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Tuesday September 3, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Tuesday September 3, 2013 MYT 11:32:23 AM
by ellen whyte
Burning your bridges equals commitment?
IF you burn your bridges or your boats, it means you have done something that ensures you cannot turn back.
The Oxford English Dictionary credits Mark Twain as the first to use this phrase in print in 1892. This seems rather odd as the image comes from an ancient battle tactic where commanders leading troops, particularly conscripted men who weren’t keen to fight, would add a little pep by setting up a “die or die” scenario.
Alexander the Great, who created an empire that stretched from his home in Macedonia to India, ostentatiously burned his ships when arriving in Persia in 334BC. As his few thousand troops were facing a few hundred thousand of the enemy, one of his commanders asked, “How will we get home?” to which Alexander replied laconically, “We’ll use their ships.”
In Asia there was Chinese general, Xiang Yu, who ordered his troops across the river and quietly burned the bridge behind them, a tactic that got the boys so motivated that they beat the mighty Qin at the Battle of Julu in 207BC.
Julius Ceasar, the Ancient Roman who wrote long letters home so that everyone would know about his incredibly wonderful victories (sanitised reports, of course; he didn’t want anyone quibbling about his methods or his results), burned bridges and boats, however, not quite in the approved way.
In 56BC, he built a 100m bridge over the Rhine river in just 10 days, crossed it, and became the first Roman set foot in Germany. Caesar’s mission was to subdue enemy tribes but spotting the massive army the Germans had amassed, Caesar hastily accepted a few tokens of peace, invited a few honoured guests (hostages) to travel with him and then recrossed the Rhine and burned his bridge.
Caesar then wrote home to say he’d set foot on German soil, and that everything was now hunky dory. Canny Caesar was right: the Germans weren’t united, and Roman engineering had so impressed them that it took them another decade to invade.
A few years later, in 48BC, Caesar burned his fleet upon arrival in Alexandria, Egypt. Unfortunately, he also accidentally burned down the library, a famous and ancient repository of knowledge. It is accidents like these that inspire cynical types to quip, we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it, meaning, to be sure to mess up any possible opportunity.
Some career coaches believe in burning bridges, arguing that complete commitment often brings about surprising results. They seldom mention the library at Alexandria or Flavius Claudius Julianus, Emperor Julian of Rome, who in 363AD ferried his troops into Persia with the help of 1000 ships and ordered the navy burned on arrival.
Within a few days, the Persian army massed, destroying all the crops around the Roman troops in classic scorched earth policy. Hungry, far from home and unable to retreat, Julian’s demoralised troops lost the battle. Julian died, the surviving Romans had to walk home overland, and the Empire had to make a treaty full of humiliating concessions.
Burning your bridges may be motivating, but it’s not a guarantee of success.
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