You’ve heard the expression a thousand times …
“Don’t burn your bridges.”
Sounds like good advice, but is it?
The expression comes from the Roman army’s practice of burning bridges once they’d crossed them to prevent their own retreat. With their escape route cut off, they had only one direction available to them … forward. It tended to focus each soldier’s mind and stiffen his resolve.
Hmmm … a focused mind and a steely resolve. Why wouldn’t you want to possess those traits when you’re undertaking something big?
Maybe because to get them you have to burn your bridges! And that takes things up several notches on the old risk meter. That puts you “all in” and guarantees a binary outcome.
Things are either gonna work out or they aren’t. Success … or failure. No middle ground.
We instinctively want to have a safety net, a fall back.
Sure, a few stand ready to perform on the highwire with no net at all, while some will steadfastly refuse to ever leave the ground.
But what about you?
If you’re like most folks, you’re willing to take some risk … as long as you can hedge your bets. Perfectly normal. Perfectly understandable.
And the results you’re likely to get? Predictably half-assed.
Why? Because our tendency is to hold back. And you typically don’t win big by holding back.
So why do we hold back? Because we can. And it seems like the right thing to do. Why?
Because our survival instinct is trying to keep us from doing something catastrophically stupid. So, our first instinct is to bail or at least want to bail.
And if we have a fall back, it makes it easy to bail.
But at what price?
You can’t be committed to something and have one foot out the back door at the same time.
In the words of the brilliant Brazilian songwriter, Ivan Linz …
In the art of survival, you depart on arrival …
Now, he was writing about commitment in a relationship, but it relates to taking a leap in any area of your life or work. Anywhere we face risk, we face the urge to protect ourselves.
But what if we didn’t? What if we burned our bridges, cutting off our other options? What if we ensured that when we fell, we’d be falling forward vs. falling back?
Maybe we’d be more likely to get the things in life we really want and achieve the things we want to achieve.
Well, that’s exactly the advice Denzel Washington gave to students graduating from Penn in May of 2011. Fall Forward.
Take four and a half minutes to watch it.
I found it very inspirational.
Now, the speech develops the idea that you’re somehow obligated to use your talents … share your gifts … and take risks. And if you don’t, you’ve failed. You’ve disappointed the universe … God … the “ghosts” around your bed … whatever.
I understand the sentiment, and to each her own belief, but to me, the do or die ideology is a prescription for anxiety and self-flagellation.
To my mind, motivation has to come from a powerful inner desire to do something positive … not from trying to avoid shame, because you never took a chance and never lived up to your potential.
To me, it doesn’t make you wrong if you choose not to take risks. It’s your life. It’s your choice.
That said, you may very well be left disappointed, wondering what might have been, if you don’t take a deep breath, close your eyes, and go for whatever it is that you feel called to do.
And what I’m telling you, and what Denzel Washington is telling you, is IF you do decide to go for it, go ahead and burn your bridges, so that the only way you have to fall … is forward.