A Caution Against the Do-or-Die Mentality

While making every attempt to not be excessively negative or cynical, I am writing today about a trope that we hear in the context of motivational speeches or winning attitudes with which I often find myself disagreeing. That mentality, as those of you who read the title likely guessed, is the do-or-die mentality. At some point in our lives we have probably heard friends, coaches, teachers, mentors, bosses, or random motivational-guru’s talk to us and tell us that the only way to become happy is to become successful and the only way to become successful is to go 110% all in with the idea that we either achieve greatness or we die in the effort.

I find this ridiculous because very few things in life are truly do-or-die and the winner-take-all loser-get-nothing attitude rarely holds up to thorough examination. The stereotypical archetype of the person giving this advice is a tough-talking speaker on stage telling you their life story about fighting through poverty and kicking down the doors of opportunity because they wouldn’t open on their own and making themselves into the person they are through nothing but hard-nosed determination, grit, and refusal to quit.

This might work for some people and this might work in some scenarios but this is not the only way to reach success and to find happiness. For every success story achieved with a “burn the ships” mentality there is a story of ruin and disaster from someone who refused to take proper stock of either themselves or their environment, neglected an opportunity to retreat and regroup, or who lacked respect for the difficulty of what they were trying to achieve, holding onto an inflated ego (“Burn the Ships” is a metaphor describing how if one were to burn their ships upon landing on enemy shores they would have no choice but to succeed or die trying). For every triumphant victory this attitude has won there are failures such as: Major General George Pickett’s fateful charge up Cemetery Hill during the U.S. Civil War – a charge that cost him 3/4 of his unit and likely turned the tide of the battle and the war; Colonel George Custer’s famous last stand at the battle of Little Bighorn where his entire regiment was killed; and lastly Marcus Licinius Crassus of the Roman Empire who was killed in his ill advised invasion of Parthia.

Each of the above examples come from military history, not the only such topic which we can demonstrate the theme at hand, but these instances each demonstrate a lack of knowledge of self in the strength of the leader’s units, a lack of respect and awareness about what they were doing and for their enemy, and an ego that convinced them that they could not be stopped – despite the overwhelming evidence they each should have seen.

What each of these men could have done would be to take a moment to accurately take stock of their own units: what were their numbers and armaments and what was their energy level or morale (Pickett’s men for example were exhausted by two full days of prior fighting). They should have taken a moment to analyze the objective: what was the enemy position and what exactly would a victorious assault entail; does a victorious assault seem feasible given all that we know or could they will themselves to victory. Lastly, they could have stopped for a moment and considered if discretion may have been the better part of valor and if they might retreat or regroup in order to restore their strength or apply an advantage elsewhere. Using the example of Pickett again, yes, he was ordered by his superiors to take the hill so maybe the blame is not squarely on him, but this was an ill advised decision that held little chance of survival in any case and ended up not just costing thousands of lives but turning the tide of the way. Perhaps those 12,000 men and the rest of the Confederate army could have pulled back but lived to fight another day. (Disclaimer: I abhor war but I am glad the Union/North one. I am by no means a lover of the Confederacy – this example simply is used to illustrate my point and because this was the turning point in a war that was until this point being won by the separatists).

Sometimes we do find ourselves in circumstances where the best chance of success is to put our head down and plug ahead. Many people will quit on the road to whatever aim they have because they are disheartened with their lack of progress or with the seemingly infinitely far distance where the accomplishment of their goals lie. In such cases buck up, put in the work, and forge ahead. But also have the wisdom to recognize when an alternative strategy may be better.

Sometimes our lack of success is not due to a lack of effort but by the wrong approach. This is why we need micro-goals and milestones by which we can measure our progress. If we continuously miss these milestones, then perhaps it is not our effort but our tactics that are wrong. Take such time to pause and consider whether a different strategy may be more useful. Insanity after all is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Not only can it be beneficial to pause and consider alternate strategies for success, but sometimes a tactical withdrawal or retreat can be the wisest choice. Military history would again show us numerous examples where a literal retreat was beneficial (see Battle of Dunkirk in WWII) but I will not go too deep down that rabbit hole again during this post. Have you ever changed careers? You likely found yourself working hard to reach a certain position and then realized you weren’t happy where you were. Maybe it was because you weren’t at your final goal yet and needed to work harder, or maybe after further thought you realized it was because you were on the wrong path all-together. Thus, rather than re-strategizing, you completely withdrew into a new path and thus found happiness – just one possible example of when such an approach would be useful.

My final issue with the winner-take-all / burn the ships trope is that life is not a zero-sum-game. Much success and happiness can be found despite not fully achieving whatever goal or objective we once thought was vital to our personal fulfillment. Life doesn’t work that way and this is a good thing. If you set out to lose 100 pounds in a year and you only lose 90; or if it takes 13 months instead of 12, should you feel a failure? Hell no! You are still 90% better than you were when you started or only slightly delayed. So often we focus exclusively on a future goal in the horizon, not realizing that in all of life we never really get to the horizon. Life is the journey and the real goal is the progress and growth we develop along the way rather than the end result. Have you ever achieved a goal you worked hard for, been ecstatic, and then felt lost or confused without that goal to work towards any longer? I have. Often times in such moments we are reminded that the striving towards a goal, towards an ideal, is better than actually achieving that goal.

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