Excerpt: Comeback by Todd Burnham

Desperation is Rocket Fuel

The thing about desperation is that it doesn’t allow for planning. You don’t have time to sit back, assess your choices, consider options, or compare them. There is no studying or researching. You have no time for preparation or planning. You don’t have the option of being thoughtful, precise, or careful.

Desperation prompts immediate action. You do not have time to think things through and try to find logical solutions. If we waited to aim before firing in a high-stakes situation, chances are we wouldn’t get past aim. 'Ready, Aim, Fire' sounds great, and for some people it works, but it has never worked for me. I get caught up in the details, in the unknown, and end up wasting a lot of valuable time and energy without any payoff.

Desperation allows us to DO first, think later. Take action, then evaluate the results. Aiming after firing allows us to consider the data that we have generated over however many months and, armed with accurate data and experience, we are better able to alter our charted course. Slight adjustments can happen once you are full steam ahead, and this is more effective than spending hours sweating the details of some hypothetical plan.

Once you’ve taken action and are ready to evaluate the results, you’ll need to use your mistakes and failures to grow. Now you can aim. And when you do, remember what technical advisor Mark Baker told Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger when teaching them how to shoot a muzzle-loading rifle. "Aim small, miss small." When you aim at a man and miss, you miss the man. If you aim at a button on the man’s jacket and miss, you still hit the man. Instead of aiming to buy a home, aim to save $500 a week. Instead of aiming for a promotion, aim for a compliment on your current project. In addition to evaluating the mistakes and failures of your action, targeting small, specific goals will minimize the odds of making further mistakes.

Inspiration vs. Desperation

A lot of self-help books talk about inspiration. They encourage people to make vision boards, create ten-year goals, and listen to TED Talks that will inspire them. Look, I’m not going to knock inspiration. Wanting what others have is certainly a powerful force. Everyone I know, including me, has role models, people we look up to, those that motivate us to be more successful in our lives. But again, this book isn’t about wanting to make a change. It’s about needing to. When we are facing incredible adversity, we aren’t going to feel inspired by anything. We feel like there is no way out, no way up. The compelling force of Inspiration is lost in times of trauma. Inspiration is light and airy, a powerful magician that floats in to help guide us when all is well with the world. Desperation is a down-and-dirty warrior who kicks down the door to save us when our world is falling apart.

Those same self-help books will tell you that desperation is a weakened state, that we should not allow ourselves to get to that point. I’m here to tell you that’s backwards. Through centuries of human development, our brains have refined the state of desperation as a tool for survival. Pretending things are fine to appear strong and in control is just that–pretend. The anxiety and stress that we feel when our situation becomes desperate pushes us to take actions we never would have imagined possible. Embrace them.

Inspiration implies you have time to daydream, read a book, cut out pictures from Luxury Home magazine while sipping a latte. Desperation is robbing a bank. Desperation is inspiration’s feral cousin. Desperation means you must do something right now, and you will throw absolutely anything at the wall to see if it sticks. In this state, your mind is able to come up with crazy schemes. Things are so bad that even the most ridiculous ideas have just as many odds of working as any well-thought-out plan. If you feel desperate about the situation you have found yourself in, you are not weak. You have not failed. You are empowered to take on this situation with a drive and creativity that is beyond anything you can imagine.

Desperation Evaporates Paralysis

Change is uncomfortable. When we think about making a change, whether big or small, it’s not uncommon to become overwhelmed with what-ifs. That’s the benefit of hitting bottom. Without the bottom, and the accompanying desperation, the analysis was academic. When I hit rock bottom, I knew I had to make a change to get out of the situation, but then I started thinking about what that change might look like. I made lists. I considered options. I weighed the pros and cons. And I became paralyzed, unable to think about my situation at all. I turned away. Refused to address it. That list of pros and cons can be a killer. To the human brain, one con is enough to dissuade us from change, no matter how many pros we can muster up. It’s not rabid. Desperation is rabid.

It’s called 'analysis paralysis.' Our mind rolls ideas over and over, looking for new information and new arguments. Eventually, we become so afraid that we’ll make the wrong decision, we end up making no decision at all. What if I pick the wrong option? What if there are other choices I didn’t consider? You could pave a road to the horizon with what-ifs.

But when we are in a desperate enough situation, we don’t have time to go over all of the what-ifs. There are very few options available anyhow. Even if we do have some choices, we do not have time to do an in-depth analysis. We’re in a spot where we must do something now.

