The Secret to Success in Life

Achieving more in life requires us to remove our safety nets and make achieving our goals the only possible option.


One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned came from my father. It’s a lesson three decades in the making and one I believe is the secret to success in life.

My parents bought their first home when I was 4 years old. Ours was a working-class family that relied on income from both parents to make ends meet. Shortly after moving into this new home though, my parents got divorced and my mother took my siblings and me to live elsewhere.

The logical thing for my father to do would have been to put the house up for sale. He didn’t need a two-story family home for himself, he had child support payments to make, and on top of that, he was required to pay back my mother the money she’d invested in the house.

My father was a laborer. He never earned more than a 5 or 6 dollars above minimum wage. Again, the logical thing to do would’ve been to sell the house. But my father didn’t do that. He made a decision to meet his obligations while keeping his home.

Thirty years later, after living through several financial crisis’s, that last of which depleted his retirement investment account, having worked full-time, overtime, and more side jobs than I can remember, and enduring a heart-wrenching layoff from the company he’d dedicated his whole life to, my father made the last mortgage payment on his house.

My father has taught me many lessons about life, the most important of which is that the moment you make a decision about what you want to achieve, you must not settle for any other outcome. This, I believe, is the secret to success in life.

The Secret to Success in Life: Burn Your Boats

There’s an anecdote about Hernán Cortés that, whether true or not, is a great example of the mindset required for success.

It’s said that when the Spanish Conquistador arrived in the new world searching for treasure, he instructed his crew to burn the ships behind them. They would achieve their quest or die. There was no turning back. Cortés eventually conquered the Aztec empire and the rest, as they say, is history.

The idea of removing our safety nets is scary but it’s often the incentive we need to succeed. Left no choice for retreat, we show the urgency and creativity needed to reach our goals. Science seems to agree that this is the secret to success in life. According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “merely thinking through a backup plan can reduce goal performance and actually hurt the chances of successfully achieving your goal.”

In my father’s case, he always had a way out, the option to sell the house never went away. My father burned the boats in his mind. He did not allow himself to think of anything but the possibility of paying off the mortgage one day. This required a mental strength that may altogether be tougher than eliminating a way out.

It’s a daily grind to keep working, staying committed, while not thinking about an escape route that’s always lurking in the background.

Make no mistake, it takes a lot of guts to put ourselves in a position where we have no option but to succeed. What this looks like in the real world is: quitting our job to pursue a lifelong dream, depleting our savings accounts to fund a business venture, or finally being honest with our bosses, family, or friends about what we really think and what we really want.

What if We Have Too Many Responsibilities to Burn Our Boats?

We all have obligations we must meet. These obligations weigh more heavily on some than others. If we have a family to support, carry massive debt, or have people that heavily depends on us, it’s not an easy choice to willingly remove our safety nets.

Regardless, we must never forget that we have obligation to ourselves and our dreams too. If we can’t burn our boats, we’ll have to work that much harder to achieve success.  It may mean working long hours, it may mean sacrificing weekends, and it may even mean losing contact with the people and things that bring no value to our lives.

Ultimately, our success comes down to what we’re willing to sacrifice. In writing this, I’m not suggesting we forsake everything in search of our goals. We have to approach all the things that matter to us with the same mindset we have for our goals.

My father was a constant figure in my life while growing up despite how much he worked. He provided all the guidance and love a person could ever ask for. He did this because he made fatherhood something he couldn’t fail at, no matter what.

Everything we need to find happiness, to be successful, can be ours if we simply accept no alternative and then put in the work to make it happen. Whether we do it literally or figuratively, we need to burn our boats. That is the secret to success in life.

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