Story 9

In the hopes of doing it better

Hi, I’m Cristian, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I run DoR, a magazine in Bucharest, Romania, built around a mission that has shaped my life and endeavors for 15 years: that well-told stories can make us feel less alone, bring us closer, and teach us empathy.

Last weekend, I went out for a half-marathon. My first. 

Not a race, more of a mind-clearing self-scheduled run, a marker I felt I needed to pass in this pandemic year, so as to even the scales. There has been so much loss, and even though some of us have been more fortunate than others, you can’t ignore the signs: dropped plans, lost jobs, the pain of the disease itself, and sometimes the agony of losing someone to it. And I’d be foolish not to mention hope, which comes and goes in waves.

I’ve seen it in our team, and it’s taken me a while to get used to this. Like many, we moved our newsroom operations online in mid-March and quickly scrambled to find a new way to operate. We were luckier than others because, for the past two-three years, we’d been on a journey of reflection not just about the way we do journalism, but also about the ways we work and grow together. Care—both for the work and for each other is our cornerstone value. Transparency, learning, and innovation also make the cut.

Before we go any further, let me tell you a bit about what we do. We’re DoR, a publication out of Bucharest, Romania that tells true stories to empower its community, to help it be more empathic, to point it towards solutions, and to be a guide in how we can live a better life. That means we use the tools of storytelling to create experiences, and, ideally, transformation.

Let me give you a couple of examples that also showcase the breadth of what we do: three years ago, we wrote about the earthquake that will eventually hit Bucharest. The story convinced a few people to move from unsafe buildings, the World Bank to start a task force, and a local community foundation to raise tens of thousands of euros for awareness projects. Recently, we ran a personal essay by one of our colleagues, who was sexually abused as a minor: within hours, she had women reach out to say they feel seen for the first time ever, as no one had articulated their struggle before.

This is us at our best: showcasing our common vulnerabilities, in order to create connection and belonging.

We have been around since 2009 and have evolved from a print-only quarterly to a digital-first publication, event organizer, and innovator. (We won a European Innovation Prize this year). On top of it all, we try to live together the way we want our journalism to be: vulnerable, thorough, and caring. 

This means that for a media organization, we are an odd duck. 

I’d be lying if I said our way of working is for everyone: we had good professionals leave the team because they felt we talked too much about our feelings. (Journalists don’t do that.) And we do: we start the year with a two-three day in-house retreat where we re-assess who we are and why we do what we do. We have a monthly all-staff meeting called State of DoR meant to surface anything that wasn’t properly communicated. We check-in during most meetings. We check on each other during the day. It’s not always perfect, but if our goal is to create a team with autonomous individuals that adhere to a mission (not the orders of a boss), this is a formula that has been bringing us closer.

And then Zoom happened.

It was natural for us to keep our routines in place, and it came as no surprise to anyone that since we were all apart, we should check in more often. So we came up with a Monday morning one-hour check-in, where each person gives thanks and answer the question of the day (a recent one: What did you recently do for others that fulfilled you?). We also had a Zoom happy hour on Friday and a team Google Doc diary that got to more than 100 pages.

We made space for what people were feeling: from fear, to anger, to surprise. But it was the occasional hopelessness that was toughest to watch. Since March, maybe one out of every 3-4 weeks, the Monday mood is bleak. I’m not saying all 20 colleagues are despondent, but emotions are contagious on a team, so if five-six are there, it’ll spread.

The motives vary: school starts and you are clueless about the pandemic rules your child must follow. You fought with your aging parents about the need to wear masks. You ran into a friend, and they later announced they tested positive, so now you have to get tested. Or you just need a friggin’ hug from a stranger. A sweaty rock show. The ease of walking into a restaurant. As a writer and editor who believes above all else in the power of stories, especially vulnerable stories, to bring us together and make us feel less alone, hearing my colleagues was everything I’m striving for in our work. They were honest about a moment of loss, they felt safe, they shared. 

This is a gift. 

This is not just being together as a team, but it’s also a proxy for what the world around is feeling. It’s a listening and reporting exercise: if this is what’s happening to us, it must be what is happening to others, too, so we should reflect that in our work.

Even as I knew this was good for our journalism, I still couldn’t tell whether this was good for the team. Is there a line between sharing and expressing anguish where it’s not helpful anymore? If a feeling of losing hope can become contagious, is that the best one to encourage over Monday morning coffee, when there are so many challenges in the week ahead (including, in the spirit of 2020, many we don’t yet know of)?

Of course, there is tons of advice about how to handle this, much of it delivered with good intentions, but with a focus on efficiency and productivity that doesn’t sit well with me: sharing is good, complaining is bad. Expressing anguish, calling for a time-out is necessary for wellbeing, hopelessness is dangerous for the long haul.

Rationally, it all makes sense.

But here’s the thing about stories—especially the stories we tell ourselves. They are almost never rational, and neither are we. As a leader of a team, I don’t sit in front of 20 levers, each for every colleague, and pull on them to obtain a desired effect. They are each unique individuals, with unique circumstances, and with unique needs. We are together because we believe that together we can do great work, under the same banner head. This was true before the pandemic, and I believe it should be even more true now.

If you have decided to build a company that treasures the uniqueness of each individual, you will often be in situations like this. You will often struggle to find individual golden means between people’s own needs and the company’s needs, and then try to make sure that the total sum of the relationships doesn’t create an inequal system.

This is not the absolute truth. And many of you with some experience might read this and say: „ah, I recognize those naïve thoughts from years back.” 

Which is exactly the point of me writing this.

The pandemic caught me in a favorable moment in my career as a journalist, as a manager, as a budding leader. I know for a fact that it would have crushed me and would have crushed the whole operation if it happened five years ago. Today, although we made many changes, cut many plans, and invented many new projects and products, we haven’t let anyone go to save costs, and I believe we’ll avoid having to do so certainly through the end of the year.

Not only did we not fold, we did some of our best work. Our September story line-up is arguably the strongest we’ve had in years—if not ever. And I believe that part of that success stems from the way we come together, no matter how high or low we’re feeling.

Still, even with all our experiences and all the things to celebrate, I have to remind myself that we are as good as we are today, and as a leader, I am only as good as I can be today. 

That was one of the best writing advice I have come across, and it applies to leading people as well: you are only as good as you are today. Tomorrow, if you keep learning, keep trying, keep experimenting, keep showing up, keep being vulnerable, you could do better.

I haven’t yet properly answered the „is there a limit to sharing?” dilemma, but I do know I’m working harder than before to push all of us to see the positives, not just in our work, but in our lives. I also know, although I have to remind myself a lot, that I’ll do it better next time around.

Which bring me back to my half-marathon, which I finished in 2 hours and 15 minutes, a more than decent start. I use the Nike running app, and maybe 15 minutes before the end, coach Bennet, the app’s guide, came on and said something like this: be your best coach, be your best colleague, be your best friend. Tell yourself you did well. 

So I did. Right there, on the boulevard, I told myself I did well.

And then he said, pat yourself on the back.

And I did that, too.

That’s as good as I was able to be today. Hopefully, tomorrow, during the next run, during our next check-ins, during the next crisis, I’ll be better. 


Contributors of this story: Cristi Lupșa wrote this gem, Oana Filip edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development, Cătălin Georgescu took the photo.

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