Burn the Boats (2023) tells the story of how Matt Higgins went from abject poverty to wealth and success using one simple approach: tossing Plan B and going all-in. Through both guidance and inspiration, it will help you apply this strategy to achieving your own goals and dreams.
Introduction: Here’s motivation to go all-in on your dreams.
When Julius Caesar arrived on the English coast with his army, ready to conquer the island, he quickly realized that he was outnumbered. So he did something that would seem absolutely reckless to most observers: he ordered his men to burn their own boats.
Worried that his soldiers would be tempted to retreat, Caesar didn’t want to give his men any reason to hold back in battle. Burning the boats meant there was no way home. No alternative. No Plan B.
At 14, Matt Higgins didn’t know about Caesar’s strategy. Yet even at such a young age, he intuited the wisdom of burning your boats. Today, Matt is a successful venture capitalist. But back then, he was desperately searching to escape the grinding poverty that he and his mother were trapped in: a tiny, rent-stabilized apartment in Queen’s, New York, with an almost-empty fridge.
He knew that his low-wage McDonald’s job wouldn’t cut it. And it would take years before he would start college and get paid college student rates. If he wanted to escape this dire situation quickly, he would have to take a leap.
Matt realized that he could drop out of high school at 16, take the GED, and then apply to college two years faster. That meant two years closer to earning college wages and two years closer to putting food in his mother’s fridge.
Matt didn’t tell a soul about his plan. He knew that his teachers would try to pull him back on course if he were merely scraping by. They had to believe he was hopeless. In other words, he had to burn his boats. So Matt stopped going to school. He failed every class spectacularly, and the day he turned 16, he dropped out.
Why is burning your boats so effective? And how can you find the courage to take similar bold action in your own life?
That’s what you’ll discover in this summary. With the wisdom of Matt Higgins to guide you, along with inspirational stories from people who’ve built wild success and achieved their dreams, you’ll learn how Plan B sabotages your true calling. So grab your matches – and let’s get burning.
Trust yourself to take the leap.
Matt immediately recognized the genius in 26-year-old Jesse Derris. Already making partner at the publicity firm where he worked, Jesse had no trouble offering unapologetic truths to CEOs twice his age. His ability to see patterns and predict trends was practically a sixth sense.
But Matt could also see that Jesse’s talents were being squandered. So the two went for a walk one day, and as they looped around Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, Matt offered to invest $2 million in Jesse to start his own PR company.
Despite Matt’s confidence in him, Jesse was petrified to strike out on his own. Was this a good time? Was he capable? Still, his gut was telling him this was the right move, and after an encouraging conversation with his girlfriend, he took Matt’s offer.
Jesse’s story demonstrates the first key to burning your boats: Taking the leap requires trusting your instincts, even when it goes against convention.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. When you’re about to jump into the unknown, your mind will pull out all the stops. The signs will suddenly try to point you to safer ground. Here are just a few things to remember if conventional ideas are keeping you from taking the leap.
The first is that there will never be a perfect time to act, and, in fact, it will probably only get harder later. If something is calling to you, do it now.
Second, don’t wait for validation or buy-in from others. Taking calculated risks is all about seeing opportunities where others don’t.
Third, don’t think that you have to stay in your lane. Society will tell you to stick with what you know. But consider Sarah Cooper, who had a 15-year career in tech. When her satirical blog about Silicon Valley blew up, she took the leap into comedy, leaving her cushy Google job behind. And in 2020, she landed her very own Netflix show.
Last, don’t buy into the convention of incrementalism. People will convince you to put in your time on each rung of the ladder. But some goals require a leap – or a whole different ladder. Incremental growth is just a Plan B in disguise, so don’t let it hold you back.
In short, when your instincts conflict with what the world is telling you, do not hesitate or doubt yourself. What is your vision for your life? Do you really want to miss the chance to be the most extraordinary version of yourself?
Just ask Jesse Derris. In 2022, a few short years after starting his own firm, he sold it to PR giant BerlinRosen, and is now a self-made millionaire.
When the going gets tough, chase the fear.
The journey to a rewarding life isn’t always smooth. After you take the leap and burn your boats, it’s common for fear and anxiety to set in. Crises are inevitable when you take big risks and go all-in. So it’s best to buckle up and prepare for the bumps ahead.
When the going gets tough, the temptation will be to slam on the brakes and make a U-turn. But what you should do instead is drive into the discomfort.
The night before Matt joined the hit TV show Shark Tank as a guest investor, he lay wide awake in his hotel room, riddled with anxiety and self-doubt. At 8 a.m. Matt walked onto the set, and as soon as the cameras started rolling, he completely froze.
