Burning the ships and sailing away

The legendary Alexander the Great built an empire that, at its height, stretched from Ancient Greece to India. One of his strongest and most formidable enemies was the Persian Empire of Darius III. In 334 BC, Alexander led a fleet of Greek and Macedonian ships across the Dardanelles Straits and into Asia Minor. When he reached the shore, Alexander ordered his men to burn the ships. He told his men, “We will either return home in Persian ships or we will die here.”

Burning ShipCenturies later, in 1519, the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortéz, would employ the same strategy when he landed on the shores of (what is today) Mexico to embark on his campaign against the Aztecs. Similar tales are told of the Vikings and other warriors throughout the ages.

By burning his ships, Alexander hoped to galvanize and motivate his troops. They knew that they had to fight in order to survive. There was no other way. To borrow from Ed Harris’s line in Apollo 13, failure was not an option. And so Alexander’s men were fully committed to the campaign ahead.

I have been pondering these historical events over the previous months as they have come to take on increased significance in my own life.

Last year, I had the opportunity to speak at TEDx Lausanne. The theme of the conference was “Perpetual (R)Evolution”. I spoke about my own evolution, from a corporate litigator in a large law firm in Canada to the United Nations in Switzerland to taking the step to branch out on my own into the world of professional speaking. Only it wasn’t a full step.

In October 2013, I tendered my resignation at the World Health Organization in order to pursue public speaking full time at the beginning of 2014. I was prepared to make the jump. What I wasn’t prepared for was my employer asking me whether I would consider working part-time. After thinking about it, I accepted for two reasons: I enjoy working with my colleagues; and it was a safety net in case the public speaking work didn’t materialize as planned.

The experience of working 50% at a job and 50% for myself for a year has been interesting and illuminating. There were times when I felt a bit stretched, but the workload was manageable and I had a successful year in both domains.

However, as the year wore on, it became apparent that my situation was not sustainable. Not because of the workload or pace. Rather, I realized that I would never be able to achieve my full potential either on my own or within the United Nations system by splitting my time between the two. Half-measures are rarely a recipe for success.

And so I have decided to burn the ships. My supervisor and I have agreed that my last day of work as a staff member of the WHO will be 28 February 2015. I would be remiss if I did not thank my colleagues who have been so understanding and supportive of my decision. I may be burning ships, but I am not burning bridges!

So a new journey beckons and I will find myself traveling it in less than two months. There is much work to do and my sleeves are already rolled up. Am I nervous? Let’s see: I’m 52. I’m giving up a good job in a great organization. I’m giving up a pension plan, medical insurance and other benefits. I am embarking on an odyssey that will doubtless be fraught with challenges and whose destination is uncertain. Of course I’m nervous.

But I am also excited and motivated by the adventure that lies ahead. If it doesn’t work out, I can always find something to do. But if I don’t try now, I will always wonder what might have been. And I don’t want to go through life like that.

Long-time readers of this blog know that Mark Twain is a great source of inspiration for me. This wisdom of his is particularly apt:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

So in the end, there is one ship that I have not burned. The one that none of us can burn. The ship that is our life. My ship has already had a number of years at sea, but she’s in good shape for her age. Her equipment is in solid working order and she has a wily captain to steer her through waters calm or stormy. I look forward to the journey.


 Photo courtesy of Romain Bourguignon / Flickr

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Motivation, Personal and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Burning the ships and sailing away

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  9. Good luck in this new adventure!

    Find here a nice article from the Economist last Xmas double issue about Hernán Cortés: http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21636686-journey-past-most-mexicans-would-rather-forget-trail-hern-n

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  11. Mariyana says:

    Very inspirational post! Best of luck in your new endeavours, John!
    Will you be moving to Barcelona or it’s just for the March event?

    Best regards,

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Mariyana. Many thanks for the good wishes. I won’t be moving to Barcelona (much as I love the city) but I have been traveling there for work two or three times per year for the last couple of years.



  12. xclampa says:

    So glad you’re doing this! Looking forward to seeing you in Barcelona, as a full-time speaker. Justine 🙂

  13. Congratulations on taking this step, John. I admire you for taking it, and I wish you all the best.

  14. Bryan Johnson says:

    John, I enjoyed reading your post, and best of luck on the new journey!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank, Bryan. I always appreciated your when you were here in Geneva and still appreciate it from North Carolina. All the best for a great 2015.


  15. Hamed says:

    Very inspiring and courageous decision John. I wish you all the best for the rest of the journey. Good luck.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you, Hamed. I look forward to catching up with you on another chatroom session some time in 2015. All the best for the new year.


  16. Make sure you capture the fire from the burning ships and carry it with you to every audience – may you achieve all the success you desire as you Speak…and Deliver! 🙂

  17. In the immortal words of Seneca … “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” You’re well prepared and you have tons of opportunities! Great decision and needless to say, you can always count on me!

  18. Great post and better decision John. Best of luck to you. Look forward to following along with your success. Happy New Year.

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