Hernan Cortes was a famous Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire in the early 16th century. Back then it seemed like an impossible task because they were vastly outnumbered by the enemies.
Some of his soldiers therefore thought the idea was plain suicide and preferred to return to their base in Cuba and come back with more men. In order to eliminate any ideas of retreat, Cortes scuttled his ships. With mistranslations, the story later became famous in literature, with Cortes burning his ships.
From that, the idiom of burning bridges evolved. Cortes was not the first or only general in military history who did such a dramatic move.
Enough with the history. There are two angles on burning bridges (idiomatic expression). Firstly, burning the bridges could mean that you’re intentionally acting meanly, carelessly and unpleasantly to other people and damaging relationships to the point of no return. That’s no good for anyone.
But there is another, more positive, definition of burning bridges and it means to make a decision that cannot be changed in the future. Although it’s also true that that kind of a decision can have a big (negative) influence on your current relationships.
- Completely unproductive and unacceptable concept of burning bridges: Acting meanly to people to the point of no return.
- Conditionally productive and acceptable concept of burning bridges: Making a decision that cannot be changed in the future. It usually has to do a lot with disinvesting yourself from current relationships and commitments, while keeping your integrity intact.
Now that we’re familiar with both angles, I have to emphasize that when I’m talking about burning bridges in this blog post, I don’t mean brutally abandoning your past relationships and connections at all, I have more in mind burning bridges as a form of extraordinary thinking to achieve extraordinary results – making dead-serious commitments.
It definitely sounds like a good mindset to have in a certain situation, but I still wouldn’t recommend burning bridges to most people. Instead, I would recommend you to build bridges and thus open yourself to new opportunities while keeping the old ones at the same time.
But this time, I won’t be following my own advice and I’m going to burn most bridges I currently have in my life. As an experiment, I decided to play with fire a little bit. Before I disclose my plan to you and tell you how I’m going to play with fire, let’s look at the pros and cons of burning bridges and when that kind of thinking might make sense (in really rare situations).
Why would you even want to burn bridges?
The main idea of burning bridges is to get yourself into the laser-focus mode. The laser-focus mode means that not even a single ray of your energy is directed anywhere else than into your (new) goals and desired outcomes.
I’m a great believer in diversity and that many options give you freedom and safety and abundance. But sometimes it becomes counterproductive to have many choices. The idea of burning bridges is to intentionally reduce the number of options you have. Why would having options really be a bad thing in life? It’s more or less a matter of how your brain works and a time management issue.
Whatever your goal or new desired path is, if you don’t burn bridges, old ways will always be a temptation when you encounter adversity. Every new path or goal always bring new challenges and you don’t want to become a yo-yo going back and forth.
You want to encounter the challenges on your new path with all your determination, stamina, creativity and willpower. You gain tremendous power when you know that there’s no way back. No retreat, no surrender.
If you don’t burn bridges, you may not only become a yo-yo but you may also catch yourself in the analysis-paralysis trap, becoming nothing but a person running in a hamster wheel. When you have two or more options, you weigh the pros and cons, you stress yourself out and, at the end of the day, you do nothing.
You only waste your precious energy and life by considering the options you have on the table. When you dedicate yourself to one thing 100 %, you can focus all your mental efforts on that one thing and that’s absolutely necessary if you want to succeed in anything.
Last but not least, relationships take effort and time. If you want to focus yourself on new things, you need to build new social networks and new relationships. Of course you don’t have to burn all bridges, but with big changes, there definitely isn’t room for everybody in your life like it used to be.
You simply have to start saying no to many people you know, in order to stay focused. The more brutally you want to focus, the higher your criteria must be for when to take time for any of your old connections and why. If you want to really brutally focus yourself, every second matters.
To sum up, here is why sometimes it might make sense to burn bridges:
- You intentionally reduce the number of options you have in order to be more focused on things that matter to you the most.
- You gain tremendous power when you know that there’s no way back.
- You avoid being trapped in the analysis-paralysis situation and constantly pressuring yourself which option to choose.
- You make more room in your life for new connections and activities.
- You don't dream of or consider going back to “good old times” when you face adversity.
Why wouldn’t you want to burn bridges?
Now let’s look at burning bridges from the other perspective. If you play with fire, you can get burned and you can get burned really badly.
In addition to that, you can also get other people burned. Thus if you decide for burning bridges it must be a carefully controlled process and performed only in very specific situations.
Most often people decide to burn bridges because they’re completely unsatisfied with something in their life and they want to make a big change to something new and fresh (without a plan). It’s easy to think that the new path will be easier and lighter. It may be, but it probably won't, at least not in the beginning.
If you’re burning bridges because you look at a new opportunity from far away and you think it will be easier and more exciting, you’re probably wrong and you’ll regret doing such a radical move. Don’t burn bridges to escape your current life and having no real plan how to do the transition.
