Play, that’s Elena Marineci’s word. Exploring the possible – her favoured definition – has become a guiding principle in her hobbies, relationships and job. Elena is playing and she’s making money out of it. At age 24, she co-founded a training company with the mission of bringing play into the life of adults whose colours have been washed away by routine.
She discovered the value of “exploring the possible” through experience. Initially more of a serious type, through play, Elena has managed to expand her comfort zone, strengthen her self-confidence and enjoy her – she believes – elusive femininity. This is how Elena plays.
Our first interaction left me intrigued.
I was passing by the Impact Hub, a den of social entrepreneurs in Bucharest, when I recognized a friend. I go say hi and take a seat at her desk. Moments later a girl catapults in. I had to look at her as if staring at the sun, bending my head backwards and almost averting my eyes from the glare of her enormous smile. Tall, supple, cheerful, beautiful. I didn’t get a chance to snap out of the admiration mode when our common friend introduced me as working at Hey Mărie!.
“Oh, Hey Mărie!, I know it! I like it, it’s cool!” “Really? I’m happy to hear that. We’re working on our next issue now, it’s about relationships. We’re pretty excited.” “Relationships? Awesome! There’s much to talk about… Want to meet up and discuss that? I propose as first topic monogamy in relationships – does Mother Nature really want us to be monogamous?”
The ridiculously attractive gal was inviting me to talk relationships and polygamy. Yes, it was actually happening, after as few moves as that.
“Do a Doodle and we’ll schedule it. You know Doodle, right?” I nodded yes, wearing what was probably a dumb expression and uttered a “mhm” that was meant to convey coolness. Just as abruptly as she’d arrived, Elena left.
While still dazed by the flash interaction and the generous offer, the editorial cogs went into overdrive (What a gal! What an attitude!). I followed through on the instructions. I sent the Doodle, along with a proposal for an interview.
We met at the Impact Hub, again. Sitting in a corner with puffs, plants and rainbow coloured pillows, lured by the natural light bathing us from the glass wall that sealed the vibe of the place as a playground for adults, we started talking about the way in which one’s work life intertwines with one’s personal life up to the point where it ends up defining you. And how that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
How did you end up co-founding a company at age 24?
It was out of a life crisis. My entry into adult life was pretty smooth: I got hired early, my job was awesome, I was making loads of money at an age when I didn’t have a proper notion of their worth, I had a wonderful boyfriend, a fantastic social life… I would actually ask myself sometimes, “man, is that really all there is?” (as a Romanian saying goes, when people don’t have problems, they invent them). It seemed too much, too early. As soon as I thought about that, life caught up with me and told me “oh, there’s more!”
The financial crisis came and it took all of us trainers along with it. This was a defining moment in my life. I remember being in the car, on my way to a meeting and I got a call from my then boyfriend, who was working with me (he was a member of the board and had gotten wind of what was coming before it was officially out).
“Are you driving? Pull over.” I pulled over and he told me what was about to happen. I hung up, restarted the car and it was a moment like those in the movies: my engine was on, I had my hands on the steering wheel and I realized I didn’t know where to go. This was such a strong symbol of the fact that I lacked a compass at the time, and I actually had no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life…
That was a warning signal to me. I told myself “wait a minute, who’s in charge of your life’s script? OK, this bit is over and you’re left with nothing? That’s fucking sad!”
But that moment of personal crisis proved to be a mobilizing force, right?
Looking back, yes, very much so. At the time, though, it was unpleasant. It was really easy for me to associate Elena, the definition of my self and my self-worth with the amount of money I was earning. All of a sudden, I wasn’t earning anything. “OK, you’re a complete loser. Is there anything good about you? Nothing, if you’re not earning money.” It was quite an existential drama for me. That’s when I started wrestling with the question of “who is Elena?”
Rationally, it was easy for me to say “come on, what’s with this materialism, there’s more to life than that” but emotionally, I was still in the dumps. So that doesn’t help too much. No matter how many words you use to embellish it, a crisis has to be lived through and that’s that.
And yet, the crisis was the starting point for Life After Work and the services of facilitation through play. Where did this play idea come from?
