“This is it. Doomsday. All you have. Make it the best day of your year. The saddest words you can ever utter are, ‘If I had my life to live over again.’ Take the baton, now. Run with it! This is your day!”
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
Leonardo da Vinci
“The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”
Jim Morrison (“Roadhouse Blues”; The Doors)
If you cannot afford to fail, you won’t.
In the beginning of the 16th century, the Aztecs ruled most of present day Mexico and possessed the world’s greatest collection of gold treasures. For six centuries the Aztecs had successfully, and brutally, defended these treasures.
In 1519, a Spanish Conquistador named Hernando Cortez set sail from Spain to Mexico with only 500 soldiers and 100 sailors. He landed on the shores of the Yucatan with one goal: overthrow the Aztec empire. After landing, Cortez faced one problem after another. First, a handful of his men turned out to be spies sent by a Spanish rival to undermine Cortez’s authority with the other men. Next, a rumor that Cortez was insane started to percolate through the army – an easy argument to make against a man planning to lead 500 soldiers against half a million flesh-eating Aztecs. Then, a mutinous group of Cortez’s men attempted to steal one of the ships and sail home to the comfort of their wives and families.
Cortez dealt with the troublemakers the best he could and tried to build a rapport with the other men, but his army remained divided. He couldn’t figure out how to focus his army and fill them with energy they needed for enormous task at hand. One morning, like a man possessed, Cortez woke up and banished the conspirators from his army. He then commanded the sailors to drill holes in the all of the ships and run them aground. After the ships were destroyed, Cortez addressed his men and admitted to what he had done. Then, he gave them two options: hang him and deal with the hostile Aztecs on their own, or commit themselves 100% to victory and follow him into the heart of the Aztec empire.
No one accepted the first offer. Instead, they burnt the ships to the ground and headed directly for Tenochtitlan, the capital of the expanding Aztec kingdom. With no means of turning back, Cortez’s army fought with absolute intensity and conquered the mighty Aztec empire.
The story of Cortez and the Aztecs conveys the concentration, passion, and force of will that is required for accomplishing an unusually large goal. Think of your biggest dream, your overall purpose in life, and ask yourself, “What is keeping you from achieving your goal?”
Most people are their own worst enemies. Instead of engaging in the present, they fantasize about the future and plan long-term ways to increase happiness. They take on several projects at once, never completely committing themselves to one. They comfort themselves with thoughts of accomplishing their goals slowly because nothing seems urgent to them. Understand: people only change their behavior when they have to. And since most people will never face desperate circumstances, they will never change. Instead, they will continue to procrastinate and only be half involved in anything they do.
You can avoid this mindset by deliberately putting yourself in situations where you have too much at stake to waste time or resources. Most often, this will involve taking action in a way that focuses you on one prize while cutting yourself off from other options. The idea of instilling people with a sense of urgency has been around for thousands of years. In The 33 Strategies Of War, Robert Greene tells how Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military general who served under King Helü of Wu (544 – 496 B.C.), would purposely place his warriors on “death ground”. For example, Tzu would station his armies against a mountain range, or in between a series of deep rivers. This would make death viscerally present to his army; they would have only two choices – succeed or go down. Under these circumstances, each warrior would fight with the ferocity of 20 men who had the usual option of retreating.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian author of Crime And Punishment and countless other books, wrote at incredible speeds. He relentlessly pursued perfection and was known for writing every sentence as though it would be his last. Dostoyevsky worked with such intensity because he was instinctually aware of the closeness of death. At a young age, his mother died suddenly of tuberculosis. Later in his life, he was imprisoned and condemned to death by the Russian government for his involvement in a political discussion group. His execution turned out to be a mock execution (worst practical joke ever) and he was sentenced to 4 more years in Siberia. Due to the sheer energy and volume of his work, Dostoyevsky became one of the most widely read and renowned writers in Russia. His books have been translated into more than 170 languages and have sold around 15 million copies.
The above examples may seem overly intense, but that is exactly what achieving your goal requires: a desperate intensity, an overwhelming sense of urgency. Act as if you only have 24 hours to accomplish your biggest dreams. I call this the Doomsday Strategy. I heard someone say, “tell a man he has 6 months to live and watch him achieve all of his lifelong goals in 5”. What could you accomplish if you were going to die today? What would be your purpose of living?
One way or another, time is running out. Shake up your life and smash it against the wall before it’s too late. Here are 3 ways to inject your dreams with a sense of urgency:
1. Eliminate all backup plans.
You can only develop a master plan for your life once you’ve banished all of your little backup plans. The explosion of choices now available to us in every aspect of our lives has negatively impacted our desires and expectations. We vaguely desire everything without ever really wanting one thing. We expect it all, but have no idea what to expect.
