Changing the World Starts with Changing Yourself

It’s a beautiful, sunny day on April, 15°C in the mountains. I’m on top of the world in Bormio, a beautiful resort in Northern Italy. I’ve been snowboarding the entire day and am content in the warm sun. A week ago, when I arrived, I sadly looked at this slope from below; “I’ll never get the courage to ride that”, I thought. Yet here I am, starting down the hill singing out loud: “I haaadd the time of my liffe! And I never felt this way before…”. It was easy, it was fast, and it was an incredible achievement for the (still) beginner me.

This is where I decided to live a different kind of life. Back then, I was miserable and was employed by the most enormous corporation in Romania. It’s a cliché nowadays, but about nine years ago, everybody dreamt of a stable, corporate job that paid well. So I just had to figure out what I could do that (1) brings my soul joy, (2) helps others, and (3) can bring me the income I want to live a fulfilling life.

I’ve been sharing this approach (call it a framework) with friends and colleagues pursuing their own goals, and it helped them. So naturally, they asked that I put it in writing, so here it is (don’t worry, this is not a “look at my successful life and buy something” kind of blog post).

1. Figure out what makes your heart sing

The first step is to figure out what you want out of life, but there’s a catch. You also need to figure out what your strengths are.

I believe that you can do anything if you put a lot of effort and practice into it (well, if you want to become a ballerina at 40, you might not make it to the top), but at the same time, I think you have some innate strengths that you can leverage, regardless of your line of work.

Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You was a massive help for me during the time when Steve Job’s “follow your passion” was all the rave. I didn’t know my passion, or better yet, I was passionate about plenty of things; I couldn’t put my finger on one and say, “that’s it; that’s the thing I want to dedicate my life to“.

Newport gave me a new perspective on this: what if things are the other way around, being good at something brings passion? The moment you are extraordinary, people flock to you for advice, mentoring, and learning. This is what drives passion. So rather than being passionate about something and then becoming good at it, flip the coin: become really good at something, and love follows.

You can speed up your learning by using your native strengths. But what are those strengths? I did have a clue about what I’m good at (e.g. randomly connecting with people I never met in an instant, making people laugh), but I wasn’t sure how that would help in the context of my career. So to discover those, I used a few techniques:

1. Personality tests: yes, they won’t give you your path in life, but they do give you things to think about. I have two tests that I found particularly useful (and weighed in for my decision to change my career): Gallup StrenghtsFinder and StandOut:

Gallup doesn’t just tell you what your personality is but focuses on the innate strengths that you’re not even aware of. I find it incredibly useful if you want to know how to improve your work, no matter what you do. I also use it in my coaching as a tool for self-discovery. When you get your strengths, you should ask yourself: how can I leverage these in everything I do? This is what came up for me (and yes, Woo is a strength of mine, apparently):

If Gallup gives you your top strengths, StandOut focuses on practical things you can do with them. It was revelatory because that is precisely what I have been doing for a long time and what I want to do more of (I did this test recently, but I include it here as I wish I had it available back then).

2. Books: Cal Newport and James Altucher were life-changing authors for me during that time. Although I read everything Altucher wrote, I recommend you start with Choose Yourself. The book guides you not to depend on a job, an investor or any other external forces but to build yourself (and choose yourself) so people come to you because you’re giving them value (a similar message with Newport in that regard).

Dan Gilbert‘s Stumbling on Happiness took the pressure of “trying to be happy” off me and helped me focus on building a fulfilling life rather than chasing a relative concept of happiness. Find his 2004 Ted Talk below:

Human beings have something that we might think of as a “psychological immune system,” a system of cognitive processes, largely nonconscious cognitive processes, that help them change their views of the world, so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves.

From Dan Gilbert 2004 TED Talk, The Surprising science of happiness.

3. Mind mapping: sure, I found out my strengths through introspection and the tests, but I didn’t know how they fit together to build a career. I had really vague passions (e.g. I absolutely love reading, but nobody really pays you for reading; I love snowboarding, but I was pretty late to become a pro; I love fitness but not enough to dedicate my life to become an instructor – although I did get the license, and so on). Mind Mapping is a technique created by Tony Buzan (check his book, Mind Map Mastery, if you want to learn more) that helps you make new connections between concepts (and revives your memory) by associations of words, images, sketches that grow organically as you draw. I used it to figure out how my interests connect and if patterns or a new direction are emerging. Here’s an example of a recent one (trying to figure out how to best use my knowledge):

4. Talking to people: when I had some clarity on my goals, I started meeting up with people with careers in the areas I considered. I met with an Anthropologist (I also signed up for an Anthropology MA); I met many people in tech (Product Managers, Developers, Marketing people, founders, etc.), artists, writers, and so on. I managed to get to meet a lot of people and learn plenty of things. This was also inspired by Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness: he theorises that we tend to idealise things we don’t have (in my case, a career in a different field), and our view is distorted and emphasised by imagination. The best way to learn how a job is or how happy it would make you is to talk to people that actually do it.