I resorted to play because my problem was taking myself too seriously. That’s when I told myself, “if I need to relax, how do I do that?” Through play, defined as exploring the possible.
That’s when I started Life After Work because, in my training sessions, I wound up believing that people tend to lose their colours. I saw many gray people whom, if I were to ask them to imagine that money is flowing and they’d have their vacations paid one year in advance, what would they do with that particular year, they wouldn’t have an answer. They kept fabricating excuses. “I’ve got children.” The very fact of having children makes it very important that you be able to come up with an answer!
The idea also came when I realised that I was facing my own gray, that I had ended up in a similar zone, I was also being defined by a company. So I wanted to provide a solution for people to get their colours back. I wanted them to stop being supporting characters in their own movie – that’s a metaphor I like.
How did you get going?
We started the company and we were nowhere. And by nowhere I mean we lacked any understanding of what it meant not having a boss there deciding things for you, or about being responsible for money going in and out of the company, about the market, nothing. We saw ourselves as over-qualified entitled graduates but when it came down to having a hands-on approach, my business partner and I were clueless.
We started from zero. We put in a lot of effort but, financially, we weren’t making it. Things were working, however, on a human level. Those that attended the workshops loved us and managed to stay connected to us.
It so happened that one of our clients became our business angel. He used to say that we have “no excuse for failing with this business. You’re young, smart, beautiful, passionate about your work, you’ve got everything you need to make it work. Why isn’t it working?”
We told him we needed some money. “Alright, how much?” At that point, we realized that we hadn’t even thought about the amount of money we’d need to get it off the ground. We did the math and we asked for some money so that we could hire one employee. He told us we could have it if we went to a workshop on entrepreneurship skills. We went, he gave us the money. He came over and said “this is the amount”. He placed the cash just like that, on the desk. We had never seen so much money all at once… It was a really funny moment, we were looking at it and thinking, ”so now what? Should we stick the bills to our foreheads?” This was a huge vote of confidence. Who does that, nowadays?!
What was the coolest feedback you got after a training session?
I’ve got two. The first one I got from a guy who wrote me on Facebook one year after the workshop ended to tell me that the whole experience had been a sort of rebirth for him and that today is his true birthday. He wanted to me to join him in celebrating the moment when he redefined and regained control of his own life.
Another feedback that got to me came about six months after a workshop. I got a Christmas letter, mailed in. It was handwritten, on company stationery; the company that guy that attended the workshop had founded. He told me his dream was taking shape and I was one of the people that had helped him along, and he thanked me.
What’s the coolest thing the participants have taught you?
Being arrogant (I’m still not completely over that), it used to happen that I’d have participants that I considered to be helpless. I’ve received some pretty awesome moral slaps regarding this. I realized that it was my own paradigm inhibiting the interaction. If I start off with that premise, then I am holding them prisoners of the same situation, by default.
I’ve calmed myself down about this. Nobody is helpless. And, regardless of appearances or of them thinking of themselves that they’re helpless, I now have such a strong conviction about the greatness you can hold within… I know “greatness” is a big word, but there really is something amazing in every human being, and I can see that now.
I suppose this thing about being arrogant might be an occupational hazard. How do you position yourself as credible, without seeming condescending or all-knowing?
I used to struggle with this in the beginning, when I started in the training industry, especially being a woman – better said, a girl, because that’s what I was back then. When you’re a young woman in the training business… credibility is a tough one. That’s when I got instructions like “you only wear pants in training; you wear your hair in a pony tail; you put on extra make-up to seem older,” and others along those lines.
I was really stressed out about being credible. Now I’ve reached a point where I say “OK, I am credible. It’s up to you to realize that.” I believe in what I have to say, by definition. It’s a problem in as much as you see it as such.
Back then I was really worried about this because I lacked self-confidence. The moment I said “you know what? I’m gonna wear a skirt to training and I’ll wear nothing but red and green and blue stockings! If you’ve got a problem with that, or if you’re wondering whether what comes out of my mouth is relevant because I’m wearing coloured stockings, you’re the one with a problem. Let’s see how you can overcome this prejudice, because it’s not my problem.”
