Quite a number of years back, my car was stolen from my front drive and, as a consequence, I dug out some old papers and burned them. Those papers were not connected with the car in any way; they were actually my old school reports. Let me tell you why I did it, but first, I should tell you a little more about the car episode.
The car was one of the sexiest I have ever owned – a VW Corrado. It not only looked great – it had a really cool spoiler that raised itself automatically when you hit 56 mph – it also went like stink. People would often ask me about the car; they would want to know about its specification and techie stuff like fuel injection. I have never been into this kind of stuff, but lots of other people, clearly, are.
So, the day started like any other. I had finished breakfast and went out to get in the car and go to work. Standing in the space where the car should have been, I looked up and down the street to see a couple of neighbours looking a little agitated. It turned out that one of those neighbours had also had their car stolen – another performance car – and the other had some petrol siphoned from the tank of their car.
The police did not seem to be interested. They gave me a crime reference number and considered they had done their job. Just as a quick aside, a few months later, they called me and asked if I would mind completing a short survey. I could not believe it when they asked me how satisfied I had been with their service.
Anyway, back to the car episode. As it happened, the car boot contained my brief case and in it there was a folder that contained every academic and professional qualification I had managed to accumulate up to that point. There were other things in the boot that I was also sad to lose, but that was the biggest loss as far as I was concerned – even greater than the loss of the car.
What has all of this got to do with burning my old school reports? Well, what happened was that, just by chance, I came across them as I was looking for something in the loft. I started reading them and they, pretty-much all said the same kind of thing: “William can do very good work when he bothers to try.” Ha ha – did your reports have some of that in them too?
Here was I, a manager in the international wing of the UK’s leading computer company, well-respected for my technical capabilities and interpersonal skills and very well-qualified too. There was nothing in those school reports that indicated what my future was going to look like. I remember Jack Black (the Scottish guy, not the actor) once saying that ‘average in school’ does not translate into ‘average in life’ – he was right!
The thing is, I realised those school reports were full of nonsense and that someday, when I was dead and gone, somebody would find them, in amongst my things. They would be able to read those inaccurate assessments of a life to be and they would be unable to contrast them against the record of my career that should also have been there. It was in that moment of realisation, I decided that I would burn them.
A small heap of waste had already been assembled in the place where we burned garden rubbish. I placed the school reports on the top and lit a match. They were dry and old and they burned very well indeed. Soon the whole heap was ablaze and I knew that there would be no trace of those silly comments left for posterity. And, as I watched, I felt … liberated. It was a moment of triumph, in a sense, to be finally free of those tired, old, mistaken opinions.
Since then, I completed a degree with the University of Birmingham and I have another bunch of professional qualifications too. But, more importantly, there is the record of my life and what I have done and continue to achieve.
In some respects, I wish I had burned those papers a lot sooner. I know there are people who think that I destroyed a little bit of history and perhaps I did, but that moment was symbolic of a change that had already happened for me – I knew that my past had nothing to do with the future I was working at creating.
Since then, I have used this same basic idea whenever I have felt the need to mentally let go of something and I find it has the same liberating effect every time. You first have to be ready to ‘let go’ of whatever is troubling you. But burning something that is a symbol of the thing you are letting go is a very powerful technique you might like to try.