The Golden Gate Bridge, one of America’s most iconic engineering feats, turned 75 years old in June. The bridge originally took more than four years to build, and at the time of its construction, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. More than two billion vehicles have driven across the Golden Gate Bridge since it opened in 1937.

The main purpose of any bridge, of course, is to span a gap in order to connect two places. Bridges provide passage between locations which otherwise would not be joined together. They make one area accessible to another.

Our Bridges to the Past

As leaders, we all have bridges to our pasts. We have connections that reach across time, linking us to our previous experiences. These bridges can benefit us by providing access to a storehouse of pleasant memories and helpful lessons. However, these bridges can also harm us by keeping us in contact with traumatic events in our personal history. “The hardest thing to learn in life,” writes David Sanders, “is to know which bridge to cross and which bridge to burn.” In this lesson, I suggest four bridges to the past that a leader would be wise to set ablaze.

Bridges to Burn

Bridge #1: Wrongs Done to Us

Bridges to the past hold us captive when they induce us to remember and relive the pain others have caused us. Elbert Hubbard wrote: “A retentive memory may be a good thing, but the ability to forget is the true token of greatness. Successful people forget. They know the past is irrevocable. They’re running a race. They can’t afford to look behind. Their eye is on the finish line. Magnanimous people forget. They’re too big to let little things disturb them. They forget easily. If anyone does them wrong, they consider the source and keep cool. It’s only the small people who cherish revenge. Be a good forgetter. Business dictates it, and success demands it.” Forgiveness allows you to be free from the nightmares of the past and to reclaim your dreams for the future.

We burn bridges to past injuries by taking the high road. Revenge may feel like the preferable path, but ultimately it keeps us bound to our hurt. If there are people who have wronged you, do yourself a favor and give them something they don’t deserve but desperately need: the gift of forgiveness. It’s a gift that, once given, offers something in return. Your spirit gets rest.

Bridge #2: The Unfairness of Life

Life’s circumstances aren’t equal for everyone. At times, we encounter bad luck; our lives are beset by hardships that our friends have the good fortune to avoid. In these moments, we can be tempted to act as victims, maintaining a bridge to the past by insisting on the unfairness of our plight.

Having a mature perspective allows us to burn bridges to the seeming injustice of past circumstances. Rather than permitting misfortunes to drag us down, we ought to develop an attitude which takes them in stride as an inevitable part of life. In this way, we empower ourselves to rise above life’s difficulties instead of being passive victims of them.

Bridge #3: Growth Inhibitors

Bad habits serve as bridges to the past. We persist in them because they’re familiar and because it’s painful to part with them. However, they prevent us from growing to our potential.

Breaking unhealthy patterns of behavior requires making hard decisions. We have to  be willing to exchange short-term comfort for long-term gain. In addition, we may need to cut ties to an organization when its culture has a negative influence on us. Growth thrives in conducive surroundings, and sometimes burning a bridge to a toxic environment is the only way to improve our lives.

Bridge #4: Our Own Stupidity

I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life. Early in my marriage I would win arguments with my wife, Margaret, but at the cost of badly injuring her feelings. I have made business moves resulting in financial losses. I’ve also made leadership decisions that have led to failures for my organizations. I’ve even gotten myself arrested for absentmindedly attempting to board a plane with a gun in my carry-on! (I’d received the gun as a gift and had completely forgotten to remove it from my bag when getting ready for the flight). Needless to say, the experience of being handcuffed, detained, and fingerprinted was more than just a little embarrassing!

Some people cannot seem to let go of failure. Instead of learning from setbacks, they allow mistakes to define them. By forgiving ourselves, we burning the bridge to our past failures and free ourselves to move forward.


We usually are warned not to burn bridges in life. This certainly is good advice when applied to our relationships. However, burning bridges to aspects of our past can be a tremendously healthy exercise. I close by posing four questions. I hope answering them will aid you in severing ties with the negative elements of your past experiences.

  • Who do you need to forgive in order to burn bridges of bitterness?

  • What past circumstances do you need to accept in order to burn the bridge of victimization?

  • In what ways do you need to burn bridges with former habits in order to lead a healthy lifestyle?

  • For what failures do you need to forgive yourself in order to burn the bridge of regret?

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