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Uncertainty and Courage: What We Can Learn from the Battle of Thermopylae

The Last Day

In 480 BC, on the brilliant, sunburned coast of the Mediterranean, a small unit of battle-wearied phalanx picked up arms for the last time.

After 6 grueling days of battle, only 300 men remained.

On the morning of the seventh day, this group – bloodied, broken and even weaponless in some cases – reformed their ranks and prepared for the impending enemy assault.

One thing was certain: no one would survive this day.

Any military strategist worth his salt would tell you there’s no reason these men should have stayed and fought this last day.

The enemy numbered in the hundreds of thousands (up to a million, by some accounts).  The friendly forces that remained were mostly wounded and the majority of their weapons were broken from the last week of fighting.  While they held the narrow pass at the Hot Gates, the enemy had found a way around their forces.

On the seventh day, this group would be surrounded and massacred.

So why stay?

Why continue fighting?

What could possess someone to stand and die when survival is an option?

The Battle of Thermopylea

To understand the decision the Greeks made that day, it helps to have some perspective.

If you’re not familiar with the battle I’m describing, it’s the Battle of Thermopylea, made famous from the hyperbolized (but still entertaining) movie 300.

The Spartan warriors led the defense of Greece and had strategic command over the Hot Gates – the narrow mountain pass where the Greeks set up their defense against the invading Persian horde.  All of Greece knew the Persians were coming, but it was the Spartans who rallied the other Greek states together to collectively defend against the foreign invaders.

Due to a number of unfortunate circumstances (miscommunications on dates and times to assemble, backlash from certain states who didn’t feel compelled to fight, etc.), the number of Greeks that showed up to the Hot Gates was pitiful (around 7,000 versus the anticipated million Persian invaders).

But even if they had the numbers they requested, the Spartans knew walking into battle that death was certain.

Honoring Oaths

The movie 300 depicts the decision for the Greeks to fight and die that day as one of madness or bloodlust.

In the movie, the Spartan King Leonidas and his soldiers seem excited for death.  They want to die honorably, so death in battle is exactly what they wanted; they sought death.

But while the Spartan’s were a warrior culture and did honor those who died in battle, the decision to fight and die that day was anything but irrational or insane.

The reality is this: not a single man wanted to die that day.

Every single one of those men had families back home.  They wanted to go back to them.  They wanted to enjoy another night alive, just like anyone would.

But survival wasn’t in the cards for them this day.

While they had the opportunity to withdraw their forces (like many of their Greek allies did that last day), they didn’t take it.

Instead, they solemnly accepted their fate and prepared to die in battle, with the same fear and uncertainty that any normal person would have in that same situation.

Steven Pressfield captures the poignancy of this moment in his remarkable book Gates of Fire.  As the remaining group of soldiers assembles on that seventh day, King Leonidas points out why they must stay and fight:

“But by our deaths here with honor, in the face of these insuperable odds, we transform vanquishment into victory. With our lives we sow courage in the hearts of our allies and the brothers of our armies left behind. They are the ones who will ultimately produce victory, not us. It was never in the stars for us. Our role today is what we all knew it was when we embraced our wives and children and turned our feet upon the march-out: to stand and die. That we have sworn and that we will perform.[Gates of Fire]

Each soldier took an oath.

Each soldier was willing to die to uphold that oath.

But that doesn’t mean a single soldier wanted it to happen.

Wanting vs. Willing

There’s a big difference between wanting and willing.

Few people, when they write a book, want to be ignored.  Few people, when they start a business, want it to flop.  Few people, when they start a movement, want to be ostracized.

And rightly so – no one should want these things.

But unless we’re willing to experience these things – unless we’re willing to accept whatever fate might befall us for daring boldly – then we can’t make an impact.

King Leonidas and all the soldiers of Sparta knew this.

They understood no great action is without risk.  They understood that real courage is always tested at the breaking point.  They understood that no matter how things pan out, they needed to be ready to die.

And because of this willingness to accept risk, uncertainty and even death, they turned vanquishment into victory.

Your Turn

Let’s be real: the stakes are not nearly as high for us.

But the lessons we can learn from this warrior nation extend beyond dates, cultures and job descriptions.  Their philosophy is just as applicable and just as practical today as it was 2500 years ago.

For all of us, whether you’re a seasoned business veteran creating your 10th startup, or an amateur writer working up the courage to write the first page of your book, the possibility of failure is certain.

This is the nature of life and the reality of those who create: where there is possibility for success, there is the possibility of failure.  Writers, artists and entrepreneurs – like the warrior – must be able to deal with these conditions and these terms.

There are no exceptions.

To Answer the Questions at the Beginning…

Why did they stay?

Because they took an oath – they made a commitment.

Why fight, even if you know you’ll lose?

Because the it’s not about winning, it’s about entering the ring.

Why stand and die when survival is an option?

Because survival isn’t the point.

Yes, this is a scary prospect.  But if there was no fear, there’d be no need for courage.  And it is courage that resonates into eternity.

Remember: the Spartans didn’t want to die, but they were certainly willing to.

Writers, artists and entrepreneurs shouldn’t want to fail, but we must be willing to.

This is courage.

And in the end, this is what matters.

Good luck and keep creating.


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*Photo credit: wallyir from morguefile.com

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