# 29: “Never Burn Bridges” — An Issue of Identification and Problem Solving


Story behind the Passage

This article above was in my Medium Daily Digest. Sometimes I read the recommended articles, sometimes I do not. Today, I just had to read this one because it directly addressed my present learning about personal branding and impact. Well, the algorithm knows what I am thinking about, right, so how could a suggestion not meet my interest? In any case, after reading the article, I immediately felt I had to “respond” to the text.

Just yesterday, I had explained to someone from a publishing house what my vision is for the release of the new book. And since I think in stories and images related to these stories, I put down the icon of a bridge on one of the slides. This is not something that I was aware of from the start. But whenever explaining to people what I do in so many different fields that have no obvious connection, they usually use this word “bridge builder.” And I have come to understand that they are right — somehow.

For a bridge builder, it obviously makes no sense to burn bridges, right? Well, before going into this more deeply, let me show you a definition of what burning bridges means, based on another very interesting Forbes article:

“What does it mean to burn a bridge? It means that you end a relationship in such a way that you could never go back and re-start the relationship again — or perhaps you could, but it would require you to beg forgiveness of the person whose bridge you have burned, even to try.” — Liz Ryan, Forbes

The problem with the “never” obviously is that it does not allow for any exceptions. This is the nice thing about rules, they tell you exactly what to do and leave no room for doubt. In the Forbes article by Ryan, she does describe exceptions to this rule. These examples include that burning bridges is o.k. if you put your integrity at risk or if you continuously harm yourself if the bridge you are burning might lead back to a toxic relationship or to a job that made you sick.

In fact, I agree with all these exceptions, especially with the latter two. Still, the phrase “never burn bridges” becomes irrelevant if you allow for exceptions. Hence, we are facing a classical dilemma here that usually calls for an either/or solution. But this is exactly not what I am going to do in the following passages. I do think that there is a way of taking the “never” seriously because I see the enormous value in not burning bridges. Still, I also know that it is very difficult to manage all of them.

My Learnings

“Connections, reputations, and opportunities could be ruined permanently.” The greatest gift of the networked age is that we can indeed be in touch with almost anyone around the world. Those among us who have grown up with this, might not see this as a milestone in history. And even those who are only slowly exploring the possibilities of digital technologies might quickly take it for granted without reflecting on it anymore. Still, I want to emphasize how revolutionary this is.

I remember when I was a kid and we spent our family vacations in Northern Africa, there was one vacation when I really developed a close friendship with another boy from a city near Cologne in Germany. I must have been six or so. We built the prettiest sandcastles you can imagine and we played all kinds of sports together, even on teams with the grown-ups. Then, when the final day of our vacation arrived, I remember that I cried my heart out. This saying goodbye was permanent, at least in my view. I just knew that we would never see each other again. This flight home was the final departure.

This might sound pretty dramatic from today’s perspective. After all, the city where the boy and his family lived is just three hours away from where I live. And, of course, in the 1990s, there were phones already. Indeed, I remember that my mom and his mom called each other once or twice. But that was it. These kinds of “bridges” usually fell apart quite soon without anybody doing anything to burn them on purpose.

Still, I wonder if children today still experience these moments of ultimate farewell in which you just know that this is it. Today, you exchange phone numbers in the hotel, you hop on the bus, on the plane, and you simply continue the conversation, wherever you end up going. Of course, this is a grown-up perspective now but I do see that children do the same thing already, since they also have cell phones. But I am not writing about this example here to merely show which difference digitalization makes in the world.

Rather, I want to emphasize how important “connections, reputations, and opportunities” have always been to people but they were simply much harder to maintain. And especially people who have realized this, those that are commonly known as networkers, know exactly how valuable human connections are for making things happen in the world. We should not forget that social media are just that — media, they help solve the problem of networking based on technology. The actual value is still created by the people. The network is a means, not an end in itself. So, what does all this have to do with the aspect of identification?

As some of you know already, the bridge that I have been struggling with very intensely is the one between the university and business, between the university and myself. To summarize the long story of my attempts to burn this bridge, I can say that I have gone through all possible phases that people also go through when mourning a deceased person. It starts with shock, denial, then turns into sadness, anger, indifference, before this cycle repeats itself over an over again until you are so sick of it that you finally let go — you burn the bridge. Only this burning of the bridge allows you to fully accept and appreciate the value that the bridge created in the past. This is basically one of these examples that Ryan uses in her article. Finishing a mourning process also ends with “burning a bridge” that can never be rebuilt.

The problem with my university bridge is that I have never fully burned the bridge. You might say, I put small fires here and there, I hammered holes into the pillars, I jumped on it to make it break, I drove over the bridge several times to simply ruin it… but whatever I did, I never fully “burned” it. And you can believe that I tried extremely hard, really. And there are many good reasons to do this. One is the aspect of mental health because anything that keeps occupying you emotionally becomes harmful. That is not special about the university in my case, this applies to all “bridges” that turn into energy-sucking devices.

