would you stop doing?

That is the thought experiment posed to Jim Collins, author of the widely popular business book Good to Great, by one of his advisors. Since that time, Collins developed an annual “stop doing” list to help guide his priorities.

An insightful MIT study explored how well top managers within companies prioritized their key challenges. During the interviews, executives were asked to share the most important problems they were facing. And most of the managers listed five or so such major problems.

But when the study examined what the managers actually worked on during the previous few weeks, not a single one of them reported any activity directly associated with those problems. In other words, they did not do any work on those most important priorities.

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No One Is To Blame

As kids, whenever something would break in our house, my dad would shout at my brother and me: “Who did this?!”

We’d both look at one another, then back to my dad, and in unison say, “He did.”

There were only two siblings, so the only way one of us could be innocent when something “bad” happened was to ensure the other person was deemed guilty.

We had previously tried blaming the cat for incidents such as broken windows and holes in the wall, but surprisingly, my parents’ sense of believability only stretched so far.

As young boys, we truly believed the safest, and surest, path to freedom was to imprison the other one.

It’s not surprising that my brother and I were not the closest of friends growing up.

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