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

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In 480 BC, along the sunburned coast of the Mediterranean, a small unit of battle-wearied phalanx picked up their weapons and armor…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, in some cases, weaponless – formed their ranks and prepared for the impending enemy assault.

One thing was certain: no one would survive the 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 previous days of non-stop fighting.  While they had been able to hold the narrow pass at Thermopylae for the past week, the enemy recently discovered a way around their defenses…

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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14 comments

  • This is a constantly resonating thought going on inside my entrepreneurial life right now, which has been going on for over 20 years now – you’d think it would get easier w/ the experience and the so-called, supposed wisdom that the realities of a ‘doing it’ entail.

    Yup. It doesn’t.

    And I often wonder why.

    This last year, I keep coming back to a discussion of ‘courage’ with myself(and writing in my journal on it) and others, too —- and I’m thankful that Tom is working this out for his next book as there’s a meme developing that’s readying to hit the surface for deeper discussion(great timing, Tom!).

    I don’t have an answer to what having ‘more courage'(if there is such a thing) in my work looks like, feels like….lives like. It’s quite illusory and abstract – it reveals itself so often *after* the work is done.

    Right now, for me, I’m constantly pushing through the Steven Pressfield forcefield of ‘the resistance’, that’s just part of my everyday life. I “SHIP IT” so often that I could make Seth Goden proud and ‘getting things done’ in my own customized David Allen planning.

    Still, I’m not feeling *it* like I need to – something missing inside the work and part of it making some kind of commitment something (much) larger than me and the work that I do — and leave what I’ve done for 20 yrs behind.

    Here’s the thing, too: I’m pretty sure I know what it is and I’m readying to step into it(I’m prepared for battle but still in the tent, double-checking my plans and waiting for updates from the field) but the risks are much larger than anything I’ve done in 20+ yrs of living in risk and possibility of failure, looked at rationally, is pretty high(of course).

    Yet, the pull is there, there’s a calling from outside of myself and expertise and help that needs to be offered.

    So, Tom – you write: “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…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.”

    This is how my situation is feeling and it might require an oath….and that is off-the-charts scary to a guy used to daily scary for many, many years.

    Being forced to live towards courage when can see nothing else…I wonder if words can provide any help – or hinder and delay.

    Possibly, they can help…the last two words you mention in this post, Tom:

    ‘keep creating’

    • Bruce – sincerely appreciate the in depth comment. This is the type of stuff I love and really appreciate (and I hope to inspire more of this type of conversation in the future!).

      The one thing that sticks out to me: the idea of “more” courage…

      I’m not sure that exists.

      It seems courage is a black and white thing…you either act courageously in the moment or you don’t. You either do the uncomfortable thing you’re scared of or you don’t…you either stand up for what’s right or you keep silent.

      In my mind, and based on the people, books and philosophies I’ve read and studied – there is no such thing as getting more courage. There is only courage. And you are courageous based on acts of courage.

      And every act of courage is unique.

      Yes, creating the habit of courage may help, but bottom line for me is this: no matter how well trained, no matter how well you’ve created the habit of courage, you will experience reservations and second guessing when the time comes to do something courageous.

      And I think that’s what courage is all about.

      As long as you keep pushing the boundaries, keep experiencing fear, keep second guessing…you’re walking into a situation that REQUIRES courage.

      No…it never gets easier. At least for me it’s never gotten easier – not as long as you keep pushing your creative abilities.

      You’re not the only one to experience this…and I hope that thought keeps you fighting, moving, creating.

      Can’t wait to get you on the podcast!!!

      Stay in touch Bruce..and keep creating!

      • “Every act of courage is unique” – well said, Tom. And each act stands on its own.

        Which IS, in fact, a hopeful message because its understanding allows each person the awareness that they are capable of acts of courage in every day, in many ways.

        I dig. 🙂

        So here’s a thought: if the above is the case, part of our doing our work should have some degree of reflection on the potential for acts of courage as we begin. If we ask ‘where can I be more bold, more courageous, in this work today?” what will that dialog do to our output?

        That’s where a lot of breakthroughs can happen, more often than not.

        Embrace and look at the risk more clear headed, ask where the inflection of point of courage might exist – then, do the work and what is required.

        I’m a (young) 51 and been around the block working my own thing for 25 yrs so I’m well aware that it’s never easy and, if it is, it will be for a finite period of time because…..’all things change’.

        What makes it all bearable, easy(at times) and have the potential for ‘more joy’ inside the work is knowing that the potential for great things are embedded in all our acts of creation, pushing on and through – seeing those dots connected after the fact(to paraphrase Job’s 2005 commencement speech).

        It’s clear in this discussion(at least, for me) that the concept of courage standing alone by itself inside the individual act allows me to grasp that greatness and its potential can lay ahead.

        Not only up around the bend and the horizon in front of us – but in the next step.

        • Bruce – exactly.

          You hit the nail on the head when you identified questions we can ask ourselves before we start (or while we finish or when we ship). As long as we are courageous enough to ask those tough questions in the first place (‘am I doing my best work’ ‘is this exactly what I want to write, or am I pandering’ etc.).

          Looking forward to exploring this subject more and more over time and really appreciate the conversation, Bruce…it’s certainly helping me with the book!

          Keep it up!

    • Thanks so much for the comment – so glad you enjoyed it…definitely stay in touch and let me know what you want to hear more of, if there’s something you really enjoy!

      Stay in touch.

      -Tom

    • Katherine – thanks so much! I’m by no means a historian, but I do read…a LOT. So I hope I can do the topic some justice 🙂

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  • As a business owner for also 25 years, I’ve learned a lot about myself. One thing I have truly learned is that the phrase “I’ve done my best” is pathetic. For one to have done their best means to have achieved more than you could have imagined, especially after crawling out of some life challenging corner. Looking back after each such an ‘experience’ makes the phrase impossible to verbalize because inside you know you have.

    • Thanks for the thoughts Rhonda. I’m curious though – what would be a better phrase or way to look at something where somebody thinks they’ve done their best?

  • Hey Tom,

    I’ve always really liked that story. It’s definitely the pinnacle of what I would consider courage to be.

    That’s strength. I admire that so much more than most things. It’s not physical power, it’s depth of emotional endurance.

    Thanks for sharing the story. It’s a great reminder of how lame it is when small things hold us back.

    Gonna use this as motivation to kick ass! Thanks!

    • Michael, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. So glad it motivated you 🙂

      It really is the pinnacle of courage in a lot of ways. And you’re right – depth of emotional endurance…that’s the truly remarkable part.

      Great stuff!

      Keep kicking ass!

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