Why ‘Don’t Burn Bridges’ Is Bad Advice

Not every bridge is worth maintaining; and some bridges can be rebuilt.

I recently reached out to my former boss who fired me from my first college internship 14 years ago. After a few emails back and forth, and in the most amazing, fortuitous, weird twist of fate, we are working together again; not in that hierarchical intern/employer relationship, but as colleagues. Perhaps even better than our rekindled collegial relationship, we consider each other friends.

Amy and I have since clocked many hours chatting about any number of career- and life-related happenings that occurred since that fateful summer of 2000. Our discussions have made me think really hard about one warning I have received from well-meaning teachers, colleagues, friends, and family at various points in my life:

“Don’t burn your bridges.”

And now that I think of it, this old adage is reliant on at least two problematic assumptions:

  • That no bridge should ever be burned, and
  • That it is not possible to rebuild a bridge once it has burned to the ground.

In truth, I am also guilty of giving the same advice to my colleagues, students, and friends.

To be clear, I’m not about to walk around telling my students—or anyone else—that they should burn their bridges, like this is some sort of free-for-all. It is not. I don’t do “YOLO” (unless we’re talking about the trip to France that I want to take soon). In my own case, it took 14 years and a (still developing) sense of awareness and courage to rebuild my bridge with Amy. If anything, would default to advice that cautions my students against burning bridges, for the sake of starting out in life on the right foot and solid grounding, as young people who do not yet know what they do not know.

However, now that I am removed from a few interesting career- and life-related experiences, I’ve learned to rethink the popular advice about bridge-burning:

Fear of burning bridges can lead to fear of taking risks. For example, had I feared burning a bridge that connected me to my position in a toxic company (long after my experience with Amy), I never would have become a teacher.

Likewise, had I assumed that bridges could not be rebuilt, or had I been fearful of rebuilding that bridge to Amy, our rekindled relationship would not exist.

I think whether or not a bridge should be rebuilt depends completely on why it burnt to the ground to begin with. In the case of my situation with Amy, I was simply an inexperienced intern who made one too many glaringly silly mistakes. Upon realizing the many reasons for why I was thankful Amy took action and terminated my position that summer, I was more than happy to reach out and tell her so. At the very least, I saw this opportunity to rebuild as a way of healing an old wound.

At the same time, I can think of any number of situations and settings that are not worthy of the time, heart, soul, and emotional risk that it would take to rebuild those bridges. Bridges that are built with shoddy material are destined to crumble.

We all have to decide for ourselves whether a bridge is worth rebuilding. But the story that Amy and I share, at the very least, proves that rebuilding bridges is not only possible, but the process can enrich your life in ways you never would have expected.

Christina Berchini is a university professor, author, and researcher. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education with an emphasis in English Education from Michigan State University, and is published in several practitioner and scholarly journals. She is the creator of www.heycollegekid.com where she gives advice and tough love to college students. Her creative work has been featured in the Huffington PostSUCCESS.com, and www.Blogher.com.

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