Desperation obliterates analysis paralysis. It motivates us to move forward with something, anything! Anything other than the rock bottom situation we’ve found ourselves in is a good step at this point. Desperation motivates us to push ahead even though we don’t have all the facts, options, or any idea of how to navigate the options that seem feasible.

In a desperate state, we are free to push through. The what-ifs no longer matter. Analysis goes out the window. Plotting, planning, evaluating, and scrutinizing are no longer needed. All you’re left with are your instincts and creativity. Follow them. They will not let you down. The more you embrace this moment of desperation and the power if offers, the stronger you get.

Creativity Breeds Options

The more desperate you become, the more creative you become. New, off-the-wall options start to materialize. In a recent Carolina Panthers football game, the place kicker was injured in the pre-game warm-up. The team did not have another player who would kick field goals. For all the fourth downs, regardless of the distance needed to get the down, they had to go for it. This has never happened before in NFL football.

They had no option to kick a field goal during the game, a major strategy used by teams to win. This was a desperate situation. There was no back-up plan. The coaches had to make the decision right then and there that they could not attempt a single field goal. They had to go for two-point conversions after every touchdown. This desperate situation changed their entire approach to the game, forcing them to be creative and come up with solutions they had no time to analyze or weigh. Fire, then aim. They lost the game but discovered a powerful new tool: how to work without a place kicker. Desperation is the reason we continue to set records, to grow. Without it, we would never reach the levels of creativity required to advance.

Desperation has also led to untrained people being put in as NHL goalies. When the starter and the back-up goalie are suddenly injured or ill, and there’s no time to call someone up from a minor league, teams have put in equipment managers, relatives of players, bankers in the community, grad students, and web producers to man the net–and won the game. A ridiculous concept when you think about it. But in times of desperation, we don’t think about it.

If you’ve ever been home alone with a toddler when the power goes out (no screens!), it’s too cold to play outside, and your car won’t start, you have known desperation. You find crazy creative ways to keep your kid busy and occupied, things you would never consider on a regular day. Sometimes the games you invent on those days become long-standing favorites. If you’ve ever been in the middle of making dinner and realize you are missing a key ingredient and don’t have time to go to the store, your desperation pushes you to find a substitute. Women on the home front dealing with food shortages during World War II concocted many popular recipes still in use today, out of desperation. My grandmother’s signature chocolate cake recipe calls for Miracle Whip instead of oil and eggs. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Desperation Kills Procrastination

Desperation forces us to move and to move immediately. When we are at a rock-bottom point in our life, procrastination becomes less attractive. We may want to procrastinate on some massive, daunting new work project. I’ll start tomorrow. What’s 24 hours? But when the boss bursts in and tells us we have one day to finish the assignment or we’re out on our ass, we’d rather do the work now and save procrastination for later.

Juan, another client of ours, recently lost his job. A huge hit to his self-esteem. He was an educated, professional guy who had recently overcome cancer and was putting the financial pieces of his life back together. After using most of his money to pay for the out-of-network treatment he needed, he thought things were on the upswing. This job was his path to a comfortable and successful future. But he found himself being escorted to the door the day his company was bought. He came home with his box of pens and photos and coffee mugs and sat on the couch for two months playing video games. He couldn’t face a job search. He put it off.

He went for a routine follow-up exam. The cancer was back. Now Juan absolutely had to get a job with insurance so he could get the ongoing care he needed to beat that cancer and pay his bills. He was suddenly desperate. Procrastination was no longer an option. Juan got on the computer that night, updated his resume, scrolled LinkedIn and Indeed, and applied for 20 jobs. He was hired within a week. His desperation forced him to get up and take action. What could have taken years (it takes a long time to find a job playing video games) took one week. He’s got a job that is better than the last one and he’s cancer-free. The moment he lost his job, his future looked so bleak that he could not move to change it. But if things get bad enough, desperation will drive us to push forward and find solutions.

Imagine putting yourself in an escape room. You’re stuck, locked in, and if you want to win the game, you have to use every brain cell, pull on all your strength, all your courage, try everything possible. In an escape room you have limited resources, a lot of roadblocks, and a ticking timer. A rock-bottom scenario coupled with desperation creates the same atmosphere. You’re locked in, the clock is ticking, it’s time to think outside the box.

When we’re desperate, we don’t need a game plan. We don’t need a roadmap. We don’t even have to know where the heck we’re going. What we need is the strength and creativity to find just one thing that works. One. Then and only then do we think about the next step. And then the next.