Call up a close friend right now and ask her to explain her biggest goal in one sentence. Ask her what her biggest professional, or personal, mountain peak looks like? What is her purpose of living? Chances are, you’ll hear a lot of silence, maybe a couple of “I don’t knows” and then some ramblings about “living happy” or “making money”.
Trust yourself. The first step to making your dream a reality is to make a decision – a real decision – one where you cut yourself off from any other options. Most people clutter their lives with secondary projects, stale relationships, and comfortable positions in hopes that they will always have something to fall back on. They choke themselves with these safety nets until they have completely suffocated their biggest dreams. Try to see all of your little back up plans as ships and bridges that need to be burned.
Stake everything on a single throw. Many Olympic track and field events allow three attempts. For example, javelin throwers get three throws and only their longest, legal throw is recorded. Likewise, shot putters get three attempts and only their longest shot is counted. Despite the fact that they get three throws, all of the top athletes treat each throw as if it’s their last. They know that acknowledging the existence of a backup throw will diminish their energy towards their current throw. Instead of diffusing your time and resources, choose one mission and make it your obsession.
2. Act before you are ready.
Have a bias for action. Once you make the decision to put yourself on death ground, act immediately. Action enforces commitment and builds momentum; it also eliminates fear. Get in the habit of entering new waters by setting yes as your default response to taking action. The key is to direct all of these actions towards your purpose driven business and your overall purpose in life.
Inaction creates indecision. Have you ever had a great idea and sat on it for a while. Then, you started thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. Finally, one day, you dismissed it as a bad idea just so you could stop thinking about it all together. Or maybe you saw a hot girl or guy and wanted to say hello, start a conversation, and see where it led. You started out really sure of yourself but then, instead of seizing the moment, you started to think about it some more. The more you thought about it, the more it seemed like a bad idea. Eventually the moment passed and nothing happened, or worse, you halfheartedly acted on your idea and said something awkward.
Without action, ideas rot. One mediocre idea that’s been put into swift action is more valuable than a dozen brilliant ideas that have been put on hold. Don’t wait until conditions are perfect because they never will be. There will always be something that isn’t quite right. Instead, make action a habit. Follow this sequence: start, start, start, adjust, start. Don’t wait around for inspiration to slap you in the face, go after it. Move around. Write something. Doodle. Act.
3. Break the rules
The price of security is mediocrity. The height of most people’s ambition is to coast through life without experiencing any discomfort. As a result, the majority of men and women go through their lives actively trying to not rock the boat, or not break the rules. It is impossible to do anything great without breaking the rules. Rules, not laws, are imaginary borders that other people draw around our lives. We are told that if we follow the rules we will remain safe and everything we want will eventually be given to us.
The more you fit in, the less you matter. The idea that conforming to your environment will keep you safe and make you successful is an illusion. Whether your dream involves making money or finding ways to enjoy life more, the only way to accomplish it is to color outside of the lines. In fact, you will need to erase the lines altogether.
The next time you go to a large BBQ or potluck, like the kind you have during a family reunion or work retreat, watch everyone stand around and look at each other when the host tells them that the food is ready. I’m always amazed by how people will just freeze, dumbfounded, waiting for someone to point at them directly and say, “it’s your turn.” Only after one brash person walks up to the food line and starts loading his tray does the rest of the group get in line. This happens whether or not the host asks for woman and children to dish up first. Why? Everyone is afraid of breaking the rules. They are all waiting for permission.
In life, no one is going to come up and tap you on the shoulder and say, “it’s your turn” or “it’s okay, you’re not breaking the rules”. Instead, the world will continue to dump rules on you like “think before you speak”, “wait your turn”, “do what you’re told”, and “don’t get ahead of yourself”. If you blindly accept these rules, you will wake up one day and realize that you have indeed missed your turn.
Energize your dreams by challenging the status quo. The shortest distance between you and achieving your goal is through a broken rule. In today’s world, almost all advances in business and entrepreneurship result from someone breaking the rules. The same is true for advancements in your personal development. Rocking people’s boats and stirring up trouble will snap your brain and body to attention. The tension that you create by breaking the rules will fill you with energy and focus your purpose. The key is to only stir up trouble for productive purposes, and to break the rules in ways that will ultimately better your life and the lives of others.
Today is doomsday. Think of life as a chessboard, and the player opposite you is time. If you take too long to move, your pieces will be wiped off the board by time. You are playing against a partner who has no patience for procrastination or indecision.