The Power of Burning Bridges: How Less Choice Can Make Us Better Off





Introduction

In the early 16th century, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes ventured out on an expedition to conquer Mexico which was new to European nations. Cortes’left on his expedition in direct defiance of the Cuban Governor who revoked his charter at the last minute due to an old gripe between the two individuals.Nevertheless, Cortes landed Verzcruz, Mexico several months later looking to conquer the Aztec Empire and find riches. When his team arrived to the shore, Cortes ordered his men to sink the fleet of ships to prevent the secretly planned return to Cuba by those loyal to the Cuban Governor. Sinking the ships left the expedition crew no way to retreat. Now, they either had to win or perish. Ultimately, Cortes’ expedition was successful against the Aztecs. 

This article’s focus is not on the moral implications of the European conquest of a foreign land, but on the effective strategy Cortes used to ensure his crew did not rebel against him and abort the mission. The strategy deployed by Cortes can be used by individuals to help achieve important life goals. The human brain is schizophrenic. We constantly have to decide whether to take the safe but often unsatisfying route or the tough route that will eventually lead us to our desired destination. When we attempt the tougher path, the safe part of our brain wants to mutiny against the other part and force a retreat of progressive positive action. 

When facing important, but frightening decisions, it is better to self impose limits on your available choices rather than to keep easy, but unsatisfying choices on the table. By doing this, you will become more resourceful in overcoming obstacles knowing that retreat is not an option and you will be forced to take positive action.

The “Never Burn Bridges” Myth

There is a common saying that states that a person “should never burn bridges.” This idiom generally means that you should not leave a job or relationship on bad terms recklessly. The wisdom is that you never know when you will need to re-cross the burnt bridge in the future. Although I agree that the reckless use of burning bridges is a bad idea, I disagree that this should be a general rule that we should always follow. Sometimes, burning bridges is a constructive tool that can deter us from taking destructive and unfulfilling paths in life. 

There are examples from my own life when I constructively burned bridges to help me achieve my life goals. When I graduated from college, I turned down two lucrative job offers from Fortune 100 companies, even before I had my plans set to move to Syracuse to help grow my brother’s speaking career. This placed me in a scary position of uncertainty, but it made me work more fervently to make my entrepreneurial endeavors successful. I went through this process again recently as I removed myself from excellent business school opportunities in order to pursue my speaking tour starting next January. 

As a society, we believe that having many choices is a great thing. The collective logic is that more choice equates to more individual freedom which equates to a better welfare of society. This logic holds true for a while, but there is a point when too many choices can cause personal setbacks towards achieving our long term goals. I will explain three negative effects that too much choice has on individuals.

Effect #1: Choice Causes Paralysis by Analysis

Deciphering between too many choices is mentally draining and will cause paralysis by analysis instead of liberation. With so many different things to choose from, we find it hard to choose at all. These tough decisions because of excessive choice lead to procrastination. If you speak with many successful people, most will tell you that taking action is the most important part of their achieved success. If you are paralyzed by indecision, there is no way that you can take the action necessary to make you successful. 

This phenomena reminds me of some of my genius friends who wander through life because they are good at everything. They have so many good options that they cannot decide which one is the best path for them to take. All of their time is spent striving maximize every decision instead of finding ways to maximize their life. Don’t fall into this trap!

Effect #2: Choice is a Temptation to Turn Back When Adversity Surfaces

Taking a path that leads to happiness and fulfillment can be challenging at times. If not, then everyone would be taking that identical path. The split brain that we have makes it difficult to stay on course when adversity surfaces. On one hand, we see our end goal with all of its glory in front of us. On the other hand, we recognize the hang-ups that may occur that can negatively affect our self esteem through failure. Just like Cortes troops almost defected against him, our natural instinct is to turn back when the going gets tough. Power comes from not being able to retreat.

Effect #3: Too Many Choices Often Make Us Less Satisfied with Our Selected Option

When we keep too many choices on the table for too long, we end up less satisfied by our selected option than we would be if we had fewer options instead. How we value choices depends greatly on the other alternatives that we compare them to. In economics, this is called opportunity cost. This is the cost of forgoing the next best alternative. When we have many options, our mind starts to play tricks on us. Instead of comparing the benefits of one option against another, we compare the benefits of our selected option against the combined benefits of all of the other options. Therefore, if the option that we pick is not perfect, we become dissatisfied even if the chosen option is wonderful. 

A great example of this fact is in relationships. Let’s say that John has been dating a wonderful woman named Erin for a short period of time. Erin is attractive, intelligent, and kind, but she has a laugh that the John finds annoying. There is another woman named Michelle that also likes John. However, John does not find Michelle to be as attractive, intelligent, or kind compared to Erin, but Michelle does not have an annoying laugh. Therefore John would probably decide to stay with Erin. 

