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 the ships

Centuries later, in 1519, the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortéz, employed the same strategy and had his men burn the ships 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.

Burning the ships
 Photo courtesy of Romain Bourguignon / Flickr

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    1. Many thanks, Dave! I very much appreciate it. All the best to you for a terrific 2015. I hope we get the chance to meet in person one day, whether in Canada or elsewhere.

  1. 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!

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

  3. 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,

    1. 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.

    1. Hi Umar. Thanks for the message. I still don’t know how the story will end, but the journey has been tremendous. Certainly there have been challenges, but the rewards have been worth it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bobby. And given that the Internet is forever, can one ever really be late?

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International