Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Burn Your Ships vs. Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 25, 2016

When I was first discovering the “indie” side of game development and entrepreneurship… and I see the same in writing … I was confronted with two seemingly contradictory pieces of advice:


In reference to conquistador Hernando Cortez, who burned his ships and his only avenue of escape. The only way back was forward. The idea here is that if you want to succeed, you need to make success your only option. Cut the safety rope, quit the day job, focus on the goal, and put every ounce of energy into it. The fear of starvation will help you succeed, but more importantly you will be completely committed to the task.


The more pragmatic approach recognizes that success, particularly in the field of entertainment, tends to come as a result of tenacious persistence meeting one or more lucky breaks. There are too many external forces at play, and this business tends to crush those that demand success comes suddenly and on their schedule. Keep the day job, and build upon a series of base hits with the occasional home run until it is no longer necessary.

Which Approach Works Best?

While it’s purely anecdotal and may be driven by my own biases, but most of the people I have investigated and in some cases gotten to know who have been successful and stayed successful over the long term embrace the second approach – DQYDJ. And I’ve known several people who have tried the BYS approach and been crushed by it, and a handful who met some success with the first approach but then faded into obscurity and went on to do something else after all.

However – I also know far more people who have followed that second approach and – like me – have never turned it into real, quantifiable success. Yet. And while it’s all well and good to suggest that it’s not failure if you’ve not quit trying to succeed, the truth is we all only have a finite period of time to make it work. Life – and eventually death – will happen no matter our intentions and muck up even the best-laid plans.

Can You Do Both?

Looking past the contradictions and focusing on the core message of both “approaches,” I find that many of the successful people I know or know of actually practice the roots of both.

The core idea of the “Burn your ships!” approach is that of commitment, and an intense focus and drive to meet short-term goals. While it advocates dispensing completely with any kind of Plan B, the heart of the advice is about not allowing yourself to become comfortable with a Plan B, or to allow it to become an acceptable alternative and thereby reducing your commitment.

The “Don’t quit your day job” advice is pragmatic, longer-term advice. The heart of it is a combination of persistence over time and allowing success to come gradually over time with a gradual(ish) weaning-away from safety and alternatives, and a recognition that this also gives you some freedom to course-correct and make improvements to your goal.

I think both are important. Without commitment and a major drive for short-term goals, there is little long-term progress. “Don’t quit your day job” becomes “never quit your day job.” Meanwhile, the path to success is littered with the figurative bodies of those who ran out of time and / or money short of their goal, in spite of their bold intentions and their leaping off the starting line in an amazing sprint.

I don’t know if the true BYS-advocates would accept the idea of limited ship-burning, but it makes intuitive sense that short-term goals should be motivated with short-term risks or rewards, rather than risking long-term livelihood. Will that work? Can you get something close to a BYS-level of motivation and drive – or something close to it – without risking devastating long-term hardship?

At LTUE this year, one author talked about how she and her friends created a combination of big (but short-term) rewards and penalties for themselves to motivate them to achieve the goal of writing a book in three days. She said that in the end, those external motivations proved to be unnecessary, and she no longer needs them. They might help to make the commitment in the first place, but in the end, the commitment is intrinsic. Although she’s achieved some not-insignificant success, so in a way… her ships were burned for her. She can’t lose the momentum now.

So I don’t know. Hunger and fear can be powerful motivators, particularly in the short term, but I don’t think those are the only ways to cultivate a drive, particularly ones that lead to longer-term sustainability. I can’t say this with absolute surety, as my own first-hand experience in this respect is hit-or-miss. But it’s something to consider… can we achieve a balance here?

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Alex said,

    Great article. I find myself stuck between the two. Currently working a 9-5 desk job, and working on a game when i get home. Its exhausting. Im close to having enough to be able to quit and focus full time.

  • CdrJameson said,

    Deadlines work for me.

    Game jam, Christmas, presenting my stuff or even (the other night) simply having to go to bed.

    In all cases I focussed hard and fast on what had to be done, the advantage of BYS, but I’m not going to starve either.

    Oh, and don’t forget with BYS that the pressure may cause stress, which can close down your thinking and make you miss opportunities.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    BYS can also limit your opportunities, as you have to sacrifice what would be great twelve months from now with what will pay the bills RIGHT NOW.

    But as far as stress is concerned – I’ve heard that they have done studies that show that most people perform better under some stress. The problem is that there’s a ‘best stress’ point for optimum productivity, and beyond that productivity drops quickly. I expect that everyone’s optimum stress level varies (and it may even vary with the same person depending on life events, diet, etc.)

  • Tesh said,

    There’s also “DPM”, or “Downsized Panic Mode”. I tried that for a while. Still haven’t found full time work. My little company never did pay the bills, and now has about $25 in the bank to show for almost 3 years of existence.

    I’d be happy with a DQYDJ life these days. Making games is good for my brain and interests, but not much else.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m fond of the “Burn the bridge after you’re safely across” route.

    I’ve made decisions and made moves towards my goal. Some were right, some were not… but once I’ve made a move I’ll never crawl backwards. I’ll keep stumbling blindly into the future until I reach my goal… or more likely, die gloriously in the chase.

    I don’t recommend my choices to most people because the level of stress I live with is… ummm… insane at times. But it’s who I am and I know that I can handle it.