The first thing to understand is that a healthy dose of fear can actually be a good thing. With the right mindset, it can help drive performance. That means the goal isn’t to obliterate all stress from your life, but to manage it, and use it to your advantage.
For example, research by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of Michigan looked at college students’ responses to the September 11th attacks. She found that having positive emotions during a crisis builds longer-term resilience and protects against depression. In other words, seeing a crisis as an opportunity helps you to thrive.
Matt knew that going on Shark Tank was an incredible professional opportunity. So he signed up, despite his fear. He then spent the next year preparing by watching all 200 episodes with his son and taking detailed notes.
Of course, there is such a thing as too much anxiety. What do you do when the fear threatens to pull you under, when it moves from optimal stress to derailing stress? For Matt, it’s all about plugging into who you are. Remember your strengths, and how you’ve used challenging circumstances in the past to define what you’re capable of.
On that first day of shooting Shark Tank, Matt was able to break out of his frozen state of anxiety through what he calls self-talk. He told himself that he was completely capable of doing this, and that he was here because he belongs here.
In the following moments, Matt beat out veteran shark Kevin O’Leary in his first deal by showing the pitching entrepreneur exactly who Matt was. He would be by the entrepreneur’s side through the struggles, supporting him every step of the way – because that is the kind of investor Matt is.
The lesson is that a crisis forces you to act. When faced with the possibility of losing everything you’ve worked for, you have to gather all your strength and fight. This is what it means to embrace the crisis, and run toward the fear.
Consolidate your gains and burn the boats again.
Burning the boats is about owning your journey, whatever it may be. You don’t have to chase other people’s ideas of success. It all starts with a vision for your life. Maybe you want to work on your own terms. Maybe you want more financial security, or to serve an important cause.
Whatever the vision, no matter how fantastical it sounds, listen to it. When your psyche is trying to tell you something, take it seriously.
Matt’s story serves as a great inspiration. At age 16, he recognized that he needed to be on a different path. The vision he had for his life came from a deep need within. He wanted freedom for both himself and his mother from their poverty and the limits it placed on them.
After burning his boats by quitting high school to start college two years early, Matt knew he would have to shed his identity as a dropout. He eventually got himself a job in the press office of New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, while also putting himself through law school at night.
When Giuliani’s office passed him over for a promotion, Matt burned his boats again and left the job. Within months, they came back and made him press secretary at just 26 years old. He now had a new story – no longer “high school dropout,” but instead “youngest press secretary.”
Matt’s life exemplifies a secret to living your dreams: When you reach the end of one journey, you burn the boats and do it all over again. This takes courage, and also practice. It isn’t like riding a bike – learn it once and you’re set. Instead, it’s like a muscle that strengthens with use. Each time you burn your boats, you get better at it. And what you’ll find is that it gets easier each time.
From managing the mayor’s press in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Matt became CEO of the effort to rebuild Ground Zero. Then the New York Jets hired him to build a new stadium for them on an underused piece of Manhattan real estate called Hudson Yards.
While that development never got off the ground, Matt leveraged the opportunity to become a senior executive with the Jets. When he was no longer able to grow in that role, he left without a plan B. It was the owner of the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross, who offered Matt his next job, having seen Matt’s initiative with the Jets.
Notice how Matt never let himself stagnate. He consolidated his gains from each step, and used them to leverage the next opportunity. Don’t wait until something finishes; start planning the next opportunity now. Use every advantage you currently possess to take the next leap.
Keeping Plan B in your back pocket is only holding you back from realizing your dreams. Instead, you have to trust yourself and take the leap, even when your gut goes against conventional wisdom, or when the challenges seem too steep. Today, Matt Higgins has come a very long way from the poor teen living in a small Queen’s apartment, caring for his mother. Now he runs his own venture capital firm, RSE Ventures, where he gets to help entrepreneurs around the world realize their own business dreams. And it was all thanks to his ability to go all in, time and time again, by burning the boats and abandoning Plan B.
About the author
Matt Higgins is a guest shark on ABC’s Shark Tank, an executive fellow teaching at Harvard Business School, and, through RSE Ventures, the private investment firm he cofounded, an investor in some of America’s most beloved brands. A high school dropout at age sixteen, Higgins ultimately received his law degree from Fordham University School of Law and became the youngest press secretary to the mayor’s in New York City history. He then helped lead the effort to rebuild the World Trade Center site before becoming an executive for the New York Jets and later vice chairman of the Miami Dolphins. Passionate about human rights, Higgins works on behalf of the Global Solidarity Fund in furtherance of Pope Francis’s mission to support refugees and migrants around the world.
