Not too long ago, there was a yearly alumni conference at my alma mater. They haven't done one in years due to various reasons, so I've never had the chance to share my experiences with various students. If there's one important topic I'd like to clear up with college students about the "real world," it's burning bridges.
I don't know where the phrase comes from, but my original thought about burning bridges was this: don't burn them and if you accidentally burn one, feel bad about it and beg for forgiveness. Now I realize it's more like this: don't be a total jerk to everyone you work with. Of course you're not going to get along with every person you work with, but don't go out of your way to please everyone. There's a huge difference.
I've worked with very difficult people and have had flare-ups with them. Would I go so far to urinate on their desks while they are on conference calls? Nope. Would I slash their tires and throw eggs at their houses? Nope. But people equate those kinds of extremities with not filing a report correctly or not having all the right answers. This can cause so much anxiety that it's crippling.
Whenever I want to understand this difference a little better, I think about a certain record label owner who has one of the worst reputations in the industry. Be it constant reprimanding of his employees by threats and screams, bragging to other record labels, or ripping bands off with royalties, it's been difficult to hear the pluses about working with this guy. Sure, it's experience in the music industry for a young person, but it's an extreme collision course of ego and commerce. Ruling his label more like Caligula, Scarface, Hitler, Macbeth, Richard III, and King George, this guy has burned many bridges over the years. So many that when he's been sued, nobody has been come to his defense in the press. With rumors of an impending sale of his label, there have been a lot of sighs of relief across the industry.
Though this is an extreme example of burning bridges, it's a useful example. Of course you have your bad days, of course you have your crabby reactions to people, and you will not get along with everyone you work with. Don't feel guilty when that happens. That said, making every minute of your existence a challenge for everyone around you is what you should avoid. If you want to go anywhere in life, you must understand this.