“Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win." -- Jonathan Kozol
In the realm of life's little lessons, this seems axiomatic. The problem is that many of the battles that are big enough to matter aren't small enough to win; and those that are small enough to win tend not to matter. The challenge is in knowing when to fight and when to walk away. Kozol's advice is to fight if the outcome matters and you can win, otherwise walk away. Although this is certainly a practical approach to self-preservation, it's also a clear cop out. There are battles that matter way too much to avoid, even though winning is far from certain.
The more important lesson may be in David Russell's observation, “The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.” Life is full of conflicts and tensions, battles large and small, bridges to cross and bridges to burn. Life is a journey; and usually, when it isn't working out, you can change direction, back up and start again, and generally change your plans. Now and then, though, the bridge has burned and there is no turning back, nothing to do but live with the choices you have made.
No, there isn't an easy way to know when to cross that bridge and when to let it burn, when to be decisive and when to equivocate, when to hold back and when to make an irreversible choice. However, there are questions that you can ask and answer before choosing.
1. “Am I burning any bridges by making this choice?”
2. “Are the bridges being burned ones over which I may want to cross again?”
3. “If I cannot cross a bridge again, what will I do instead, if the time comes when doing something else is necessary?”
4. “If I cross this bridge, how will I handle it, if things don't work out as I hope they will?”
5. “How will I be worse off if I neither cross the bridge ahead of me nor burn the one behind me, including the lost opportunity cost?”
So, you have asked the questions. You have answered the questions. What next? Stand up straight, take a deep breath, and deal with that bridge. Cross it; burn it; take a different road; but whatever you choose, don't forget the old Chinese proverb, “Talk doesn't cook rice.”