I used to think I was able to look into the future of my professional life. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, in particular, I was absolutely certain of things. And the older I get – as I’m sure it is for many – the more I understand how little I know (and can know) about what my career’s future will hold.
When you believe you’re clairvoyant (and you’re stubborn), it’s exceptionally easy to burn bridges.
You’re never going to take that job ever again. Or collaborate with that person. Or need that manager’s help. Or need a reference from that shitty project. Better to close the chapter and start fresh than to undertake the arduous process of solving a conflict, agreeing to disagree – or even parting on strained, but good, terms.
At least, that’s what I used to think. I like clarity and I like tidiness. This preference for the organisational has spilt into my professional relationships, however, and turned out to be a substantial drawback. The magic crystal ball is more often wrong than not.
Bridges are a fantastic metaphor for relationships. Once the wood’s been burnt – the ash swept away by the river below – it’s an arduous process to rebuild the construction. In professional life, it can be damn near impossible. People may not be willing to rebuild, and building a bridge on your own, especially in the midst of strong currents, isn’t just difficult – it may be pointless.
On the flip side, a bridge left standing can survive a whole lot.
The wood may crack and the paint may wash off. A plank or two might fall down, and the railing can come undone. But the bearing pillars of the construction – when it’s done properly from the beginning – can withstand a whole lot.
For someone who likes to close chapters nicely and tidily, an unkept bridge in the context of a professional relationship is a nightmare. The maintenance work often feels pointless and tedious – simply because you don’t know if it’ll ever pay off.
But that’s exactly the point. You don’t know if it’ll ever pay off. You do know, however, that by keeping that bridge out of flames, the possibility is there.
That client might come back to you for something else way down the line. You might encounter work that needs a reference from that project you hated. Perhaps that person you found it difficult to collaborate with presents you with a super interesting project. Whatever it is – if the bridge is already burnt, the possibility has gone up in flames with it.
In Norwegian, there’s a saying about the feeling of having to do something difficult – something that makes you cringe and something you really don’t want to do, especially in social contexts. It’s called swallowing a camel. Since I discovered the power of leaving bridges unburnt, I’ve had to swallow a lot of camels. It hurts the ego, it hurts the pride – but it’s also a fantastic learning process.
Most working relationships are just chapters in a larger whole. By leaving them open, you leave the opportunity for a new story to unfold open, too.
Here’s what I do to actively keep my bridges fireproof:
- I stay professional. No matter how poorly a client treats me or how difficult a collaboration is, I stick to my ethos and take the high road in my communications.
- I communicate. If something starts going awry, I address it as quickly as possible. Think of it as pre-emptive bridge maintenance.
- I try to close collaborations and partnerships as kindly and openly as possible – leaving the opportunity for a future exchange open.
- I give myself breathing space. If something really unpleasant occurs, I wait with my response until I’ve calmed down and mapped out the steps I’d like to take.
It’s not easy. But it tends to be worth it.
Good luck with the bridge upkeep!
Do you have a story about burning your bridges – or keeping them stable? I’d love to hear from you! Drop a comment below or write me directly at email@example.com.