5. Learning a lot: I started to learn different things; I learned to code (HTML, CSS, and Python, I’m still working on that, getting slightly better every year), I learned Anthropology (I dropped my MA after the first semester though, as all classed were moved during working hours), I discovered Agile Software Development during my research (I was a Project Manager with PRINCE2 for the implementation of software at that time), lean startup, business model canvases (I did an online Stanford Technology Entrepreneurship course at that time, I highly recommend it), built my own product (Firsty, it was meant to be a sharing platform for extreme sports aficionados, now retired).

2. Run Experiments

All of the experiments above took more than a year. It was an incredible year of discovery, learning, and meeting new people. I tried to apply my knowledge in different areas to figure out where I fit best and what allows me to continuously learn, read, and change but also will enable me to use my strengths.

First, I went on a strict schedule: I woke up at 6:30 am and went to bed at 10:30 pm. This is because I needed time during the day but also a very functional brain.

What I managed to achieve during that time:

  1. Learned HTML and CSS enough to build an essential website. Also did a very introductory Python course, just scratching the surface, as I started with the ex’s MITx course, and it is definitely not for total noobs (I finally completed it this year though).
  2. I took my fitness instructor certification (I have been doing fitness for over 10 years, cross-fit, HIIT, Tabatha, etc.).
  3. I co-founded Girls Who Code Romania (which goes on without me).
  4. I discovered Agile, took a course on DSDM (Dynamic System Development Method) and started to apply the learning in my work (pretty much started to talk to the software users and figure out why adoption was only 35%, created new features, went for short releases, with less functionality instead of waiting for 6 months for one big release and worked closely with the vendor on requirements versus sending them tenfolds pages of change requests that made no sense whatsoever for the user).
  5. I went snowboarding 4 weeks during that year 🙂 I think that gave me the energy to do everything else.
  6. I did an army boot camp (CrossFit), which was tons of fun (and tons of pain).
  7. I started working on Work in Startups, which back then was owned by a very good friend.
  8. I signed up for an MA in Anthropology (which, unfortunately, I had to let go of).

If you ask when I had the time, the answer is simple: you always have the time; what matters is where you choose to invest it. I entirely dropped Facebook or any other social media (unless I used it for work) and any activity that didn’t fit my values. It sounds a little harsh, but I feel much better at the end of the day if I get something important done versus if I just watched Netflix or scrolled Facebook (by the way, you need time to rewind, so make sure you fit that in).

I had the time of my life. Although the ladies I met through Girls Who Code were remarkable, I am still humbled thinking of their zest to learn, capabilities and drive to push forward STEM careers in Romania.

There is a caveat here. As you probably noticed, I started many things and dropped some of them. It’s also essential to prioritise and know when to let go of things (you can go back to them later, as I just finished the MITx Python course this year, but I was working with Python last year also, so I needed to prepare better). You need to know when something is too much (you’re not ready, you need other learnings before, you need preparation, training, etc.). You can’t run a marathon after doing two 5k runs. So have patience, and let go of things if your objective is in danger. If they are essential to you, you will go back to them.

Everything I did put me on the path towards my current career. I didn’t know it back then; I followed my heart with a rational, structured and safe approach.

3. Take the plunge

The following year I decided to move to Malaysia to be able to work for this incredible company called Mindvalley. This is a different journey with different learning and growth paths.

I made that decision and left behind everything I’ve built and been working on for years because I went through a self-discovery journey and was clear about what I value and how I want to apply it. I use the same rationale for everything I do today: all my decisions have to fit my values and principles, which I carefully crafted based on my heart, strengths, career and financial goals (money is always an issue, I could never just jump into the unknown without a backup plan).

Learn, learn, learn

Fast forward 9 years after, and here I am, in a marvellous country, having a job that brings me joy and gets me out of bed in the morning full of excitement and curiosity.

Living my values doesn’t make me feel I’m missing out on adventures. On the contrary, I enjoy reading a book on the terrace as much as I enjoy visiting a new city; I want to play with my son just as much as to meet new people.

It’s never too late (I started all that in my 30s), so you can start searching, learning and finding what makes you happy at any time. There is no such thing as being stuck; there are always ways to get out of it. All you need to do is hustle, as Gary Vaynerchuk (aka Gary Vee) says in this excellent Ted Talk from 2008 on doing what you love (I listened to his talk every time I felt like quitting, or tired, or just going back to a simples life):


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