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The Xenophile Historian

K. U. P.

(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)

Limit Your Options

In 2009 I heard a motivational speech that began with this story: Once upon a time, a military leader took his army overseas to conquer a distant country. However, the other country had a much larger army, so when the commander arrived, he ordered that all their ships be burned. He did this because he knew that the loyalty and morale of the men was questionable, and they would try to withdraw if at any point it looked like they might lose. Destroying the fleet told the men that failure was not an option; they could not go home. If they wanted to survive, they would have to win, and they did!

The speaker never told us which military leader he was talking about, but as an historian, I knew. It was Hernando Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico. His six hundred Spanish soldiers faced the Aztec Empire, which had a population that numbered in the millions. And being vastly outnumbered was the least of their problems. If they failed, the best thing that could happen was for them to be slain in battle; those who did not die in the conflict would be taken up on the Aztec pyramids of Tenochtitlan, where their hearts would be cut out and offered to the gods of ancient America. To the Spaniards, horrid deities like Huitzilopochtli, Coatlicue, and Coyolxauhqui must have looked worse than the devil they believed in. Thus, it really was a do-or-die situation for Cortez and his troops.

For more on the Aztecs and why Cortez thought they were so awful, read what I wrote about them in Chapters 1 and 2 of my Latin American history.

The point of the speech is that if we see more than one solution to a problem, or more than one way to become successful, we are not going to concentrate all our energy on one activity. This means our commitment will be half-hearted if we feel we have something to fall back on, should our initial plan not work, and overall we will be less motivated to succeed. On the other hand, if you want something bad enough and are totally committed to a plan for achieving it, watch the world make a path for you to succeed! Diversification may be a good idea when making investments, but elsewhere too many choices can be more confusing than helpful.

I will use another example from military history. Have you noticed that most soldiers don't go into battle with all the arms and armor they can carry? The typical warrior will have one weapon, two at the most. Examples would include a Roman legionary with a spear (pilum) and shortsword (gladius), an English archer with a longbow and dagger, a samurai with two swords of different lengths, or a modern soldier with a rifle and hand grenades. Usually the two weapons are of different types, for use in different combat situations; e.g., the archer draws his dagger when an enemy gets too close to shoot with his bow.

Why just one or two weapons? Two reasons are obvious--they're expensive and heavy. The third reason is that it would cause confusion if someone carried more, which is why the walking arsenals in fantasy games like "Dungeons and Dragons" are not realistic. Imagine you were such a character, and you are hiking along with a broadsword, crossbow, dagger, small axe, javelin (with an atlatl), quarterstaff, revolver, and a bottle of magic powder. You may be strong enough to carry all those weapons, but where will you put them? If our hero is suddenly ambushed, the assailant will cut him to shreds, while he's still trying to decide which weapon to go for. In your own venture, don't put yourself in a similar situation, by giving yourself too many options to choose from.

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