“In 210 BC, a Chinese commander named Xiang Yu led his troops across the Yangtze River to attack the army of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty. Pausing on the banks of the river for the night, his troops awakened in the morning to find to their horror that their ships were burning. They hurried to their feet to fight off their attackers, but soon discovered that it was Xiang Yu himself who had set their ships on fire, and that he had also ordered all cooking pots crushed.”
“Xiang Yu explained to his troops that without the pots and the ships, they had no other choice but to fight their way to victory or perish. That did not earn Xiang Yu a place on the Chinese army’s list of favorite commanders, but it did have a tremendous focusing effect on his troops (as they grabbed) their lances and bows, they charged ferociously against the enemy and won nine consecutive battles, completely obliterating the main-force units of the Qin dynasty”
Prof. Ariely is making a point about the advantage of making a choice to focus by closing other doors/options/opportunities.
“This is similar to when a bootstrapper enters the Valley of Death* and commits to their venture, but before they are making money and cash flow positive. They are forced to figure out how to make it work with what they’ve got. The timeline is not completely in their control.
We’re always tempted to leave ourselves an escape route or path of retreat. And usually that’s a good idea. But sometimes there aren’t enough resources to mount the attack and cover the retreat. In order to be successful sometimes you have to commit the resources to what you believe in because the retreat option isn’t acceptable. Sometimes once you head down a path there is just no turning back, so you might as well commit all of your resources to getting to the end”
I learned that indeed in the beginning of the civil war Xiang Yu was winning but with his rude manners, arrogance and lack of political vision, the tide turned against Xiang Yu and in the end he lost the war to Liu Bang.
In 202 BC, when Xiang Yu and his remaining men had their backs against the river while surrounded by Liu Bang’s troops, a boatman on a raft persuaded Xiang Yu to go with him across the river so he can prepare a comeback.
Xiang Yu said, “When I crossed the River and went west, I took with me 8,000 sons and brothers from east of the Yangtze. Now none of them has returned; how can I face the elders east of the Yangtze?” After declining this offer, Xiang Yu turned around, charged against the Han troops, killed over a hundred men, and finally cut his own throat.
Shortly after his death Liu Bang established the Han Dynasty.
Three concluding facts about Xiang Yu:
- Xiang is popularly viewed as a leader who possesses great courage but lacks wisdom, and his character is aptly summarized using the Chinese idiom “Yǒu Yǒng Wú Móu” (有勇無謀) – “Having Courage but No Strategies” (or to be foolhardy or to be more brave than wise or to have reckless courage…)
- Xiang’s battle tactics were studied by future military leaders while his political blunders served as cautionary tales for future rulers
- Xiang Yu is also the kind general that raided the Terracotta** tomb less than five years after the death of the First Emperor – Xiang’s army was looting of the tomb and structures holding the Terracotta Army, as well as setting fire to the necropolis and starting a blaze that lasted for three months.
“Yǒu Yǒng Wú Móu” (有勇無謀) – “Having Courage but No Strategies” – Think about it…! ;)
* Valley of Death – A slang phrase to refer to the period of time from when a startup receives an initial capital contribution to when it begins generating revenues.
During the death valley curve, additional financing is usually scarce, leaving the firm vulnerable to cash flow requirements.
** The Terracotta Army or the “Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses“, is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China
The figures, dating from 210 BC, vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians.
Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits.
There is also a legend that the terracotta warriors were real soldiers, buried with Emperor Qin so that they could defend him from any dangers in the next life.
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p.s. Prof. Ariely also recommends another role model for door closing – Rhett Butler for his supreme moment of unpredictable rationality with his astonishing elan, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”