They say self-confidence is sexy. Does it happen often that people hit on you, in a training context?
You know, strangely enough, a lot of people would hit on me in the beginning, when I was struggling to hide everything and be a tomboy. I think they must have smelled the blood, like sharks. I lacked self-confidence and they felt that, I was an easy prey.
My lack of confidence still exists, only on different levels. I’m also paying more attention to it. Before, it was like a snake biting my ass, without me knowing where it came from and why it hurt. Now I can hear him hissing, we stare at each other. And I’m not even ashamed. Yes, I don’t have confidence about certain stuff, but I admit it.
I still don’t trust my femininity much, for instance. There are times in tango class when I feel like a stumbling, bandy-legged duck and that gets me really angry… But I’m OK with that too, because I’m aware that’s just a stage. And everything was difficult before it got easy, anyway. Not to mention that I actually believe many really cool women have trouble with their femininity.
I actually find women that are not so confident about their femininity more interesting. I fin this unstable femininity to be really seductive.
Yes, there’s a difference between attractiveness and femininity. Look, someone told me that I play my attractiveness card quite loudly, that I’ve got boobs and I smile – and I know I play it, but tend to be much more reserved when it comes to femininity. I’m kind of going for a more mysterious seduction.
There’s a game there that I’m still trying to figure out. There are moments when it works for me… it’s in the making. I have areas of feminine energy when it comes to protection, nurturing behaviours, I’ve got that side.
Flirting might also be a challenge, for that same reason of lacking confidence in one’s femininity. Do you also find that you have to have a certain feminine way when you’re flirting?
I think it’s really cool to play all sides in a flirting situation. In fact, I think that in a flirting situation it’s exactly the fluctuation between masculine and feminine what’s attractive. Misleading, kind of like “hold on a minute, is she being strong now? Is she being soft?” Not catching on. This is a game I really enjoy.
I admit I see flirting as a muscle, and this is a belief I’ve fortunately had for quite some time now. In my philosophy, flirting is like a muscle that you keep exercising, both within the relationship and outside it. The fact that you are in a relationship doesn’t imply that you’re blind or blindfolded. Currently being in a relationship, this brings a breath of fresh air. On the one hand, I’m receiving validation from the outside, so I don’t feel like “hey, you’re the only one that actually likes me, thank heavens you exist!” –which gives me confidence, and, on the other hand, because this is a way to recharge my batteries for something that I will consummate within the bounds of my relationship.
I think I flirt on a regular basis, and this happens naturally. I mean, you don’t sit at a table and go “alright, we’re flirting now!” There shouldn’t be any expectations. You end up in a flirting game and you enjoy it. I think it’s a very important thing, even for people who are already involved in relationships, to allow themselves to play with this thing, not that it must lead anywhere. It’s just a game, a tension.
So play is important in relationships, too?
I have yet to find an area of life where play isn’t important.
I used to be a by-the-book kid: obedient, good in school, not smoking, not going out with boys until later on… Being this sort of very entrapped child, I took myself really seriously. If I got a small grade, it was like “it’s the end of the world, I am worthless, everything is lost!”
The whole way onward was like that, I took myself very seriously. Things had to happen in a certain way. I now keep realizing that I feel the social pressures of “I must,” only that I rebel now, it bothers me, I’ve started having my own ideas. I realize that the more seriously you take yourself, the more limited you are by certain paradigms. And they aren’t even yours, they most certainly aren’t.
I checked some of your Facebook pictures and noticed you do a lot of adventure sports: scuba diving, ski, kiting, mountain biking. Is it rebelliousness what’s pushing you towards these experiences?
There are a couple of reasons. I discovered the first while I was at a workshop on failure. When the time came to share with the group our biggest failure, I realized I couldn’t come up with an answer. I had lived my life so much in the safe zone that not much had happened to me. I cried at that workshop… I told myself “you’ve lived for nothing.”
