Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Path to the Future

One of my favorite mottoes is:
The path to the future is brightly illuminated by the bridges burning behind us.
I like this motto for a bunch of reasons.

First, it reminds me of a time in my life when I left the security of a highly paid position in a large company for the the uncertainty of a start-up that I founded using savings and credit cards to pay people until I could get funding.

Second, for me, it provides a shortcut to confidence, whenever I find myself hesitant or anxious about moving into something new.

Third, the motto that I find so edifying and comforting seems to provoke a visceral and negative response in many people. "Hey, you don't want to burn any bridges!"

Freedom's Just Another Word...
There are so many cases in which burning bridges is the best way to guarantee success in a new endeavor.

If you've embarked on a new adventure but find yourself consistently distracted by thoughts of turning back, cutting off your path of retreat can help you attain new levels of focus and clarity. If you find yourself holding back or hiding because of concerns of what others will think of you, then simply letting the cat out of the bag can be a wonderfully freeing experience.

To be clear, you don't need to actively burn your bridges to benefit from the motto; you need only adopt the attitude that "not being able to go back" is okay.

Just prior to her senior year in high school, my daughter Eila (pronounced with a long A) and I were talking about her class selection which was filled with advanced placement classes for college. As we talked, it occurred to me to ask, "Hey Eila, are these the classes that you really want to take?"

Eila immediately responded, "Oh, no dad. I'd much rather take art and music classes, but that would be so impractical."

So, we talked about it.

Eila ended up filling her senior year with art and music.

The next year, she enrolled at Emerson College in Boston. By the middle of the first semester, she decided that it was "boring". She dropped out, took a job at Urban Outfitters and considered her next move.

She decided that she wanted to study fashion design in Florence, Italy. She found the school, did all the prep work, and then headed off to Florence. She spent the year studying, speaking Italian, meeting new people and spending her weekends traveling on the cheap to different parts of Europe.

The following year, she enrolled at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. She was living on Union Square West and doing great.

Obliged to Continue
One day, just after her mid-term exams, Eila and I were talking on the phone. She told me about all she was doing and the amazing feedback that she had received from all her teachers.

Then she started crying.

I said Eila, "Why are you crying? You're doing so well!"

Eila responded, "Yeah, Dad. And I hate it."

It turned out that, although Eila was doing really well in school, she simply didn't like what she was doing. Yet, she felt that, because she was good and because she'd invested so much in getting where she was, she was somehow obligated to continue.

As we talked about it, Eila decided that she didn't want to continue at Parsons.

Everyone told her she was crazy. Her teachers saw that she had a promising future in design. Her friends had all drunk the "you have to finish college" cool-aid.

Perfect Confidence
With all this feedback, Eila started to doubt her decision. One day, she told me that she wasn't sure if she could really trust herself. I grabbed a copy of a personal development catalog and looked up a program focused on self-trust and confidence which as it turns out was being offered the following week. We called the sales counselor and enrolled Eila in the program.

From my perspective the program had an amazingly transformative effect. Eila, who was already a quite confident person, came home a powerhouse of confidence and self-ownership. On her way home from the program, she gave me a call. I asked Eila what her biggest learning had been in the program. Eila said:
"Dad, I realize why I was so uncomfortable not being in school. When I'm not in school, I have no one to grade me. I decided that I don't need anyone to grade me anymore."
Today Eila is the general manager of a restaurant in Harvard Square called Border Cafe. She absolutely loves the restaurant business and her job. Despite the dire predictions regarding her financial future, she's doing fine. And most importantly, she's really happy.

Burning Your Bridges
One of the things that I've learned over the years is that, when you start something really new and different, there are going to always be people who aren't happy about it. It might be that they simply don't understand what you're doing. It might be that they see it as wrong. They might feel threatened by it. They might see your confidence and energy as an indictment of their own lack of action.

Regardless of their motivations, you may find yourself in the position of choosing between your friends, colleagues and family, and your vision of who you want to become or what you want to do. In these instances, the most useful path forward may involve bridge burning.

Some Bridges Just Won't Burn
I should note that some bridges only appear to burn. I've had many times in my life where people got outright angry at me for moving forward with something they didn't want me to do. Oftentimes, they would see what I was doing as somehow threatening.

From my perspective, they simply didn't understand and I didn't want to wait for them to understand. I also figured that they'd probably come around eventually, but I was going to be concerned about it.

What's really cool is that, oftentimes, they do come around.

Have an awesome Wednesday!


  1. Wow, thank you Mark. This is enlightening! And perfect timing for me. I realize I don't want and don't believe I can go exactly backwards because I am always moving forward, forging new paths so, if bridges burn that is OK, I'll make new ones.

  2. Jeannene, I love the idea of building new bridges.

    I wonder how many great new things we miss because we're clinging to what we have.


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