As mentioned, the new path will probably be much harder. Grass is not greener on the other side, but where you fertilize it. So the new path will demand dealing with a lot of dung for sure. The good news is that with time, the hard road becomes easier and the easier road becomes hard. But you just mustn’t be naïve. The new path is no easy escape out.
Therefore a quite strong reason why you don’t want to burn bridges is because your attempt to undertake a new path could fail big time (because your plan could be build on the wrong assumptions) and you’ll need to come back to your old path somehow.
And here is the catch. You shouldn’t expect people to send you a boat to save you if you’ve burned all bridges with them when things go wrong. Even if they forgive you, you definitely damaged the relationship to a certain extent and things will never be the same.
If we go on, burning bridges and focusing on a single thing in life demands an extraordinary sacrifice. You need to curb your temptations, focus yourself, constantly push yourself, work hard and sometimes even persist through hell.
Not many people are resilient and persistent enough. All the cool stories in the media showing how successful entrepreneurs, Hollywood actors and other people succeeded by burning bridges only tell you one part of the story.
They don’t show you the sweat or the tears or the hard process, only success. Or thousands of people who fail for every successful one. So you must really carefully assess if you’re made out of sterner stuff for that kind of things. If not, it’s better you continue building bridges rather than burn them.
Everyone wants to be a lion. Until it's time to do lion stuff.
Last but not least, you’re going to hurt people. You will make them feel like they don’t matter enough to you. If you’re part of a team or a group, you’ll shake up the system, and the projects you’re involved in might encounter delays or even go south.
Every brutal change leaves a mark on people and organizations affected by your change. There will definitely be resilience from the environment and you’ll need to be strong enough to continue burning, even if people are screaming.
To sum up, here is why you don't want to burn bridges:
- Never burn bridges only to escape your current life without having a plan (no stupid decisions that can ruin your life).
- You may fail with your new endeavors and you will have to find a way back to your old path. You shouldn’t expect people to send you a boat if you’ve burned all bridges with them.
- Burning bridges demands an extraordinary sacrifice.
- You may hurt yourself and you may hurt other people.
Still not burning bridges when it may even be necessary for you is more or less a kind of long-term political or opportunistic thinking, in terms that you never know when you’ll need someone you are currently working with or destroy your reputation and so on.
But as we said, burning bridges is not about acting meanly, carelessly and unpleasantly to other people, and damaging relationships to the point of no return.
It’s about brutally focusing yourself and eliminating your options to center your mind and your calendar. If you do it correctly, people will understand; they will and that leads us to the topic of when it’s okay to burn bridges.
When it is okay to burn bridges and how to do it?
Sometimes you want extraordinary results in your life and to achieve that, you need extraordinary kind of thinking and short-term extreme action. Burning all your bridges is that kind of radical thinking and that kind of radical action.
Since you don’t want to get burned or burn other people with your actions, let’s look at a few key factors of when and how to burn your bridges, if you decide for that kind of move.
It’s only okay to start thinking about burning bridges (1) if you’re completely miserable in what you do and dissatisfied with your life and you can't continue on your current path even for one more second. The idea of burning bridges is to destroy what you have in order to build something new and more beautiful. Like a phoenix.
So the first criterion is that you really are totally miserable in what you currently do and you don’t see yourself in the same industry or doing the same things with the same people in the future anymore. But that is far from enough as I have already emphasized.
(2) The second mandatory thing is to have enough resources. You can’t burn bridges if people depend on you (spouse, kids …) or you have a lot of debt and need a steady income. It’s the same if you vastly depend on others. You have to understand that burning bridges means taking a step back and is usually also a big hit for your wallet.
So you need the resources to invest and build after you burn bridges. I reckon you need about 6 to 12 months worth of savings to switch smoothly to your new life path and build new bridges.
(3) You have to expect obstacles, bumps and frustration on the new path. After burning bridges, you’ll probably feel more energetic and lighter, especially with all new free time and emotional feeling of being unstuck. But the transition will be hard and soon you’ll find out that the new path isn’t so easy and is even more frustrating because you lack the skills, industry knowledge etc.
Therefore, you need to have a really strong why and know exactly why you’re doing it. Don’t be naïve and think that just burning bridges will solve all of your problems.
(4) You need to have a plan. The idea of burning bridges is to get more time and brutally focus on where you can create the most value for the world. It’s good to have a plan for what you will do after burning bridges.
You can, of course, enter the search mode and create your new you step by step, but you still need a superior strategy for how to do it. The AgileLeanLife Productivity Framework can help you make an adequate plan.
Last but not least, (5) you have to explain to people what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, not only start burning. People will be hurt, but they’ll understand with good enough communication. If you have a powerful why and clearly communicate it to the people in your life, they’ll probably support you and understand you.