Now, instead of one other suitor, let’s say John has many other women who like him. Instead of comparing Erin as a future life-mate against each of the girls individually, John creates this superwoman in his brain that compares Erin against the attractiveness of Sarah, the intelligence of Amy, and the kindness of Natalie. In essence, creating a person that does not exist. (I’m picking on men, but women do the same thing.) When choice is abundant, this phenomenon is more likely to happen, causing us to miss out on opportunities that may have been better for us.

Commitment is Counterintuitive: How to Hurt Yourself to Help Yourself

There is a quote that I love by classical guitarist David Russell. He says that “the hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.” Making this type of decision is difficult. It takes a combination of acute self awareness and committed action to your selected path. Half hearted involvement will not work. A popular fable explains that “the difference between involvement and commitment is like an eggs-and-ham breakfast: The chicken was involved, but the pig was committed.”

Here are the five steps that I follow anytime I need to figure out which bridges I should cross versus which ones I should burn.

Step 1: Discover Your Passions and Develop Clarity of Purpose

I have talked about this step extensively in two of my previous articles (Avoiding the Wizard of Oz Syndromee and Creating Your Kevlar Vision). To summarize the other articles, it is vitally important that we discover for ourselves what is important and what is not. Do not be fooled by common traps that derail many people from the self discovery process. Being in tune with your passions makes it easier to navigate tough life decisions.

Creating my personal mission statement at the LeaderShape program my junior year of college is one of the best things that I have ever done. It states that I want “to become a tycoon politically, socially, and economically so that I may have a positive impact on my community.” This simple statement provides clarity of purpose to my life and I use it as a guide to make sure I stay on path with what is important to me. You should create one too.

Step 2: Eliminate the Choices Counter to Your Passions and Purpose

After you have identified your passion and purpose, you will now need to eliminate the options that do not align with the direction that you want to head in the future, no matter how easy the alternative options are. I understand that this step can be difficult and scary, but it is a necessity. There are common traps that entice people not to eliminate options that are counter to their passions (Check out Chapter 6 in Success Built to Last for a more in depth look):

1. Career worthiness – One may think that the unaligned choice is more worthy than the thing that you really want to do. Overcome the urge to think like this. Many people choose “worthy” careers because they provide an illusion of security, not because they actually like the career. One of my friends who is in his last year of medical residency recently contacted me about business school because he was over the hype of being a doctor. He now wants to pursue a path that he loves and I’m sure he will be successful at it. If you want to be a doctor that is excellent, but make sure it is because that career aligns with your passions and not because it is deemed worthy by others.

2. Bright, shiny, objects (BSOs) – If you listened solely to the marketing messages on television, it would be easy to feel worthless if you do not own the latest BMW, have the MTV Crib, or hang out with the latest accessory mate. There is nothing wrong with having these things, but individuals in tune with their purpose will know that BSOs will not keep them happy for long.

Let me repeat; I know that is can be very hard to burn certain bridges. Often, there is immense social pressure to cross the same bridge as everyone else. But ask yourself “Who will suffer for my unhappiness if I live a life that I do not love?” The answer is you!

Step 3: Take Action to Ensure Your Selected Action is Irreversible

When you burn the bridges of the options that are counterproductive to your life, don’t create safety zip lines to take you back “just in case” something goes wrong. The purpose to cutting off the other options is to force ourselves to focus on what we love to do. If you know in the back of your head that you can quit at anytime, then the focus effect is diminished.

Step 4: Continue to Develop Your Mental and Emotional State

Throughout the process, you need to work on your mental and emotional development to stay committed to your course of action and to grow as a person. The results of your decisions are important, but sometimes we forget to enjoy the journey in anticipation of reaching the destination. Doing so will lead to self doubt and the constant comparison of opportunities not selected, especially if your plan is not moving as fast as you predicted. I develop my mental and emotional state by reading positive and inspirational messages on a daily basis.

Step 5: Evaluate Your Goals Regularly to Make Sure You Have the Same Destination

Periodically, do some maintenance of your passions and purpose to make sure that what you originally set out to do is what you really want. Things change externally in the world and internally within ourselves. It is important to know when these changes are happening and to adjust accordingly. Thankfully, I have not had to adjust course very much in the last 4 years, but I am well aware that it may happen one day. But, a person’s passion and purpose usually do not change dramatically very often.

Conclusion

Game theorist and Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling said “The power to constrain an adversary depends upon the power to bind oneself.” To attain success, we need to constrain the part of our brain that looks for the path of least resistance by eliminating its options. This is process is frightening, but is essential to reaching goals faster and with more ferocity. So, get to burnin’!