Burn the Ships

The phrase “Burn the Ships” was derived from a not entirely accurate, yet popular story.1 In 1519, Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortés landed on the shores of the Yucatan in Mexico with one objective: to seize the great treasures the Aztecs had hoarded there. The mission wouldn’t be an easy one, but Cortés was a powerful influencer. As the story goes, he was able to persuade over 100 sailors and 500 soldiers to board eleven ships in Spain and set out for Mexico, promising them riches to last for generations.

People at the time were baffled at how a small band of Spanish soldiers were able to arrive in a strange country and swiftly overthrow a large empire that had been in power for over six centuries. For Cortés, the answer was easy. It was all or nothing. A complete and total commitment. Cortés got the buy-in from the rest of his men by taking away the option of failure. It was conquer and be heroes and enjoy the spoils of victory. . . or DIE! When Cortés and his men arrived at their destination, he pumped them up for the ensuing battle with three words. “Burn the ships!”

The men erupted in resistance. Destroy their only ride home? They were surrounded by some of the most dangerous warriors on Earth. And he’s asking them to eliminate their only means of escape? Cortés repeated his command. "Burn the ships!" adding, "If we are going home, we are going home in their ships.”2 The men did as their leader asked and destroyed the 11 ships they had arrived in. This changed everything. The men went from wanting to win the battle to needing to win the battle. Cortés had instilled desperation.

Incredibly, the men conquered the Aztecs. While I am certainly not endorsing the horrific, destructive, and violent acts of the Spanish, I cannot help but use this tale to emphasize how desperation allowed these men to succeed where others had been unsuccessful for six centuries. They had no other option. No escape. No fallback position. It was succeed or die. Desperation is a major force in producing change. The desperate person is anything but weak.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Now that you see the value of desperation, I need to caution you not to let desperation overtake your moral compass or your rational mind. Useful, productive desperation will never push you to the point of breaking the law, harming someone, or endangering your health. Those are not solutions. They are mistakes. I want you to embrace your desperation as a tool to dig yourself out of the hole, not further in. To discover creative, productive, helpful options, and opportunities that will propel you forward out of your situation.

While desperation eliminates analysis paralysis, kills procrastination, and breeds creativity and action, it does not override good sense. Desperation pushes us to act now, but in that action, we must remain human, we must stay in touch with reality and recognize that our actions have consequences. They can harm others or take us further into despair. Remember, your desperation should drive you to productive, forward-reaching actions and solutions. If there is nothing positive in the action, it’s not going to help you.

This is not to say that your desperation can’t drive you to do risky things. The whole point of desperation is that it pushes you against the wall so that you’re ready to do things you never would have imagined. For one person, that might mean hanging out in a building’s lobby to force some face time with the CEO by whom they want to be hired. For someone else, it might mean selling roses on a street corner to get the cash to pay for a van they can live in. It could mean packing up and moving across the country, without a job or a plan, to maintain a consistent presence in your kids’ lives after a divorce.

There is no fear of failure when things are desperate. They cannot get worse. Anything you try gives you a chance of improving things, as long as it does not harm you or others. A 10-percent chance that your seat-of-the-pants Hail Mary pass will save you is 10 percent better than the 100 percent chance you will remain at rock bottom if you do nothing.

Remarkable Rebounds: Marc Zupan

“My injury has led me to opportunities and experiences and friendships I would never have had before. And it has taught me about myself. In some ways, it's the best thing that ever happened to me.”3

Marc Zupan was just a regular college kid when he got drunk and fell asleep in the back of a friend’s truck. The friend drove away, not knowing he was back there, and he was thrown from the truck and suffered injuries that left him quadriplegic. This was his rock-bottom moment. Zupan healed and got his college degree and became a national champion in quad rugby twice, also being named player of the year. He went on to win a bronze medal and a gold medal on the U.S. Paralympics team. He has appeared in many TV shows and movies and wrote an autobiography. He works full-time as a civil engineer.

End of Excerpt

Footnotes:

  1. Reynolds WA. The Burning Ships of Hernán Cortés. Hispania. Vol. 42, No. 3 (Sep. 1959), pp. 317-324.
  2. The truth of this story is 10 of 11 ships were destroyed, not burned, but this has become a popular story most people are familiar with [Smith KN. Searching for the ships Cortés burned before destroying the Aztecs. ARS Technica. Feb. 28, 2019].
  3. Rubin, H. A., & Shapiro, D. A. (2005). Murderball. MTV Films.

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