You would ask friends to help in a relationship crisis, so why not a career crisis?

mm Russ Finkelstein

A few years ago, I had the dubious experience of exiting a romantic relationship and a working relationship of over a decade’s duration, each, around the same time.

Both are major transitions, and not many of us would volunteer to plan do them both alongside one another. But life often has plans of its own, and as I was starting the next chapter in my professional and personal life anew, I came to realize how much the two sets of experiences actually do inform each other.

The truth is, most of us think of our relationships and our careers as totally separate from each other, with different sets of rules applying to each. But I’m advocating for more of us to apply how we get through relationship trauma to our professional lives. And for you to learn something, I hope, from the benefit of my somewhat intense experience.

Dating is hard. Careers are hard.

But many of us have accumulated much more experience, especially early on, in falling in and out of like and love than we ever will in gaining or losing a job.

In our childhood, many of us might talk about the future Prince or Princess Charming that we’re hoping to meet as a romantic partner. As we move through life, we talk with people around us about what we’ve learned.

We’re curious about our friends’ experiences trying to find their partner(s). And of course, as relationships fall apart, we often have very direct conversations about why they didn’t work out, often with some useful information to be gained about ourselves in the process. Romantic relationships are things we get to learn about incrementally; we freely mess up throughout high school and college often joking about those experiences later on.

When my romantic relationship ended my immediate response was to tell everyone I knew via Facebook. My friends and family could be reached easily allowing me to share what was happening without having draining personal conversations with each. It was remarkably effective.

I also knew that I had time to figure things out. People understood that relationships are messy and that we don’t really know what’s going on in others’ relationships. I was suddenly at the mercy of bouts of sadness. I had a few very direct conversations with those I knew best and gradually shared more about what happened.

People knew that after a decade plus together I would need time to figure things out. Eventually, after a long break I was able to consider what I had learned, and whether I was open to being vulnerable again and being with another person, which I did, slowly.

Careers unfold differently.

Most of us don’t start acquiring full-time careers experience in career areas that we could see ourselves pursuing for longer until our early twenties. There is pretty much a total absence of the social language around careers that I described with dating. We might spend our childhood telling our friends we’d like to become a celebrity or an astronaut, but by the time we’re in our teens, conversations about careers usually take a back seat to our romantic concerns and college plans.

The pattern is entrenched by the time we’re adults. We might spend a minute over drinks saying we hate our boss, but most of us will move on to juicier topics fairly quickly when we’re socializing.

My time at Idealist ended in the way of poorly written plays.

Our hero, me, spends 14 years creating something that he loves dearly and takes great pride from. At some point that work had begun to become more difficult to do well and to affect my well-being on nights and weekends. Then, one night, I accepted an award for the best nonprofit workplace in Oregon. I took such pride in that. However, it was also my last day at idealist.org. The next morning I awoke with every intention to go work but suffered from my first of several anxiety attacks. I made a decision not to return.

Work departures are oddly public. Notes go out to staff and a range of colleagues who want to understand why. One of the most well-intentioned but difficult things to repeatedly hear was, “given what you started at idealist.org I can’t wait to see what you will do next.” People don’t say that after romantic relationships, “I liked him/her, but the next one is going to be even more attractive.” I felt immense pressure to have a next thing in waiting and for it to be even more amazing.

Also, unlike romantic relationships people don’t give you as much space. They want great detail and think of a departure in almost a clinical way. We can look at the dissolution of a romantic relationship, but not want to get too close for fear that we will see threads reminiscent of our own current relationship. With work we presume that it should be so premeditated as to require a set of predetermined steps. There was no time to regroup and to be thought of as intentional and strategic.

I spoke to almost no one for several months after leaving the organization I helped found.

Chiefly because I didn’t have words. I didn’t feel that I understood what had happened. Something I had always done to great effect no longer felt doable; the weight of it all rather impossible to carry.

After a few months I reached a point of where I just saw myself as a little balloon flying further and further out into the horizon. Eventually, weak from the solitude and my attempts to be alone a few persistent friends broke through and helped me to rely on them. (FYI, I tend to be more the helper than the one who accepts help)

Why do we not have those vulnerable conversations about work?

  • We often don’t think our friends know much more about this work thing than we do; and even if they do, they don’t understand our work.
  • We don’t want to look like a failure or appear weak (the higher we climb the more we fear this).
  • We don’t give ourselves as much of an opportunity to learn about what working means in our lives as we do romantic relationships

It’s also much harder for us to help a friend when we don’t totally understand what they do. Let’s say you actually realized your dream of being an astronaut. I might feel less than qualified to help you talk through the challenges you might be facing getting into the lunar capsule if, for example, I pursued a career in dentistry or advertising. It is great that we achieved these things, but how do they relate?

However, if you ask me to weigh in on whether your boyfriend should have called you to say he was thinking of you when he was away on a trip, you can bet I’ll be well placed to offer a supportive opinion with three examples of where I was disappointed when that happened to me too. High five.

One of my best friends is a writer and TV producer. Our fields differ significantly, but we completely connect over issues like having too many ideas, how we manage long-term projects, and ways in which our careers impact our relationships. I gain so much from his insight born from a completely different universe of work. The truth is that many of us suffer the same frustrations in different careers, and that our challenges often aren’t that different from one another, after all. We don’t need to engage only people who mirror our exact experience.

One of the strange after effects of having a sudden public departure is that people seek you out because they are struggling in their lives. For a number of years I was sought out as a wise person/cautionary tale by others, often founders or EDs who were struggling.

Others hoped to learn from from my experience. It took a while, but I learned to enjoy talking people through how I ended up there and how I eventually got to the other side. I came to realize that talking freely about this isn’t an act of weakness, but of great strength. I understood an issue that many felt, but dared not speak its name.

I also gave myself the time to fall in love with work again. I did some short-term projects, and arrived at a place where I was able to learn from what had happened and prepare myself to get ready to fully commit myself again.

What I had done during my post-Idealist transition was to place myself in isolation and what happened – you might not believe this – was I felt isolated. I was struggling and saw no way forward. It is why I am now so proactive with my friends and those I encounter who seem to me like those balloons fading into the distance.

Can you imagine if we talked to each other more about work the way we do about our relationships? How much more support we might be able to offer one another? Imagine exchanging such opinions more freely with your friends about work.

What I’m suggesting is that if you really think about it, your friends are probably a great source of advice and support in your career. So the next time you’re tempted to gloss over a discussion of your job frustrations, or not to talk about what you want out of a job, remember: Your friends might be in the same anxious position as you are and would probably really appreciate it if you dwelt on the subject for a little while longer.

I will often begin with a simple question about how work is going. If I get the requisite fine, I’ll go deeper with – how is your relationship with your boss and colleagues? Do you still feel like you are learning or valued? How is it different from what you hoped it would be or what you might want to do next? We set the tone for letting people know that we want real answers and a real conversation.

I hope you will try this. Know that it made all the difference for me when I was drifting off into the far horizon.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >