Inspiration, Interviews, Learning, Self-awareness

Interview with Paul Olteanu: We just have to learn to navigate the rough patches with greater ability and calm and to enjoy the good ones with more mindfulness.

14/01/2016
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Paul has been working in personal and organizational development for nine years and currently he runs training and coaching programmes with knowledge based on neuroscience, human personality theory and transformational coaching. He is certified in the Process Communication Model: a personality, management and communication theory that has been used in the communication training of American presidents and in the selection and instruction of teams at NASA.

Paul, you are one of the few people I know that are really curious about the ‘process behind the process’ and with whom I can have long conversations about many psychological topics and at the end of them, I feel very clarified and energized. So I would like to have a conversation with you about your life, how you perceive it, and what is important for you, and my first question is simple, yet complex: Who are you?

There are three words that are the most relevant to what I think I am at the current moment. I’ve written them down on my blog so I gave some thought to this question lately, and the three words are: communication, self-discovery and transformation. They define my personal mission and the way I see life. Going a little bit deeper into each and every one of them, I would say that the self-discovery part is really important because, even if we look at an individual or organizational perspective, if we don’t know who we are and what is important to us, it’s like Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you are going, every road will take you there.” I think I am very curious about myself, the world and people in general. The transformation part is also important because we tend to think about ourselves in a fixed manner, like “I am an engineer, I don’t have feelings; I am an artist, I don’t have logic”, and I think that we are much more complex and much more adaptable than that. The communication part I left until last for a reason: once you know who you are and you start making steps towards your best version ever, it’s valuable and inevitable that you interact with other people. The way we exchange information and feelings is vital because this way we connect to others, and we create relationships. These three domains are a life’s work and for the foreseeable future, this is who I am.

What have you done in the last five-seven years?

The most important thing that I would say I’ve done in the last five to seven years is that I clarified who I am and what my purpose on Earth is as far as I understand it at this moment. I had a lot of professional and personal experiences, I had a lot of relationships, professional and personal, and each of them helped me understand better a part of myself. I really think that everything we live through and all the people we meet are, in one way or another, a mirror of ourselves, and I have been mirroring myself a lot in these couple of years. If it’s to be more pragmatic, I became more proficient in coaching and communication training by delivering PCM (Process Communication Model) sessions to over 800 participants, a personality theory used for selection and training at NASA. I am one of the first five consultants from Europe certified in Story-Based Transformation Process, I was Head of Communication at the Romanian-American University and Head of Strategy and New Business for Head Advertising, an ad agency.


When you act, those actions at some point in time are going to generate a reaction, most likely not where you can predict, but it happens. If you keep doing something for a long period of time, things are going to happen. And that was my experience. So I am a really big fan of action. When in doubt, or when you’re stuck, do something.


What do you currently do?

Reading Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” helped me answer the question: “What is my purpose?” and what I basically do now is helping individuals and organizations do three things: get to know themselves better, help them get from where they are now to where they want to be, and help them communicate better. I do these things through training, coaching, consulting, writing or simply talking to people.

There’s this really cool idea I’ve heard in a coaching school I have just graduated from; our personal mission should be something that we can make steps towards each day. So it shouldn’t be something like “I want to be the president of the United States”, which is something that is very specific and has very clear steps, but should be something that from the time you get up in the morning until you go to bed at night you do small things. It takes a lot of time to get here, it’s a life’s work to do more and more activities that are congruent with your goals each day. But once you get here, the percentage of positive emotions you feel each day is huge, because even if you have a conflict with somebody but then you have a work session that is really congruent with your life mission, you feel really good about what you are doing. It’s vital for each and every one of us to start thinking about this soon.

I remember that five-six years ago I was part of a leadership program and 40-50 year old people faced a mirror and when they were asked what they saw in the mirror, they started crying, and even though at that time I didn’t understand why, now I assume that what they saw in the mirror was somebody who had no purpose, no meaning, they didn’t recognize that person anymore. At the end of our lives, it’s not about how many cars, apartments, functions or money in the bank we have, it’s about how much positive emotion we lived and how meaningful we felt that our life was.

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The way I see life is like a road that sometimes leads to the highest peaks, sometimes to the deepest valleys, and other times it’s all about gentle strolls. What is one of the deepest valleys that you’ve been through?

Four to five years ago I had a really bad professional period. I was working two jobs at the same time because I needed money: Head of Strategy in an advertising agency and Head of Communication at a university. I was living with the person I was in love with and in a relationship with and she then left to study abroad with the Erasmus programme, so basically we broke up. My father had a really bad turn professionally, and he was considering selling his house. I decided to leave those jobs before my father had had the problem and my ex-girlfriend had left and I started my own company. I did that and I had no fixed income, so I had to pay rent, gas and bills, and for about half a year I was getting up in the morning and I was writing stuff all day long to promote the company so I took lots of refuge in doing stuff, just so I wouldn’t reflect on my problems. And finally, one night, at about 1 or 2 in the morning I was having problems sleeping and out of the sudden, after months of struggle, worries, and burying myself in writing and speaking at events, I checked the spam folder of my email account. There was an email from a CEO of a company that I have never heard of, who wanted public speaking coaching. I replied, we started working and it turned out that she was CEO of a national company that was in an acquisition process with a multinational. Our work went well and since then we had projects together each year. But that night was a turnaround moment for me. That was one of the most intense and consuming parts of my life.

