John Maxwell: Building Bridges or Burning Them?

UPDATED: February 12, 2013
PUBLISHED: February 12, 2013

I’ve been fascinated by bridges ever since I was a kid. I vividly remember a trip to Vermont one autumn with my parents. The orange and red leaves were spectacular, but what I remember most were the bridges. Vermont is a state full of beautiful wooden covered bridges.

I’m captivated by the bridges in Shanghai, too. They’re the opposite of Vermont’s—sleek suspension bridges that arch and loop and stretch to the sky. Each one is a work of art.

My last trip there got me to thinking about the bridges we have in our lives—the things connecting us to other people, our past and our future. I think, now that I’m in my 60s, I finally have a handle on which ones we need to burn, which to cross and which to build.

Burnin’ Love

Author and consultant Harvey Mackay says, “He who burns bridges better be a darn good swimmer.” I think that’s true—if you’re burning bridges to people. Those are not the kinds of bridges you want to destroy. Instead, incinerate the bridges that keep you stuck to past failures, self-doubt and the wrongs that have been done to you.

Let’s start with those “wrongs”—hurtful words, stabs in the back, your own lingering grudges. Stooping to other people’s pettiness only makes those sores bigger. The low road, moreover, is bad for the soul.

Forget the wrongs and the hurts. (It’s easy for me—I’m getting older and I forget stuff all the time). I like how writer and artist Elbert Hubbard puts it: “Successful people forget. They know the past is irrevocable…. Magnanimous people forget. They’re too big to let little things disturb them.” So get out your matchbook and burn, baby, burn.

Next you’ve got to stop hanging on to the useless feeling that life’s not fair. It’s not. Some people are bestowed the right gifts, the right talents, the right parents. Others aren’t. Some days we’re the pigeon and others we’re the statue. Grab your matchbook again.

A third bridge now stands between you and success. Examine your life and determine what is keeping you from reaching your potential. Now torch what I call those “growth inhibitors.” Is your workplace toxic rather than uplifting? Do something to fix it or move on. Are you clinging to bad habits? You know, in order to go up, you need to grow up. Break out the kerosene and feed your inner pyro-maniac as you let go of all the ways you hold yourself down.

You need to be realistic, of course, and look only at the inhibitors you can do something about. I’ll never be a musician, for example, because I don’t have the necessary gifts. But I can do something about the environment in which I choose to live and work, the people I surround myself with, the way I deal with hardships, and the tradeoffs I make to reach my goals.

VIP Crossing

Many people get caught up in the treadmill of their working lives. They wake up, go to the office, toil over their assigned task, go home and repeat. They work hard but don’t feel like they’re actually getting anywhere. How do you turn that around? Look for experiences that you can use as bridges to personal growth, and cross them.

One of my early mentors told me if you want to be great, you need to visit great places and meet great people. I took it to heart. When I go to a city I’ve never visited, I learn about its history and go to places where significant events have occurred. I make time to visit places associated with leaders who inspire me. Just a few weeks ago I was at John F. Kennedy’s presidential library. When I go to such a place, I absorb every scrap of material that might help me grow as a leader.

In 2011 I took a trip to Robben Island in South Africa and visited the cell where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner. He spent 18 years there, grinding rocks in a quarry by day and returning to his solitary cell by night. Here’s what I learned: You cannot lock up greatness. Our surroundings need not control our spirits. People who devalue us do not determine our value. And out of our brokenness we can be made whole and bring healing to others. I gleaned all that from crossing one bridge to see a place of inspiration and study one of my greatest role models.

People matter. “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out,” physician and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer once said. “It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

Find those people who light a fire under you and cross bridges to greet them. Who rekindles your spirit? Where do you find daily instruction? If you want your life to improve, you need to cross the bridge to personal growth every day.

Build to Last

If you have any success at all in your life, then there is a bridge you need to build—for those who follow.

I once had the opportunity to spend a few days with management expert Peter Drucker. He said that the No. 1 problem facing good leaders is their lack of a succession plan. Leaders don’t often enough raise up other good leaders and prepare a way for them.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said, “Our nation needs bridges, and bridges are built by those who look to the future and dedicate themselves to helping others. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future: It is you.”

Your talent, skills, opportunities and experience have uniquely qualified you to do something in this world. Whatever that something is, you need to pass it on. You may do that with a single person or with thousands. The number is largely out of your control. What is in your control is whether you do it.

So if you haven’t already, start with one. I guarantee you, you’ll never regret it.