Story 14

Stories that shape us are not set in stone. They can be rewritten.

Hi, I’m Oana, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I founded Crafters, a small communication consultancy firm in Bucharest, Romania, my daily source of anxiety and security. When I am not planning things (I do that a lot), I hide the phone and read.

Life in the countryside was built around work. Most of my childhood memories are with my grandparents working—whether they were gardening, feeding the animals, or taking care of the household. The only moments of rest in the day were when they ate or slept.

As a child, I had my responsibilities around the house as well, but they were carefully chosen to have enough time to study. I remember how my grandfather’s voice used to change each time he talked to me about “the good professions” and how firm he was whenever I came home from school with a bad grade (8 out of a maximum of 10, for instance).

Education always came first, and I was encouraged to strive to have more than my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. A better job. A better life. A better future.

I liked the promise of something better, so I did what it needed to be done: I studied as hard as I could, and then, when I moved to Bucharest for college, I began to put all my attention into work.

I was 22 and already a partner in a PR consultancy firm for some time. I used to be one of those “keep working hard ’til 1 a.m.” people who get lost in work for hours in a row.

One day, I was in a rush to a work meeting. I wanted to take a cab, but there was none around. “If I hurry,” I told myself, “I will be only a few minutes late.” As I was walking and checking the clock every minute, I saw a tram arriving at the station. In the blink of an eye, I decided to run towards it. It would save me a few minutes.

I haven’t put too much thought into it. I jumped on the green-light crosswalk without looking twice when a car hit me. The wheel passed over one of my legs, the rearview mirror bruised my left hand, and finally, the car threw me over one of the other parked cars nearby. But I stood up, I checked my leg, and I was relieved that I could move it.

It was not the driver’s fault entirely. He saw the intermittent traffic light, and yes, he should have given me priority. However, I believed him when he said he didn’t see me coming. The driver asked: “Are you hurt? Let me take you to the hospital,” to which I answered: “I’m fine, I’m not hurt,” then he added, “What can I do for you then?” and I said bluntly: “Actually, there is something you can do. I have a crucial meeting. Take me to this address; I am already late.”

There I was: working mindlessly round the clock, carrying to-do lists that got longer and longer, always busy, moving around, not even thinking that I could stop or take a break even when a car hit me, not remotely doubting there might be something wrong in the way I was doing things.

But time passed. Priorities changed. Self-awareness grew. My work preferences transformed. I gained more life experience. I don’t know the precise trigger, but I remember that one day I began to feel a steady ticking of uneasiness that was continually whispering in my ear: “You are not in the right place.”

Somehow work was no longer just work. At least not in the spirit I was raised in. Not in the way I observed my grandparents’ work habits as a child when their primary reason for work was to make sure they had food on the table. For them, work was a means to an end. For me, it unknowingly became a means to an identity.

I was craving for meaning. I remember telling a friend that my work wasn’t as I thought it would be. And he asked: “Well, how did you think it would be?” I said: “I don’t know. I expected it would give me purpose, as I see at the other people around me.”

In the urgency of finding meaning, I made a lot of zig-zags.

Firstly, I quit the job in the PR consultancy firm, and I became a freelancer. After a year of working on my own, I’ve tried to create a freelancers agency, meaning a communication and marketing team of independent creative professionals that would gather as a taskforce for different projects.

I was working with people motivated by very different things, with different understandings of work commitments, with different work habits. I ended up spending more hours on project management than on the work itself. I knew this wouldn’t last, so I quit the idea after a while.

I then began a master’s degree in visual studies. The plan was to switch from corporate and product communication to arts & culture communication and marketing. I started to do some pro-bono work to better understand the new world I was going to embrace. What on the outside seemed meaningful, on the inside, it was not.

I also tried to partner with a friend to make a consultancy firm, but our plan went out of the window after a while—our motivations and goals were so different that nothing good could come from this business attempt.

It took some time to understand what lies behind this search of meaning—the fear of failure, the need to live up to expectations, the image of something better. I understood that I kept trying to fit in narratives that I didn’t challenge enough: at first, it was the standard “go to school, get a job, work hard, be independent,” and then it was my generation’s “find happiness and meaning in your work” script.

Like many others, these are stories we learn at home, at school, in society about how we should live and work. And they are helpful. They give us shortcuts, perspective, direction. The problem with them is that they rule out anyone who doesn’t follow them and give us more reasons to experience disillusion, fear, and resentment once you don’t live up to their expectations, as psychotherapist Esther Perel puts it.

The more we struggle to live up to an expectation, the more disconnected we are from our self. We miss on the essential things that need to be in the spotlight: what am I good at, what are my skills, what is truly important to me in life and why, how do I want to work, how do I want to live, what am I willing to struggle for.

It took me a while to understand that there are no universal good or wrong answers regarding work. One may be motivated by financial security, while others may find meaning in freedom and risk. Some people give their best under pressure, while others find purpose in a more slow-paced life.

After school, after a job experience that led to burnout and confusion, after many trials and errors and three years of therapy, I see that what had to change was not the work itself. It was me and the narratives I was telling myself.

Everything is work-in-progress, including my becoming, but what I know today is that stories that shape me are not always set in stone. Sometimes, they can be changed and rewritten.

Dare to rewrite,

Contributors of this story: Oana Coman wrote this story, Oana Filip edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development, Ioana Dodan took the photo.

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