The myth of professional bridges that can be burned

A recent article distributed in LinkedIn about the concept of burning bridges in the sense of the professional bridges to a terminated job.   I guess the main intent is whether or when it may be appropriate to make a big fuss about the departure.   I’m a get-along kind of guy.  I can’t imagine making a big scene about a departure although I have been blessed in leaving past jobs on good terms.    However, I made a comment to that post along the lines of approving burning of professional bridges to terminated jobs.    I meant it a different way than making a big scene about it, but I meant it in the same sense of eliminating the possibility of returning.

As far back as I can remember, I heard the advice about not burning bridges.   Take the events as they come but be careful to protect the possibility of returning what was left behind.   I’m sure I heard it even before taking my first job.

It was advice that I probably didn’t need to be told as I have an almost unhealthy devotion to all past relationships.   I always hope that a future opportunity to meet a past acquaintance will be welcomed by both of us.    This started with my feelings toward actual friendships, social friendships unrelated to any professional or business objectives.   It is natural for me to accept the notion that once a friend, always a friend.

What bothers me about the business context of the advice to not burn bridges is that it confuses the personal social friendships with the professional working relationship.    There are profound differences between the two kinds of relationships.   For starters, a social relationship mostly is a relationship between peers.   Friends catch up on news about each other and with interests about how things worked out.

Professional relationships involve roles.   The other person may be my boss, or my client, or my subordinate.   Even among equal-status colleagues, there are differences in terms of responsibilities, expertise, or even seating arrangements.   Upon leaving a job, to suggest there is a bridge is to suggest you can resettle in the vacancy you left.    I use this specificity as an exaggeration to emphasis that obviously that vacancy will not remain unfilled after one’s departure.   The position will be filled or there will be a rearrangement of duties to adapt to the new reality within the company.

One of the ideas that occurred to me in my response to the question whether professional bridges should be burned is the idea that the idea of a bridge is nonsensical.   When leaving a job, there is nothing to go back to.   Burning the bridge makes no sense if the bridge doesn’t exist in the first place.   The bridge is in our imagination.

The advice about not burning bridges is not really meant on such a precise basis.   Instead it is about protecting the professional relationships as potential future resources as references, introductions, or sources of advice.   I observe that these are not as important as they seem.   Certain new opportunities will require relevant references.   The problem is that those opportunities are rare and often unavailable.   The available opportunities are where those old references are mostly irrelevant except to provide a character reference.

This recognition of the rapid decay of relevance of old references is what motivated my recommendation to immediately burn down bridges in the sense of discarding the entire notion that that bridge exists at all.    I was using the term burning down bridges in a second level of abstraction of the original metaphor of burning down the bridges.   I meant burning down the imaginary bridge.

For many people, I think this is an important option to consider.   I project this from my own experience over multiple employers.  In each case, I made an attempt to assure that the bridges to the past jobs were not burned.   I tried my best to leave on terms that would leave them welcoming my return if that opportunity were to present itself.   I compounded that error by even promising that I will keep that option available.

The advice to not burn professional bridges means more than just to leave with good standing with all concerned.   It also means to commit to keeping that relationship relevant.    In my case, it became an imperative for me to retain my professional relevance to the job I left behind.    In hindsight this was a huge mistake, and one I repeated far too often.

I think the idea of burning the bridge to the past is a healthy concept because the alternative of preserving that bridge will get in the way of taking advantage of the unique possibilities of current possibilities often nonexistent just a few years ago.

I am not sure this will make much sense, but I’ll try to describe a specific example.  Through the 1990s I had a job I loved in a specific career in something called discrete event simulation.   This is a computer software discipline that generates random events based on statistical models in order to predict some hypothetical condition, sometimes called a what-if scenario.   This discipline has a long history spanning many decades, and it is still around.  The discipline did not disappear, but instead in the year 2000, my job in that discipline disappeared.   Discrete event simulation jobs still exist but the opportunities are very few and highly competitive.  Despite my interests and relative success at my job, I was not a competitive candidate to find similar opportunities elsewhere.   To be completely honest, I did well within a particular company but my skills were weak relative to the market as a whole, there was nothing close to a lateral move available.

At the point when that cherished job terminated it was clear to me that my next job would unlikely involve direct participation in this same discipline.   The error I made what not burning that bridge.   I kept alive the notion that maybe I’ll adapt the new job to be relevant to the old job.    More than that, I verbally stated to my old colleagues that I would remain relevant to that discipline.  I intended to return to discrete event simulation.    Not only was I not burning the bridge but I planned on crossing it again in the future.

This commitment to my former career and even to my former colleagues severely constrained my approach to the new job.  The new job presented tremendous opportunities in the area of big data, multidimensional databases, and predictive analysis.   While I made substantial progress in these areas, I missed the opportunity to fully embrace the opportunity to dive fully into this field.   Instead, that imagined bridge to the past compromised my new opportunity by encouraging my fruitless efforts to bend the new opportunity to be relevant to the past.   I was trying to approach a big data project as a discipline that overlaps with discrete event simulations.

I may even have succeeded in finding an overlap of the new opportunity with the old discipline.   That accomplishment was worthless because there is no market for what it.   The real cost, though, was that I utterly missed an ideal opportunity to contribute on the cutting edge of the big data technologies.   That cutting edge had absolutely nothing to do with discrete event simulations.   I attribute a large part of that missed opportunity to the imperative that I must maintain a bridge to the past, an in particular to make good on that promise to remain relevant.

The image that occurs to me now is of the medieval towns accessible by some bridge where a journeyman apprentice leaves the town for a few years to gain some experience but will eventually return and re-enter the bridge he had previously left.   I think that is the image of a bridge that comes to my mind when I hear about burning down the professional bridge.   The journeyman goes out but is expected to eventually return to where he started.   That journeyman would never contemplate burning that bridge.

I like that image with a reference to medieval practice because it is also so unlike modern careers.    Today the bridge may persist but the town on the other side quickly vanishes.   The bridge is useless.   The problem with mentally not burning down the bridge is that it keeps alive the notion that the town on the other side is still there ready to embrace a returning journeyman.

The benefit of immediately burning that bridge is to leave with the certainty of the impossibility of returning.   This frees the person to look at any new opportunity and take full advantage of the unique opportunities it offers.   There is no obligation to remain somehow connected to the past.

The metaphor of the bridge and its burning is appealing to me because of this image of leaving no opportunity of return.   Unfortunately, the metaphor implies making the town on the other side angry for having their bridge burned down.   Yet, I still like the metaphor in the sense that notion includes an acceptance of not caring what they think.

A better and happier metaphor is a retirement party.   Today it is customary for colleagues to treat a departing member to a going away luncheon.  This happy occasion is similar to a very scaled down version of a retirement ceremony.   The retirement ceremony explicitly accept that the departing member will never return.   It is a happy occasion but one where the objective is to sever professional ties.   The retiree is off to a new life free of expectations of professional relevance.

This retirement analogy to leaving a prior job is closer to the good feeling intention I had in mind.   It captures the notion that the retired life has nothing to do with the professional life left behind.   That’s the kind of break I’m suggesting is often healthful when leaving an old job for a new one.

I just prefer the image of burning bridges.


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