To Burn Or Not to Burn

Advice, as I am sure you are aware, takes many forms, touting an unimaginable number of recommendations on how to improve your life.  While much advice is generally universal, not all advice is agreed upon.  The advice of whether or not to “burn all your bridges behind you” (or “ships”, as the trope is also commonly said) is one such piece of advice that is not always agreed upon by all, and is the focus of this week’s post.

The concept of “burning you ships behind you” has historically been a very literal and risky action.  One of the earliest records of its application was in 711 AD, when Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) by sea and ordered his ships burnt behind him after landing so that his men would have no choice but to fight forward.  Years later the Spanish Conquistador Cortez did the same when invading the Aztec Empire.  More recently, General Sherman was able to carve a path through the Confederate American States after he intentionally cut himself off from his supply lines (i.e., his bridges behind him) and pressed forward with abandon to Charleston.  All three of these are examples of purposefully creating a “point of no return”, a place in time in which there is no choice but to proceed forward as turning back is no longer a viable option.

Dangerous?  Absolutely.  And yet the application of such action throughout history has proven effective time and time again.  While few of us will ever be facing such intense military actions, we too have the ability to create points of no return in our own endeavors.  Burning your ships forces you to commit fully to whatever plan of action you are considering, bring you to a point where there are no other options.  Perhaps you are trying to start a business while holding onto a day job.  The day job can create a sense of security that keeps you (intentionally or not) from focusing all your efforts on your business, hindering your progress in growing the business.  Or perhaps you have set an exercise or weight goal but have not built an accountability system which would make it painful to fail.  When there is no consequences in place to keep you from cheating or slacking on that goal, you (very likely) will.  Or on the social front, perhaps you are clinging to toxic relationships with friends or family members because you care about them and continue to hope that “things can change.”  If you would instead “burn that bridge” and end that relationship, it could free and empower you to move on.

(For other arguments for burning your ships, see this Success Magazine article, this article, or this Art of Wellbeing article.)

If these examples and notions seem extreme to you, you’re not alone, which brings us back to the overarching theme that not everyone agrees that burning you ships is the best course of action.  Proponents of this alternate advice, that we shouldn’t burn our ships and bridges, argue that it is unwise to act in rash manners which may later reflect negatively upon us.  For example, let’s say that you leave a business on bad terms to start your own, choosing to walk out while letting the entire office know “how you feel about them” (i.e., burning the bridges).  Those same individuals may later in life be asked to give references to your character and work ethic, and they will certainly remember the negative impression that you left on them.  Not to promote fear-mongering, but given that more than fifty percent of self-startup business ventures fail in the first four years, you could soon find yourself begging for forgiveness for your actions.  As another example, perhaps you dabbled once in a side interest, hobby, friendship, or other endeavor, but ultimately went “cold turkey” on it for one reason or another.  Rather than forever close the book on those chapters of your life, you should arguably leave those doors open for future possible explorations.  Don’t allow poor timing today to prevent re-exploring opportunities in the future.

So which is one to do?  Are we to charge through life burning the path behind us, or are we to cautiously leave our ships afloat so that we can sail in a different direction if needed?  My personal advice is this: make each such decision on a case by case basis, independent of past “to burn or not to burn” decisions.  To always cleave to one side of the argument or the other means that you will always have to deal with the negative attributes of such a decision.  While you may in some instances have to contend with a weakened resolve to move forward due to having your bridge still standing behind you, you can have peace in knowing that you have options, which you may ultimately come to appreciate even greater than the choices themselves.  Life is, arguably, rarely black and white, and so don’t make black and white decisions if you don’t have to.  When making decisions, look at your personal goals, values, and desires, and then act accordingly.  If that means burn the ship, then burn the ship.  But if it is not necessary, then let the ship float: you may just come to appreciate having it available later down the road.

Jeremiah Clark, M.A., is the co-owner of Appalachian Digital, a website development agency.  He is also a Lead Systems Analyst with the Cleveland Clinic Healthcare System.  You can contact Jeremiah at or connect with him on LinkedIn at Jeremiah Clark.