I realized that having this very strong self-preservation instinct, I have to somehow destroy the matrix. The software is in there, embedded, and I have to remove it. Doing a more challenging sport makes you confront fear as if in a test tube. What you are basically doing is adding all the ingredients you need and see the reaction as it’s happening, so that you can catch the snake’s tail. To look into the eyes of fear and understand what that is about and what it is trying to tell you.
I am not adventurous, I really am not. That’s what I do all these activities for. As an entrepreneur, I really don’t want to live a linear life, the way society wants me to: get a job, get married, have children, get a house with land, die happily. I want to have some experiences and I realize that if I don’t expand my comfort zone, I have little chances of progressing to the next level.
The other reason, which I only became aware of after I started with these sports, is that a very sizable chunk of quality of life has to do with the quality of people around me, of people in my life. And to meet interesting people I must do interesting things.
Take mountain biking marathons, for example. They’re awesome. They happen outdoors, in a picnic-y context where you find loads of people that are passionate about something, anything. That’s where you can meet them. In general, people that are passionate about something are also the ones you do business with or the ones that you have something to learn from. Either of these options are great for me.
What is your greatest source of energy?
My friends. I think you become the people you spend the most time with, it’s really important to like them.
What do you think about before going to bed?
I think about the things that I am grateful for and about the stuff I have learned.
Come on, that sounds too perfect!
No, really. I used to have a good habit: I would buy a notepad at the beginning of the year that had weekdays on one side, and ruled paper, on the other. At the end of each day I used to write down the lesson of the day and my goal for the next day. My rule was that I never read what I had written before. It was only at the end of the year that I read the whole thing. And boy, is that impressive!
I didn’t have the same mental awareness that I have now, say, talking to you. Those were things that were being expressed from another place. Reading them in retrospect, I told myself “Wow, I was fucking wise!” Most of them you forget, but you do think there might be some inception happening somewhere, if you have them written down. In some cases I actually wasn’t able to remember how it happened that I wrote down what I did. It’s an amazing exercise and I abandoned it out of laziness, but I can only recommend it. I might pick it up again soon.
I also do meditation and I think a lot about my intentions for the following day or period and I try to visualize it.
So what’s next for Elena? How do you imagine your future?
I know my social bubble differs quite a lot from the masses, but I’ve got a powerful feeling: you know how, in war movies, when they charge and they show you how the ground is shaking and the troops are coming and they’re building up momentum and tension? That’s the feeling I’m getting, that the ground is shaking. I feel that more and more people are connecting to a more spiritual area, that they are paying attention to the welfare of their souls, their minds, their bodies.
Some are paying more attention to their diet or their exercise, some are being more mindful of what their soul is telling them, maybe that they don’t love themselves enough or they aren’t taking good enough care of themselves… I look at all the workshops that are happening around and the diversity and sheer number of participants. It seems like there’s an evolution. It’s like we’re reaching an area of higher consciousness, I get the feeling there’s more and more of us around.
Some things are trickling down to the mainstream, which is really nice. Maybe we needed to reach this level of stress to wonder how and what we are doing to fight it. This is my feeling with regards to the future.
You know, I did this exercise on Facebook, once: describe your own life in six words. I have two for myself, one in English, and the other one in Romanian:
”I’ve learned to also love myself” (Am învățat să mă și iubesc). This is a road without end. While we’re on this topic, I did this really cool practice that I think everyone should do: write a love letter to yourself. Someone got me this assignment and I waited for the moment when I felt like doing it. It took me three to four months but when it came, it all came out like… I think loving yourself is very important.
My second six-word description is “Broke some limits, found new ones.” I know I want some things for the company, that I want it to grow to a certain size. I know some things about my lifestyle, about the way I want to manage my time and the ratios between certain activities. But, in general, it’s to do with challenges, because we’ll be dead before we know it.
By exploring the possible, Elena is evolving. In the linear life of a competent and lucky young adult who ticked off all the boxes that convince parents not call so often (”are you sure you’re alright, dear?”), a moment of professional challenge served as an opportunity for some personal thinking. ”Who is Elena?” has since stuck as an open-ended question, to which the most flexible reply would be “Elena is what Elena does.”
