Burning Bridges Smell Bad

I was 21 with nothing to lose, or so I thought. Here’s the story.

Well, it’s not much of a story now. I’ve forgotten most of it after 15 years. The anger has died and I don’t even remember what fueled it. I just remember being MAAAAD, so mad that I wrote a letter to the president of the school I worked for. He never received it which may be why I have the job I have today. Really? Let me explain.

Whenever I get really upset about something I typically find one person to tell. This isn’t a rule I have written down somewhere–it’s just been my unconscious habit. And I thank God for it. Many an unsuspecting soul have been spared a tongue lashing all because I handed the letter over or forwarded the email draft to someone I trusted to be honest with me. (Find that person in your life.)

Back in 2000, my mum had the wonderful opportunity to read my fury and then tell me five words that probably saved my future work life: “Michaela, don’t burn your bridges.”

“But Mum, I’m only a contract teacher and I’m never going to work here again, anyway. He needs to read this!”

Boy, I wish I could remember what it was about.

I felt like my letter was respectful and that my intentions were good yet my mum kept repeating those five words. It’s not that she didn’t believe in my right to free speech or that she thought I was out to lunch. It’s that she knew what this could mean in the future and that the future possibility wasn’t worth the present fight.

I listened.

So how has that impacted my current employment? Two things (among others) come to mind.

  1. The president could have communicated my fury to others which he would have had every right to do. But what others would have done with it is anyone’s guess and news has a way of quickly spreading especially when it’s bad, ugly news. People talk. I’ve had second thoughts about hiring people all because of what one person (who I trust) said. It only takes one. And many a hiring decision has nothing to do with your listed references. An employer may be impressed that the dean of your school is a reference and he/she may actually talk to the dean. And then he/she will talk to the dean’s secretary who possibly saw you in a fuller light because he/she got wind of the letter.
  2. Handing it in could have incorrectly taught me that my opinion is always invaluable. At that age, we’re filled will a certain amount of misguided self-confidence. It’s hard to admit to but we’re often pretty arrogant. Add that to what I’ve experienced as a growing entitlement and you have fire in a plastic bucket–typically a bad idea. One misguided letter could have turned into two then five…I’ll never know. The point is that I couldn’t do my current job if I believed I should say every seemingly smart thing that comes to mind.

I’m not saying that you should never speak up. I am saying you should be careful, value people over fire. Don’t draw conclusions without conversation–get to know why things are the way they are. There’s usually a backstory, a big picture, that you’re unaware of. Find it.

If you must write, if you must speak, first get a second opinion. If you find yourself resistant to getting a second opinion, your arrogance may be bigger than you thought–I smell burnt plastic.

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