How did it feel to experience this moment of your life?

I had a lot of mixed feelings. Personally, I felt anger, regret and grief for loosing a relationship, professionally I felt enthusiasm on one part for starting my own thing, and a lot of fear on the other part for not knowing where it was going or how it would evolve. I had also disappointments because I started the company with some partners who didn’t live up to their end of the deal and in the process I lost a very dear friend, so there were many emotions out there. I really like the definition of the word “emotion” because it means “movement” and I think that all these feelings for someone of my personality type, was something that generated a lot of actions.

What triggered the moment when you decided to get out of that apparently negative experience?

It wasn’t a specific moment as it happens in the movies saying “I’m gonna change my life”. Once I got the feelings out of me, let them flow through me, what was left was the need to act. Each morning I would have five-ten minutes when I said “Fuck, I don’t feel like going to work, I don’t feel like doing that or that” and then I went to the bathroom, I got a shower, I got dressed, I went to the office, I had some laughs with the people there, I started writing an article, and late in the night worked on another article again.” Actually you never know where the rabbit is going to pop out of. Think about my story with the CEO and the email in the spam folder. When you act, those actions at some point in time are going to generate a reaction, most likely not where you can predict, but it happens. If you keep doing something for a long period of time, things are going to happen. And that was my experience. So I am a really big fan of action. When in doubt, or when you’re stuck, do something.

What I understood from your story is that you proved a lot of inner drive and inner motivation. Were there people who motivated you in the process of transformation?

I had some people who trusted me, for example my partners from the advertising agency who hired me as a Head of Strategy even though I didn’t have any previous experience in advertising. My two best friends were there for me, but not in a specific way. Why I say that that was a deep valley for me is because everything, except for my health, came crashing down. I got into a fight with partners and started a company on my own, I left two jobs that gave me a steady income, and my family whom I would have normally turned to in such a moment, was in even bigger shit than I was. But I didn’t need any help, I knew from my experience up until then that I was good at what I did, that it mattered and it was valuable for people, so I already had confidence in this. It was just really bad timing but I had nothing else to do than get up and push forward.

What about the emotional support? How did you deal with the psychological and emotional needs?

It’s a very good question. I think it’s in my nature not to expect help from other people. In my mind I thought that nobody needed to do anything for me because it wasn’t their problem. The only person that I expected empathy from – because she was empathy in person, or at least that’s what I thought about her – was my girlfriend back then, and when I told her that I was going through a rough period of time, she said “I’m sorry, I am going to Copenhagen today, visiting this and that”. Six months from that time she told me: “You know, thinking back on our relationship and knowing that you are the type of person who always manages and always falls on his feet, I didn’t believe it was that hard and couldn’t imagine that what you were saying was real”, so, at that time, she said: “He’s gonna manage like he always does.” And I did. This story is a metaphor. In times of trouble, I mostly turn to myself for help.  I’m not saying it’s good or bad. Some people turn to friends, others to religion or spirituality, I turned to myself and I said: Ok, what can I do now?”

Talking to you about this, I think there was this one thing that really helped and I think it’s an internal way of seeing things, it was a mind shift and that was lowering my expectations. My expectation of satisfaction in my life at that time was on survival mode. I wasn’t thinking about changing my car, about finding my place, about travelling, about getting more pleasure out of life, I was thinking what to do for myself and for those I hold dear to me in order for us to survive. And that helped. Thinking this way did two things to me: 1. it calmed me down emotionally because I knew from past experience I am good at surviving, and 2. I had far less negative emotions, because having low expectations, it was basically impossible to be disappointed. So having no expectations, anything that happened was good.


I think the best thing we can do in life is to live lucidly. When we are small, we get programmed with things that teach us about how to be or how not to be, what to do or not to do, and when we get to be adults and in full control of our lives, we still live under those pre-programmed objectives and beliefs. Very few people start looking at why they do the things they do, what is important to them, who they really are, where they are going to.


Ok. That’s all about the valley. Now let’s go back to the image I was telling you about – life as a road – and I’d like to know the highest peak that you have climbed.

My first impulse is to say that today is the best day of my life and probably it is. It’s not a cliché, but for me each day brings value because I find out things about myself and I make a step further to something that gives me meaning. Of course, I have high moments of pleasure, for example when I got into a relationship, or when I spoke in front of 200 people at a TEDx event, or when I started doing work with CEO and C level employees, but I don’t think I have peaks in the way the metaphor describes it. I think I have moments and phases. And generally speaking, I think this phase of my life is the best one so far.

How does it feel? How would you describe it?

