Burn your bridges

Burn your bridges

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to explain why the message “Don’t burn your bridges” is wrong and reveal the reasons why you actually need to burn your bridges and boats.

First a quick update:

“The Passion Test”
Listen to or read my interview and conversation with Janet and Chris Attwood – authors of “The Passion Test: The Effortless Path to Discovering Your Destiny.” Click here.

Now, let’s talk about dangers of heeding the common phrase and advice “Don’t burn your bridges.”

The expression “Don’t burn your bridges” is a warning against doing anything that might permanently damage a relationship and which leaves you no alternative or possibility for retreat or fall back. This advice is often given in business i.e. be nice to your boss when you leave or resign so that if you ever need to, you can come back.

This phrase of burning the bridges comes from an old military strategy that is also connected to the “burning of the boats.” In 1519, Captain Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico and the Aztec Empire, a nation of 5 million people with less than 1000 soldiers. Although there is controversy around the details, it is known that Cortes was so committed to winning, that he convinced his soldiers to destroy their own ships so that they could not retreat, fall back or escape. It was a case of succeed or die. This strategy created total commitment and real motivation for his soldiers; and it worked.

It is also believed that this was the strategy of the ancient Greek warriors who had a reputation for unsurpassed bravery and unbending commitment to victory. And it is possible that this is the strategy to which Napoleon Hill refers in a story he relates in his classic book “Think and grow rich”:

“A long while ago, a great warrior faced a situation which made it necessary for him to make a decision which insured his success on the battlefield. He was about to send his armies against a powerful foe, whose men outnumbered his own. He loaded his soldiers into boats, sailed to the enemy’s country, unloaded soldiers and equipment, then gave the order to burn the ships that had carried them. Addressing his men before the first battle, he said, “You see the boats going up in smoke. That means we cannot leave these shores alive unless we win! We now have no choice – we win – or we perish!” 

The message here is about uncovering that burning desire to win. Oftentimes we play it safe and we do nothing. But in doing nothing we also remain exactly where we are.

Why do we do nothing?

It is that fear that paralyzes us and keeps us in our comfort zone even though we don’t necessarily like or enjoy our comfort zone – our prison of familiarity and mediocrity. In other words, we are often afraid of letting go of the very things we actually don’t even want.

Recently, I interviewed Janet and Chris Attwood – authors of the NY Times bestseller “The Passion Test: The Effortless Path to Discovering Your Destiny.” Janet Attwood tells her story of when she was working in a job that she didn’t enjoy and which she was failing miserably. Only when she discovered her purpose and passion, did she also decide to burn the boats and bridges. She quit her job and followed her dream. She had no idea how it would work; no guarantee of how it would work, no certainty, nothing to fall back on (no bridges or boats) but she was committed to making it work. And it did, and now she is a world renowned author and speaker. Read our interview here or listen to it here.

Burning your bridges or boats simply means that you remove those options that you don’t really want and you open the doors to what you truly want.

Just yesterday, a TV news producer was asking me “Why do we stay in unhappy relationships?” The answer is the same as why we choose to stay in unhappy jobs or other unhappy situations. We fear that we cannot or won’t do any better. The woman that stays in the crappy relationship does so because she fears that she won’t be able to find a better relationship, won’t be able to find another boyfriend. In so doing, she reinforces the belief that she can’t have better and doesn’t deserve better, thus choosing to hold onto the unhappy but familiar relationship.

I suggest “Burn the bridges behind you and build new ones in front.”

I left Australia for a 3-month vacation and that was more than 15 years ago. When I arrived in Europe, I was stunned to see a new world and a new way of living. I knew that I wanted to explore more of the world. I knew that I wanted to immerse myself in new experiences. The money ran out pretty fast and I had no idea how I would make it work as I had no credit cards at the time, but I knew I would make it work, and in my mind, I burned my own bridges and boats by simply ruling out any possibility of running back or returning to Australia until I had explored and experienced what I wanted. And yes, my commitment to succeed and live out my passion eventually led me to work in various countries including Africa, England, Spain, Mexico, The Caribbean and the US. Incidentally, yes, my career transformed and evolved numerous times over those years. The key was commitment and a belief that it would work – even though I didn’t know how it would happen.

The key issue of belief is raised in the Steven Spielberg film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones, a daring and adventurous archeologist who travels the world in search of treasures. Indiana and his father are searching for the Holy Grail, the cup believed to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper.

Indiana’s father is shot right near the end of their quest and now the motivation for Indiana Jones to find the cup intensifies because it’s believed the cup can save his father.

Indiana follows the clues to the cup from an ancient book and he suddenly finds himself at the edge of a chasm with no way for him to cross it. Indiana studies the book again, searching for an answers and he awakens to the realization when he says, “It’s a leap of faith.”

His father is whispering, “You must believe, boy, you must believe” as Indiana looks straight ahead. Indiana holds his hand over his thumping heart; he musters his courage and he slowly raises one foot high into the empty air, over the chasm and then takes a step forward.

There’s a thump, and Indiana is now standing on a narrow but solid rock bridge which he could not see before, because it had been carved to match the exact outline of the ravine beneath it.

Not all of us are like Harrison Ford or Janet Attwood, ready or able to jump off the chasm; some of us need to take baby steps. But all of us need to first identify what it is that we want – our intention and then identify that one thing that is blocking us from living our passion and dream – that one obstacle. While the emotion is fear, the block is also something tangible. For Janet Attwood it was her job. Janet couldn’t follow her dream without burning the boat and bridge – her job. For me, it was leaving behind a country. For each one of us, the obstacle is different; it might be the job, the apartment, the car, an unhappy relationship or any other thing to which we had committed and to which we must now appropriately decommit. We must also decommit from our fears and the naysayers.

Edward C. Barnes committed to and successfully found a way to work with the inventor and scientist Thomas A. Edison. In his book, Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill quotes Barnes as saying, ‘There is but ONE thing in this world that I am determined to have, and that is a business association with Thomas A. Edison, I will burn all the bridges behind me and stake my ENTIRE FUTURE on my ability to get what I want.’

Find out what you want, believe you deserve to have it, commit to it, remove the crutches and excuses; burn your bridges & boats, and take the leap of faith.

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & Clinical Hypnotherapist

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