Inspiration, Interviews, Learning

Authentic Conversation with Alexandra Ştef – Part II

24/11/2015
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The first part of the conversation can be read here.

Part II. On how to maintain enthusiasm, the importance of critical thinking, and a confession of the greatest dream.

What triggered the moment of transformation, the moment you decided that depression should be over?

It wasn’t over, it became more bearable. I got a response from the London School of Economics saying “Thank you for your application. You will automatically be considered for November when applications for the next academic year start, because we have all places filled” and I felt that there was a chance for me, so that was a bit hopeful. Having this thing on the horizon, that something might happen and that it’s just a matter of time made me keep going. I also broke up with the guy that I was with, which was a weird relationship, so it was liberating in a way. I later met someone with whom I connected with more and it was more of a positive experience. But it wasn’t in one day that it all happened, it was gradual process.

In the process, who and what helped to overcome this moment?

What was really, really fantastic – and I feel that I still owe these people – is that there were 4-5 people who helped me with the Master’s application process. There was an essay to write and a couple of letters of recommendation to get – and this was from Venezuela, the troubled country where I got my bachelor’s degree from. The friends who helped me get in touch with the professors in Venezuela to send me physical written letters of recommendation – they needed to be in a sealed envelope and sent by post directly to the universities I was applying to – were incredibly helpful. From them, to people who’ve helped me correct and re-write ten thousand times the application letter, a couple of them in Romania and a couple from abroad. They were fantastic, I don’t know how to repay them because I was so fragile and they inspired me and said: “You’ve got this. You’ve got everything it takes. You have qualifications, the language, the drive. You have everything. Don’t worry.” They helped me actually achieve this, even be awarded a scholarship, and the only way I could repay them is that ever since then, whenever anyone reaches out to me to ask “Hey, could you help me with my application letter?” I always say “yes” because I need to pay it forward, because I’ve been helped so much.

As far as I heard, you already learned the lesson to pay if forward when someone asks you for help in any way. What else did you learn out this apparently negative experience?

It’s important to feel bad about yourself. It’s important to hit rock bottom. I had the luxury to feel pity for myself, to cry as often as I could, to feel like I was mess because I had a network of support and I was allowed to feel as stupid and as hopeless as I felt. So one of the lessons is: Live it out. Let the pain come out as intense as it is and then reach out to friends.

This is my number 1 advice to anyone. Reach out to people. And if you don’t have friends in your circle or people you can relate to, ask around and find the people who have the experience that you are looking for because people generally say “yes” when they are approached, even if you don’t know them. Having a network of friends and people who are open-minded and helpful is essential, otherwise you feel lost and isolated and this is one of the reasons why many people feel unhappy with their lives. This is a thing you cultivate and you do it actively, not only through parties and events but through honest and vulnerable conversations.

You mentioned that it’s good to have difficult experiences in order to learn. Why do you think that?

They test your character, so putting yourself to the test is something that you can’t avoid. You are a coward if you are trying to protect your entire life from those experiences and secondly, you really see what you are made of when you reach a bad moment and it’s okay even if you don’t react the way you should. In retrospect, I was probably a ridiculous kid to say at age 23 that my life was over, that I was a parasite and that I had failed. Those are the moments when you realize that you are in charge of your life, that life can be hard, but at the same time you have everything it takes to overcome it – either by your own means, or by the means of the people around you. Bad moments build your character, make you aware of what you really want to do and give you the adrenaline to fight and say “Hey, I had this in me!”

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Now let’s go back to the picture of life as a road. When you look back, which is the highest peak that you have climbed?

Wow, that’s hard, much harder than the valley one. I don’t think I hit a peak. I don’t have a time when I felt like I was on top of the world, I hope it’s still ahead. I think that because of my personality I will never feel when I will be on the top of something, I never recognize it. I only realize moments of equilibrium. So if I can substitute your question and answer about moments of equilibrium, times when I felt balanced and strong, it would be the moment I am living now. The reason I think that this is a moment of equilibrium is that there is nothing that I need that I don’t have. I have clarity of mind, resources for Hey Mărie!, internal energy and physical strength. All you need to know is what you are about, what you need to do and who you are going to do it with.

Do you believe you can always keep this state of mind?

I am an instinctive and emotional person in that I need to write with feelings. If I don’t have the right state of mind, it’s not going to work. So I need to trick myself. Generally it’s not easy to maintain enthusiasm and the way to maintain it is the way you do people management in your life. I am grateful to have great people around me, but I want to manage those relationships a bit better. First, to have more time for myself because I am a people-pleaser and I always say “yes” to everything and at some point I don’t have time for myself, and second, to have these people hold me accountable for the things that I need to do. When you are in a context where you are responsible for a project that involves other people, you get a sense of responsibility and accountability, you do things even though you don’t feel in the best of moods because you are doing it for them as well. This is a way to trick the emotional side: keep on pushing even though you are not in the best state of mind.

What I understand from what you are saying is that it’s possible to train the enthusiasm to last as much as possible.

It’s possible to create the conditions, yeah. I think this is a matter of habits, as everything in life. The moment when work, even if it’s meaningful work and it’s work that comes with passion, the moment when you make the conditions, when is not dependent just on passions, but dependent on daily activities, that’s the moment when you are winning. My problem with my type of personality is I dedicate myself fully to something and the moment I see that I only need to keep it up, it suddenly becomes boring: “Anyone can do this. I have to do this every day from now on? What’s new about this? I need something new.” So the challenge is to understand that the value of doing something every day is because it adds up, and also doing this with more people so as to keep each other excited and motivated. This is about creating the right conditions: doing ordinary work with occasional moments of reinvention or redesign.

How did you come to the answers of who you want to be and what you want to do?

It took a long time, a really long time. When I was 20, a year before graduating from my bachelor’s, I was so certain about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do and it’s not the person I am today. Not career-wise, at least. My dream at 21 was to work for the United Nations. I thought I would work in a national or international institution that carries power. I now realize that I would have hated to do that, I would have been drowned by it. You reach a moment when you realize that there’s a conflict between ego, who you want to be portrayed as – someone powerful and successful – and what your core persona is. And my realization is that I am a people’s person.

I’ve never made this association before and now I realize that it’s important. My Master was a two-year programme in London and Budapest on Politics and Security Studies, so nothing related to personal development, but the angle was, especially in London, critical. They pushed us to be critical about everything, to question every single thing and deconstruct commonly held beliefs to the point where you didn’t know what was real or true anymore. It gave me this mentality of “What is this really?” So I did that with my personal life as well. “Do I really want children? Do I want to own things? What do I care about?” Critical thinking is the greatest tool for answering to these questions.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

Just do whatever you did! I’m that type of person who doesn’t want to change the past. I am always looking forward and I think people who have regrets about their past are wasting their time. There is no other combination of decisions that would have me taken me to “you” now other than the ones you took, so why would I regret anything? Just be kind. Ask people for help. Give help forward. Keep questioning. Keep trying to find answers even if they are uncomfortable. Don’t try to hide, keep pushing forward.

What is your greatest dream?

My motivation for staying in Romania, for wanting to make a life for myself here is that in 2050 I want to look back at a society that is more equal, more fair and more progressive and be able to say: “I had something to do with it. I put a little piece in this puzzle and had a contribution to this ensemble.” So my dream is that Romania becomes a progressive society, and I want to be part of that project.”

Read here the story of Authentic Conversations Project.

Photo credits 1, 2.

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