I would describe it as being at peace, or being happy and calm with what you are doing with occasionally spikes of enthusiasm or anxiety. When I feel emotions that put me down, and I become aware of them, I then make a conscious shift from reflecting to acting. And by doing this, I push things forward, one way or another.

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I understand. Do you think you can keep this state of mind indefinitely?

I would say no. Do you know the infinity sign? Our emotional states are pretty well described by this visual metaphor in the sense that if you were to take a line in the middle of the infinity sign, then everything that is above that line are positive emotions, what is below are negative emotions. I don’t think you can scratch out negative emotions. But what we can do is to lower the line from the middle of the eight to the bottom half of it and so that we live much more in positive emotions than in negative ones. All emotions are useful because living something that is unhappy today can make you appreciate something good that happens tomorrow. Day and night, Joy and Sorrow, Life and Death – all of them are cyclic. We just have to learn to navigate the rough patches with greater ability and calm and to enjoy the good ones with more mindfulness.

I think the best thing we can do in life is to live lucidly. When we are small, we get programmed with things that teach us about how to be or how not to be, what to do or not to do, and when we get to be adults and in full control of our lives, we still live under those pre-programmed objectives and beliefs. Very few people start looking at why they do the things they do, what is important to them, who they really are, where they are going to.

I was speaking some time ago with some friends about the idea of going to psychotherapy in Romania – it has a lot of negative connotation – “if you go to therapy there’s something fucked up about you”. This shows a very immature way of thinking about things like this. In the US, most of the people at a certain point go to a therapist. We should not look at coaching or psychotherapy as ways of fixing ourselves, but of ways of knowing and aligning ourselves. In Romania, we teach children from the earliest ages all kinds of stuff, but not things to get to know themselves. It’s important for them to know if they are introverts or extroverts, if they perceive the world in thoughts or feelings, to understand themselves better. We spend 15 years in school without learning anything directly about ourselves, except for those who independently take time and reflect upon their experiences.

What is the role of coaching and psychotherapy in the process of making people more aware and getting to know themselves better? 

In my opinion, this is what coaching and psychotherapy are about. They are two regulated activities that help people better understand themselves, their emotions, and thought processes. This doesn’t mean that everybody should do coaching or psychotherapy, I’m just saying that we should think more about who we are and why we do what we do, no matter how we do that – through storytelling, through questions, through questionnaires, through debates, or whatever. This is the most important part of a person’s life because it’s like taking lessons on how to drive without knowing where you want to go. We are being taught 15- 17 years all kinds of stuff, without ever being asked: “Where do you want to take these things?” or “Why do you want to get the car and drive?” Nope. “Just get in the car, and go.”

I think this is one of the biggest problems of today’s world. Think about the people who blow themselves up in the Middle East and in all the terrorist acts. I don’t think that these people have the capacity to ask themselves why they do the things they do: “Does Allah really want to blow me up to make a point?” I understand from some friends in a wonderful organisation I work with (Teach for Romania) that the kids in rural slums in Romania, don’t even consider the possibilities of becoming something other else than shepherds or carpenters. And I am not saying that there’s something wrong with these professions. But I am saying that it would be much more valuable if they had a choice: “You can become a shepherd if you want, but you can also go to university if you want.” It’s the same with a Harvard business student who goes to become an investment banker because the main reason why he went to Harvard was that his parents had told him that he would have a good income if he would take a job like this. Again, the question would be: Why are you doing what you’re doing? People need to be more aware of their needs, and values and emotions in order to make conscious decisions.

What do you think are the best means in order to avoid living on autopilot in the future?

There should be more people like Doctor Irvin Yalom who makes psychotherapy accessible to a lot of people by presenting it not as cure for diseases, but as a really cool activity to do with oneself in order to live a better quality life. If more people like him would show the world means to get to know themselves, be it through coaching or through travelling, like you are doing, or any other means, then, more and more people would start doing it and it would become a snowball effect.

There was a moment in the Hollywood history when we saw in movies a lot of consultants, recruiters and PR people and then a lot of people become consultants, recruiters and PR people. For instance, after Ally McBeal and Suits, more and more people became lawyers, after Doctor House, many people considered becoming doctors. Let’s take the example of Suits: if Harvey is going to a therapist, then those people who identify with Harvey’s character, might consider it too. If you look at communication, you have to communicate with people through the mediums that are important to them and through those that they are looking to. I don’t think that a Discovery documentary on coaching is going to do much good because those who watch Discovery channels are already interested in stuff like that. But if you were to insert topics like self discovery and lucid living in contexts in TV series that are being watched the most, like Suits or CSI Miami, or whatever, then you take the conversation to a mass market level.

This is the systemic approach, but there is also the personal approach. You are interested in stuff like this, so you write a blog post. Maybe 50 people read it. Out of those 50 people, maybe 3 of them start a self discovery journey. Maybe they recommend it to their friends and they become curious about the process.


At the end of our lives, it’s not about how many cars, apartments, functions or money in the bank we have, it’s about how much positive emotion we lived and how meaningful we felt that our life was.


Pictures are from Paul’s personal archive.
Read more interviews on Authentic Conversations Project.

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