The other reason is that, if we take the example of mourning a dead person again, the university is still alive and kicking. And no matter how many difficulties there are with the education system, I dearly appreciate universities. After all, everything I am today is a result of my education. It ended up being outstanding and opening doors into so many different directions. And yes, you might say that it still depended on me to use these opportunities, that is true. I did. But the system offered me these opportunities by broadening my horizon, by making me get interested in these opportunities in the first place.

After all, the most important thing I learned in academia is not the content of the classes, it is the value of education itself.

And by education I mean exactly the good old education of the liberal arts — a well-rounded education in the sciences and in the humanities (which is hard to get anymore, but that is a different story). So, one might say, fine, you got all that. Now, if the university is still bothering you, move on. You are a professional now. People go to university to leave it again as soon as possible after graduating. Why would you hold on to it? These institutions are destroying themselves anyways. Who needs comprehensive universities anymore?

To come back to my issue of identification which I still have not explained, this is exactly where its meaning can be unwrapped now. All my explanations above are emotional in one way or another. The value of the university is very much related to my personal life journey and the value that I see in the role that the university played for me. If you summarize that side of the equation, you can label it by using terms such as gratefulness and appreciation, ergo: positive.

On the other side of the equation, you find facts and figures that are quite objective and they do tell you that there are some things wrong with this institution. I do not have to repeat all of them but the lack of true interdisciplinary collaboration to create real value, the lack of university-public cooperation and communication, as well as the heavily theory-driven education of young scholars are just my major points here. Overall, all these aspects can be summarized as negative. Of course, this is a subjective evaluation again but it is not only based on my personal emotions but on more or less rational facts. This is where it gets interesting.

I truly think that you can only come to the point of “never” burning bridges if you learn to step out of your own story in a way. This is what I mean by identification or rather disidentification. This happens when you have gone through all the stages of mourning again and again and again… But then, instead of just tearing down the bridge, you simply reframe it as an interesting access point to solving problems. Because, after all, as therapists and Buddhists usually say, “things that disturb you are a signs that you still care about them.” So, what can happen then is a process of reframing the object or the person that the bridge leads to. Then, the actual work can start.

At this point, you are able to use every detail of your story, including the emotional part, but you see yourself in a new role. You have been on both ends of the bridge many times but now, you are really standing in the middle of the bridge or even underneath it to start working on those parts that need to be strengthened in order to allow both sides better access to one another. This is only possible to this extent exactly because you were the one hammering holes into the concrete before. But you did not do it so violently that it cannot be fixed. Still, it needed this anger to get to a new stage. Because, as a bridge builder, you need to understand both sides of the bridge extremely well to understand their interests and fears.

To come back to the quote of today in relation to my personal position of (dis)identification, I do think that “never burning bridges” is what I step up for. But it is the most difficult position you can choose, especially in the business world. Everybody in business knows that. If you want to sell something, you need to position yourself very clearly. Every either/or is simply a guarantee that whatever you are trying to achieve will not work. This is not because your position might not be driven by good intentions or value, it is because people do not understand it. And this has nothing to do with intellect, it is simply human. We understand based on opposites.

But what I want to suggest here is not exactly an either/or approach. It is a both/and paradigm that uses the wicked nature of the problem at hand to create something new. And since I am only one person, I as an individual need to use that space which opens up. This only works, however, if you take a strengths-oriented approach to either side of the bridge. You simply look at the potential and you try to figure out ways to use that potential by combining the two parties in a unique way that allows for fixing socially relevant problems.

“What about positioning yourself,” you might ask? How can you be critical if you at the same time need to take this appreciative stance with the positive mindset? Well, that is a challenge that I continuously find myself in and so far, I only have three pragmatic hints as to how to solve it:

  • Do not identify with the problems.
  • Communicate by using specific examples and highlight the positive and the negative
  • Never forget to see the funny side of everything — laughter convinces people and builds new bridges

With these three simple things, I am not saying that you should whitewash your critique. I would not consider myself to be a rebel if I did not take a clear position. But if you always stress that the reason for your critique is a solution-oriented mindset and you link your critique with very specific measures that can be implemented to solve an ill, “burning bridges,” even by accident, is almost impossible to do. And even if you still do not get heard, it is o.k. Usually, that tells you that the timing is not right or you are seeing a problem which simply is no problem to others. That is fine. Accept it. Then move on.

The bridge can stay where it is in the state that it is in. If it keeps decaying and people finally start seeing a problem in this, they will remember you. But that only works if you have the reputation of a bridge builder. Bulldozers are usually not called to rescue, unless a completely new and hopefully more stable bridge for the future needs to be built.

Reflection Questions

1) Did you ever “burn bridges”? How do you see this from today’s perspective?

2) Do you know people around you who are bridge builders? What is the specific value they create?

3) Think of a large-scale social and/or political problem that you come across frequently. How could bridge building (e.g., between people, institutions, topics…) help to solve it?

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