And she does, indeed. She started her own business in the middle of the financial crisis after she realized that self-worth, professional abilities and a bubbly personality aren’t lost along with a job.
Her introspection, a legacy from her training as a psychologist, has allowed her to understand that the fears, frustrations and lack of certainties that she saw in herself actually apply to a whole generation.
Thus, Elena has become an entrepreneur, and that’s an identity that stretches beyond the borders of a profession. It has also provided her with a corresponding lifestyle. Certain sports and workshops, a specific jargon, that instinct of being in a continuous process of self-development and competition with oneself along with a life-is-short-let’s-get-shit-done attitude round up her profile as an archetypal entrepreneur, the tribe to which she belongs. Her professional and personal lives have intertwined into a happy, complementary formula.
Behind the envelope of a successful young woman Elena manages to stay profoundly human. She has learned to listen to her instincts, to acknowledge her fears and to neutralize them by exposing herself to them in a conscious and controlled manner. Despite her model looks (she was one, for a while), Elena has the natural insecurities of a young woman still struggling to find her own brand of femininity. It was easy for us to agree on how common the awkwardness of transitioning from girl to woman actually is, and how intimidating assuming a feminine identity may be, even for those meant to display it.
By evolving, Elena has replaced the need for a schoolgirl type of validation to the internal validation of a decisive individual with her own thoughts, one who has no qualms defending herself, contradicting others or taking risks. An individual who knows there’s still growing to be done.
In spite of her self-professed arrogance, of which she claims no to be fully cured, she is an open, kind and nurturing woman. She is also the first to say yes to a challenge, to something new and fun, especially if it’s to do with play, sports or nature. She is happy and energetic, but also introspective. Elena is accomplished, but she sees the road she still has to walk. Yes, Elena is complex, a clichéd description for women that prove just how much can hide behind a big smile.
Exploring the possible, then. It doesn’t sound bad at all…
Nota bene: The text below was kindly shared by Elena after the writing of this interview.
Love letter to myself
I know that our relationship has had its ups and downs, and you may not always feel or believe how much I love you!
What I love about you is everything that makes you, you: the way you always see the lesson in each situation, the kindness with which you allow your emotions to exist, the clumsiness with which you look for yourself when you get lost, the curiosity to see what lies behind fear, the good jokes you make, the bad jokes you make (yes, you also make those!), the lyrical tennis with the people that you connect to, the cynicism that you sometimes display when you’re angry, the arrogance with which you keep people at a distance, the shyness with which you sometimes look at a man’s eyes, the courage to be seen, the vulnerability that comes with it…
You already know about yourself that you’re pretty dual. Maybe trial, or even quadrial. A mix of resilience and abandonment, ambition and laziness, chronic socialization and profound loneliness, order and chaos, courage and fear, intelligence and stupidity, pure emotion and extreme rationalization, control and freedom, arrogance and shyness, woman and man, anger and acceptance, child and adult, happiness and sadness, curiosity and ignorance, lights and shadows. You confuse me sometimes with all these extremes, but when you get me too dizzy, I head off to a magical place and watch you from up there.
It’s a pretty well hidden place, underneath all the layers that you use for protecting your soul. It’s always quiet there. Peaceful. Harmony. I can love you in the most sincere way from there! Because I see you most clearly. And I can see that underneath all your contradictions, ups and downs, you are a ball of life that keeps looking for its shape. And that makes me love you more every time. Because in going from transformation to transformation you keep adding facets and colours!
Don’t get me wrong, though! I don’t like all of your nuances and colours. And I know you don’t actually like them all, either. What I do like constantly is the fact that I love you even when I don’t like you! J It sounds a bit paradoxical, I know, but that’s the way reality goes. My reality. Because what I love about you, first and foremost, is the energy with which you live! I am constantly aware that the shapes that life gives you are transient, and my love is not attached to them. It keeps its eyes on YOU! The ball of life that you are. And for me to love you, all you need to do is this: just be.
Elena Marineci (2012)
Interview by Alexandra Ștef
Photos by Vlad Bîrdu