Live on death ground
For most of us, death is something immense and frightening. So society is organised to make death invisible. That invisibility may seem necessary for our comfort, but it comes with a terrible price: the illusion of limitless time. Turn this dynamic around: make the thought of death something not to escape, but to embrace. It may sound exaggerated, but feeling death at your heels will make all your actions more certain and more forceful. The idea of death can give us the highest sense of urgency: it makes us more alive, more dynamic and more focussed.
Burn your ships
Think of the Chinese war strategist Sun-tzu. He deeply believed in the value of a “death ground”: a place where an army is backed up against some geographical feature like a mountain, a river, or a forest and has no escape route. Sun-tzu believed that without a way to retreat, an army would fight with double or triple the spirit it would have on open terrain – simply because death is omnipresent. So Sun-tzu was in favour of deliberately stationing soldiers on death ground to give them the desperate edge that makes men fight like the devil.
That is also exacty what Hernan Cortés did in Mexico in the 16th century: burning all eleven ships he had used to travel from Cuba to Mexico. And why? Because in the back of the minds of his soldiers, there was always an escape route: if their conquest for new land and gold went badly, they could go home. Those ships in the harbour were more than just transportation: they were an insurance, they represented Cuba and the freedom to leave. By putting his men in a desperate place, Cortés made them fight with the highest intensity. Instead of five hundred men, Cortés suddenly had the weight of a much larger army at his back to fight against half a million Aztecs.
Think like a samurai
If you have too many escape routes, you never involve yourself deeply enough in one thing to do it thoroughly. And you never quite get what you want. Have the courage to burn your ships and leave yourself just one option: succeed or go down. Get rid of your safety net. Face death. Sometimes you have to become a little desperate to get anywhere. In “Hagakure: the book of the Samurai” by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, there is an interesting sentence: “The way of the samurai is in desperateness. Ten men or more cannot kill such a man. Common sense will not accomplish great things. Simply become insane and desperate”.
“Death ground” is a psychological phenomenon that goes well beyond the battlefield. We all sometimes have the feeling that we cannot retreat. That we are enclosed and without options, while time is running. Failure (which you could consider as a form of death) is then staring you in the face. In those situations, you have no alternative: you must act because the situation is challenging you. Don’t be afraid of these situations. Even more, have the courage to sometimes put yourself on death ground and you will see that it changes the dynamic: you are highly focussed and compelled to waste no more time.
I fully agree with Napoleon when he said “Sometimes death only comes from a lack of energy”. And a lack of energy comes from a lack of challenges; when we have taken on less than we are capable of. So burn your ships. Dare to put everything on a single throw. And believe that under pressure your creativity and your willingness to fight will flourish. Move yourself or your colleagues to death ground. It will also give them a higher purpose. Because indeed: everything has more meaning in the face of death.
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