The Truth about Burning Bridges
You’ve no doubt heard that expression, “Don’t burn your bridges.” And, yes, it is a good idea to stay on good terms with former employers. After all, they could become clients.
Well, I’m here to tell you that burning bridges does not deal a fatal blow to one’s freelance career. Here are two stories from the Martha File:
Attila the Boss
Many years ago, when I worked at a university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I had the boss from hell. This lady must have taken management lessons from Attila the Hun. She was that bad. All of her subordinates lived in fear of her temper, which she lost quite often.
Among other things, my job required that I handle the production of a quarterly academic journal. And, after performing this task for over a year, I felt pretty confident about doing it again. Matter of fact, journal production was one of the more rewarding aspects of a very dull job.
Then our office computer crashed. Dang if I knew how to get the thing going again. So, I buried my head in my hands.
Not an appropriate response, per Ms. Attila. She called me into her office and launched into a tirade that all but peeled the paint off the walls.
Then, once she ran out of gas, she said, “It’s obvious that you’re miserable here.”
Me: “You’re right.”
Ms. Attila: “Start looking for another job.”
Me: “I think I’ll look for another city.”
Ms. Attila: (She was quite taken aback.) “You don’t have to do anything that drastic.”
Well, I did. I wasn’t a very happy Pittsburgher. And I was an avid bicyclist, and wouldn’t you know it, the open road was calling again. So, I tendered my resignation on Friday, February 13, 1987. And I had a truly wonderful final six weeks at that job. All of my coworkers marveled at how relaxed and happy I looked. Meanwhile, Ms. Attila seethed at me.
On my last day at work, the faculty involved with the journal gave me a lunch, complete with toast, but Ms. Attila refused to raise her glass. After the lunch, she gave me the bum’s rush out of the office, and that was the end of me in that job. I left Pittsburgh a week later, flew to Phoenix, Arizona, then bicycled down to the Mexican border. After saying hello to Nogales, Sonora, I headed up to Canada. In late June 1987, I put myself and bike on a plane in Portland, Oregon, and flew down here to Tucson. And, for the most part, I’ve been a happy Tucsonan ever since.
I say “for the most part” because it’s time for the second story from my file.
Martha Doesn’t Get a Raise
One fine day back in 1992, I was working at the only full-time job I’ve ever had in Tucson. My assignment was to do our office’s budget for the upcoming year.
Being the enterprising sort that I am, I built a raise into my projected salary figure. And, guess what. When the office budget was finalized, there was no raise for me. “Tight budget” was the explanation I was given. Then the organization’s ever-efficient grapevine brought word that the big bosses all got substantial pay raises. And, according to the grapevine, my boss was among them.
Well, that was the spark that started the engine that propelled me on the way to entrepreneurship. To tell you the truth, the little business I started on the side while continuing to work full time was a resounding failure.
And you know that advice about not burning bridges while working full time and starting a business on the side? Well, guess who didn’t just burn that bridge, but blew the darn thing to smithereens? Me, that’s who! To put it mildly, I left the only full-time job I’ve ever had in Tucson in a royal snit. (Note to self: If you decide to go into business while working full time, don’t moonlight. Just quit the job and give the business the undivided attention it deserves. That’s better than getting into fights with the people at the day job.)
After stomping out of the job, I found myself enrolled in a place called the University of Hard Knocks College of Business. Tough place, especially for those who know a lot less about business than they think they do.
I quickly found that, compared to working for someone else, self-employment was hard work. There was no more boss to complain about. Oh, yes, I could go into the bathroom, look in the mirror, and grouse at myself-the-boss, but the thrill was gone. Finding clients was (and is) a never-ending job. And keeping those people happy? Yeesh. Even Ms. Attila was an angel by comparison.
Oh, here’s something else. That job I stomped out of became motivation for succeeding in self-employment. I still live and work in Tucson, and the organization I left still exists. When I was getting my freelance business up and running, the last thing I wanted was for my former boss and coworkers to find out that I had failed.
Interesting thing is that, after I was out of that job for a decade, I became quite friendly with one of my successors. I even did some consulting work for him. And the boss I had when I quit? She’s part of my LinkedIn network.
So, there you have it. A burnt and blown-up bridge that got rebuilt. All I can say is that life is long, and that it is possible to reconcile with people who you once viewed as roadblocks on your path to success.
As for Ms. Attila, after I left that Pittsburgh job, we never spoke again. I do know that she’s no longer working in the field that she was in when she was my boss. And it’s one of those fields that people tend to retire from after a long career. Perhaps her temper finally flared in the wrong place and at the wrong time – I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, this is a bridge that should stay burned.