There is such a thing as work heartbreak, you know. It can happen when you’ve worked with others to build something beautiful and someone comes in and wrecks it, casual as kicking down a sand castle. It can happen when you know what the answer is to an issue, like putting funds into prevention and rapid rehousing instead of a burgeoning shelter system, and you pick up the paper and see there are still 1600 families in Massachusetts still in motel rooms without kitchens that cost the state $80 a night (think about the money these operators are making!).
It can happen to founders who find their organization has grown up around them and there is no place for their kind of leadership any more. A crushing defeat, realizing you’re in the wrong job, losing a hard-fought election campaign, a show closing, can all bring on a familiar desolation that lingers on. It affects your work – although you often don’t recognize that – and your optimism level, sometimes for a couple of years after.
The point is that heartbreak is heartbreak, at home or at work. It’s real, and no matter what else you have to be grateful for (it always could have been and was worse for someone somewhere), it hurts like any other heartbreak.I first realized this a few years ago when I found myself listening to Betty Lavette singing the wonderful Joan Armatrading tune Down to Zero, over and over again It begins:
Oh the feeling, when you’re reeling
You step lightly thinking you’re number one
Down to zero with a word, leaving
for another one.
Now you walk with your feet back on the ground, down to the ground, down to the ground.
I walked the dog for days, humming “down to the ground, down to the ground,” before I suddenly asked myself why this song was resonating with me so much. I wasn’t, thankfully, experiencing difficulties in love or remembering the past. And I realized – it was work! I had fallen – “down to the ground.” And though I’d gotten up, I was still living down there, viewing things from the floor, letting the action go on above me.
Realizing this, naming it work heartbreak, was the beginning of getting better. The repetitive lyric was like the incessant talking one needs to do after any disaster, repeating what happened, making it into a story, a song, so it becomes bearable, becomes, eventually, history.
So if you know someone who is experiencing work heartbreak, let them talk. Let them play and replay the sad song over and over. And remind them that it’s never too late to start over, to build again.