There’s nothing wrong with moving on, even if in a more radical way. At the end of the day, relationships are about love and mutual support, not about control. But don’t just cut people off, explain to them what you’re doing and why. You shouldn’t really burn bridges, but deconstruct the bridges together with people.
Don’t burn bridges with people and then expect them to send a rescue boat for you. As mentioned, after burning your bridges, you’re on your own. You must be aware of that. Therefore, no retreat, no surrender on your new path. At the end of the day, that’s the main point of burning bridges.
(6) You must have a backup plan if things go wrong on your new path. And that is not hoping that people from your previous path will save you.
Obviously it's much easier to burn bridges if you decide to completely focus on one thing that you have been already doing for a while in the afternoons and you know the territory. It's definitely a much better position to be in, but many times that is not the case.
I am burning bridges – well, most of them
As I mentioned, to 99.9 % of people, I’d recommend they build new bridges, not burn them. I would recommend them to gradually enter a new path by keeping their options open. Connections with people are the most important thing in your life.
But as an experiment, I will do the complete opposite in the next few months. I’m burning all bridges from 12 years of my past work. Why would I want to do that?
Well, I was running in a hamster wheel (emotion-wise) for the past year or so, and it’s time to stop. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been working on and creating some cool stuff and valuable products for startups on Slovenian and CEE markets. I worked with many awesome people and we really left a mark on the whole country and region in the past few years. The feeling is awesome. But …
Whenever there is but in a sentence in the wrong place, something isn’t right. “I love you, but X …” is never the same as “… X, but I love you.”
I’ve been working in the startup industry for the past 12 years. I know everyone in Slovenia, I’ve done everything possible in connection with startups and not only in Slovenia. I did pretty much the same thing in the region (incubators, technology parks, accelerators, business angel networks, VC funds, conferences, startup weekends etc.).
I’m really good at it, I can afford a good lifestyle doing it, the work I do is respected, so everything looks perfect, but it’s not where my heart lies anymore; and I don’t want to become a zombie. Advice not to become a zombie is something I will always follow, because life is simply too precious to waste.
And it’s not a sudden decision. For a year or two or even more, I was fooling myself that I can still be somehow involved in the startup ecosystem as my day job and work on projects I really want to work on in my free time (this blog). But unfortunately that doesn’t work for my personality type.
I always give 110 % of myself to everything I do, and honestly I can only really do one thing at 110 %. My soul and the projects I really want to do were suffering; more and more each month. So it’s time to take matches, gasoline and start burning. ;)
Here’s my plan for burning bridges (it sounds much more dramatic than it really is, the only thing I will really do is focus myself on my new projects):
- I’m not taking on any new tasks and projects regarding startups or Slovenia. I have fulfilled most of the responsibilities from my current contracts by the beginning of the new year and all of them will be fulfilled by the end of March 2016. No new commitments, and the list of my tasks should decrease every month, so I will have more time for the things I really want to do. I want to keep all the necessary integrity when slowly deconstructing the bridges in the startup ecosystem together with people.
- I’m going into monk mode from January until the end of August 2016. I will explain what monk mode is in the next article, but basically I will squeeze every single possible second of my time to invest into my new path.
- My new path consists of five things I’ve been wanting to achieve in the past few years:
- Get completely into shape
- Develop new IT skills (Photoshop, front-end development etc.)
- Become really good at (organic) internet marketing
- Improve my English and writing skills
- Develop an internet business (authority blog) and live an internet solopreneur lifestyle
- I have savings for approximately one year that will enable me to really burn bridges and brutally focus myself on my new path. No any other backups, like mommy or daddy. I already mentioned what I’m going to do to some of my friends, and usually the first question they ask is what exactly I’ll be doing, what my business idea is, why I am doing such a radical thing etc.
- I don’t have all the answers yet, but I have a detailed plan. In short first I will focus on acquiring more traffic on this blog and then probably created a few infoproducts. I am still in the search mode and don't want to rush anything. I already have my why, and I have no doubt that I will find the hows and the whats soon. On the way, I will also be developing all the competences I really want to develop, which is totally exciting and awesome.
- I also have a plan B if I fail. Basically I can get a few consulting contracts really fast based on my current competences and references. But that is not something I want even to consider. Actually there is no plan B, but I know exactly my risks, potential rewards and what to do if I fail miserably. A big failure already happened to me once, and it took me two years to recover. Thus I am taking more calculated risk this time.
The opportunity cost is huge (100.000 EUR+), but failure is simply not an option. People think I’m stupid and crazy, but may the bridges I burn light my way. If there’s one thing I don’t want, it’s to have any regrets on my death bed. And not doing this would definitely be a regret.