Mmegi Blogs :: The cortes option-stoke those dying embers that once burned
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Monday 24 September 2018, 15:01 pm.
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The cortes option-stoke those dying embers that once burned

In 1519, the Spanish Cuban general Cortes landed at the Mexican shores on a mission to conquer the Aztec Empire with eleven ships and only about 500 soldiers. If successful, the prize that awaited them was gold, land, fame, a kingdom and honour. The mission had a very auspicious beginning which saw them gain territory deep into enemy lines.
By George Chingarande Mon 01 Dec 2014, 13:37 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: The cortes option-stoke those dying embers that once burned








A few months into the campaign, after they had acquired some land and gold, serious problems arose in his camp. First, most of the soldiers were satisfied with what they had already acquired and were not motivated to go deeper into Mexico. Secondly, a good number of the soldiers were home sick and wanted to go back home to their wives and celebrate with the little riches they had acquired. The third problem was the most serious. Wary and suspicious of Cortes’s ambitions, he had eleven ships and 500 soldiers, the Cuban governor to whom Cortes reported and was accountable had planted troublemakers among his troops to not only spy on him but also contain his activities so that Cortes would not become too successful and too powerful. Faced with this challenge for weeks, Cortes prevaricated, wishing and hoping that things would get better-but they didn’t.

One night it became evident that the troops would mutiny against him and that not only the mission, but also his own life was in danger. Faced with this grim possibility Cortes sprung into action. He called aside a few of the soldiers still loyal to him, and ordered them to bore holes into all the ships and render them dysfunctional. Once this was accomplished he called all the troops and informed them that termites had rendered the ships unusable. He also pointed out the truth that they already knew that the enemy was advancing on them and that their lives were in danger. He also reminded them of their earlier victories and emphasized that they were well able to conquer the enemy as before. However, they had only two options left; either to regroup and fight the enemy which they were well able to do or capitulate and be killed by the enemy as sailing back to Cuba would not possible since the boats were dysfunctional. He then informed them of his decision to fight on and invited them to join him. They all, including the planted spies, closed ranks behind him and conquered the Aztecs and, of course, returned home many years later richer and more fulfilled.

What lessons does the Cortes story hold for us?

An auspicious beginning in life, or to a career does not guarantee long term success. Many people begin well but along the way fall by the wayside. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes complacency, overconfidence and pride set in, and at other times the initial success becomes the impediment to further progress. The initial victory can create the illusion that success has been achieved thus betraying people into forgetting what the real mission was in the beginning. In this case the mission was to conquer the Aztec empire, gold and fame were just the fringe benefits associated with the conquest. However, after a little gold and a few victories many of the soldiers began to behave as if they had already accomplished the mission. If you look closely at many people

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who began well and then soon stagnated, you will notice that they suffered from this syndrome.

The problem arises because most people never define what success is before they embark on a mission. For the benefit of us all, let us define success. Success is the progressive attainment of a worthy goal. Hence we can conclude that without a worthy predefined goal, there is no success. We can also assert that making progress is good and desirable but does not constitute success until the ultimate goal is attained. The temptation is to settle on the benefits of the early victories, lower one’s ambitions and retract into the retreat mode like Cortes’s soldiers. That is not success. At this point it is helpful to pause and examine whether you have any worthy that you are pursuing or whether you still passionately pursue those goals that you set yourself a few years back. Never allow the good beginning to lull you into a sense of accomplishment. Given a choice between underachievement, and painfully applying oneself to the tasks required for the ultimate prize most people will settle for underachievement.

Motivation is like fire, unless constantly stoked it burns itself to ashes and dies down. To create a consuming bonfire the little fire must be stoked constantly. Similarly, to create a great achieving life you need to constantly stoke your life and amplify it. Create new challenges for yourself everyday and set your eyes higher. We are designed to gravitate inexorably towards our major goals in life; and when there are no goals life becomes banal and sinks into oblivion and the abyss.

For many days Cortes’s problem was inertia. He knew that there was a problem but did nothing about it. Many people make this mistake also. Problems do not go away by wishing and hoping that they will go away. Problems, especially those associated with your own battles for self elevation, are yours and yours only to solve.

Cortes’s ingenuity was in changing the nature of the game. Previously the choice was between underachievement, represented by sailing back to Cuba, and the pain of fighting the battles of achievement. Once the ships had been destroyed the choices available were either to suffer painful deaths at the hands of the Aztecs or to fight and conquer. The later was more attractive because it minimized the pain and maximised the gain. The important point to always remember is that for as long as the pain-gain calculus is such that there is more to be gained by avoiding action even if the gain is minimal or just psychological, the tendency is towards inertia. The existence of something to lean on creates a psychological buffer that impedes our progress. Once all the options had been taken out of the picture the vacillating soldiers were turned into valiant warriors. The existence of safe options that guarantee limited success, such as the retreat option in Cortes’s case, often limits our success.

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