Motivation, Inspiration, Entrepreneurship, Self Help, Business, Finance, Money, Nonfiction, Leadership, Venture Capital
Executive fellow at Harvard Business School, Guest Shark on Shark Tank, and famed angel investor Matt Higgins reveals the counterintuitive formula for a life of perpetual growth that has been practiced for thousands of years by military leaders and serial entrepreneurs alike—forget the Plan B and burn the boats.
From Sun Tzu to Julius Caesar, the ancient Israelites to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, there’s a bold and highly effective tactic seen throughout history—when leaders want to motivate their troops for success, they destroy all opportunities for retreat, and go all-in on the mission. They burn their boats; it’s win or perish, and the clarity of sheer desperation propels them to victory.
Serial entrepreneur, brilliant investor, and television personality Matt Higgins makes the case that burning the boats isn’t just advantageous in times of war or crisis, but a strategy we can all use to achieve our greatest dreams. Conquerors don’t have a Plan B, knowing intuitively what science bears out: the mere contemplation of a Plan B weakens our resolve and diminishes our chances for breakout success.
In Burn the Boats, Higgins draws from experiences in his own rags-to-riches life to show you how it’s done. The lessons he’s learned along the way, and witnessed in the leaders around him, are now for the first time distilled down to a template for success that’s available to everyone bold enough to use it. Each chapter includes clear, actionable advice that readers can immediately start applying to their own lives, along with inspiration drawn from dozens of real-life success stories, adding up to a blueprint for a future filled with victories.
“Matt Higgins knows from experience that when you have little to lose, there’s a lot to be gained by making bold bets. In this engaging, actionable book, he shows how it’s possible to take the reins and reinvent your career.” — Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of the TED podcast WorkLife
“Some people are afraid to take that first step and start a business. Matt gives you a path to challenge yourself and accomplish what you may have been too afraid to start.” — Mark Cuban, entrepreneur and Shark Tank Shark
“Instead of wondering what’s next, I’ve found it’s better, wherever you are in your career, to focus on what you can learn. Anybody who thinks through the questions Matt raises in Burn the Boats will form a clearer idea of where it is they want to go, and after reading his inspiring stories, they’ll be ready to blaze their own trail.” — David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs
“Matt has a rare ability to articulate the fears that loom so large in our collective subconscious. Burn the Boats is a brilliant book that will renew your faith in your ability to achieve exactly what you set out to do, to stop settling and start striving for the life you always imagined. In these pages you’ll discover the practical tools you need to conquer your self-doubt and navigate around people’s opinions and expectations of you. This book will change you.” — Jay Shetty, #1 New York Times bestselling author Think Like a Monk
“I hate Plan B. I always tell people that to achieve big dreams, you have to ignore the naysayers, but the naysayers are external. Once you have a Plan B, you’ve become your own naysayer. Big dreams require relentless focus, and any time we spend planning for failure sets us up for failure. When Matt told me I inspired him, I was really touched. But the best part is, inspiration is contagious, and now Matt can inspire you with this book. Enjoy it, when you finish reading, I can’t wait to hear about who you inspire.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger
“I’ve always known that one of the best advantages is being disadvantaged. Life and business is all about how you can take those negatives and turn them into positives by thinking completely outside of the box. Matt and I both know that our scrappy roots growing up on the streets of Queens is what sparked a fire to achieve the impossible.” — Daymond John, costar of Shark Tank and New York Times bestselling author
“If you’re looking for the push to take the leap, Burn the Boats is it. Matt is among the most remarkable entrepreneurs and businessmen I’ve ever met. The circumstance of Matt’s journey forced him to take enormous risks and build without hesitation, which resulted in compounding success in his career from high school dropout to Harvard lecturer. At Shopify, we are building the tools for people to reach for independence and become entrepreneurs; Burn the Boats gives you the push to take the leap and start.” — Harley Finkelstein, president of Shopify
“While most people found it difficult to believe, as founder I saw no way that ARK would fail. Matt Higgins understood. Now, in his book Burn the Boats, Matt shares the story not only of his own intrepid and incredibly successful entrepreneurial adventures, but also those of many other dogged entrepreneurs who saw no option other than success. His book is replete with lessons learned along with encouragement and guidance for those ready to take their own leaps of faith!” — Cathie Wood, founder, CEO, and CIO of Ark Invest