Elitsa Dermendzhiyska (‘12) On “The Things that Happen to Those Who Live”

We live in exciting times: We can travel to almost anywhere we want, we possess access to unlimited information at our fingertips and we have the technology to facilitate our work and make room for creativity. But amid a sea of choice and information, how do we strike balance between opportunity and peace of mind? How do we choose what we want to do, where we want to live and who we want to be?

One good person to discuss this topic is alumna Elitsa Dermendzhiyska (‘12). Back at AUBG, she majored in mathematics and economics and spent an exchange year in a university in the U.S. When she graduated, Dermendzhiyska, originally from Bulgaria, moved to Bali where she joined a tech startup ecosystem. She then went to London where she became a consultant helping startups access government funding. While still in London, Dermendzhiyska left her job to study mental health—a personal project that turned into an extraordinary journey of meeting some of UK’s most favorite authors and original thinkers. Dermendzhiyska’s book that collects their stories—“The Things that Happen to Those Who Live”—is expected to be out in bookstores at the beginning of 2020.

What was your first destination after AUBG?

My very first destination was Spain. I walked 700 km on the ancient pilgrimage route Camino de Santiago a few days after my state exams. My first work destination, though, was a startup incubator in Bali, where I helped an international team of designers and engineers building games, apps and a VR biology lab. 

What have you been up to ever since— where have you lived, studied and worked?

After Bali, I became a consultant in London helping technology startups access government funding. The work entailed a lot of convoluted calculations, which bored me, so one day I called a friend who had studied computer science at AUBG to help me automate the process. Eventually, this became a business and for the next two years, I ran the product development side of it while working with some of the most exciting technology startups in the UK. In 2016, I left the company to study mental health. I spent a year poring over psychology, genetics and neuroscience research, and interviewing various clinicians, professionals and young people about their experiences. I found this so fascinating that I decided to bring together successful British authors and thinkers to share their own personal struggles in a book. The project, which started out of pure naiveté about the intricacies of publishing a book, attracted an extraordinary roster of contributors, including Ben Saunders, who holds the record for the longest human-powered polar journey in history. At the moment, I’m working with my UK publisher to finish the book, which is titled “The Things That Happen to Those Who Live”, and get it out to bookstores by early 2020.

You studied mathematics and economics at AUBG and began your career in a technical field. How did you discover your interest in writing?

I’ve always loved writing but for a long time, I thought I had nothing to say. At AUBG I met two people who had a huge influence on me. One was Filitsa Mullen and the other Michael Cohen. Professor Mullen had a rare ability to make you believe that you had a voice and that it was worth listening to. She saw you and she took you seriously- and for someone like me, this mattered more than anything. Funnily enough, when we last met in early March 2016, she said I had to publish books. I laughed it off and didn’t think about it until two years later when I became editor of “The Things That Happen to Those Who Live.” I owe a lot to Professor Cohen, too. He taught me the only secret to writing, which has served me well ever since. In case you haven’t heard it, it’s simple: Ass to chair. Every. Single. Day.

How did you come across the idea for the book “The Things that Happen to Those Who Live” and why do you think it is important to study and discuss mental health, especially in the context of professional success?

For a long time, the costs of mental health remained hidden from view but massive data collected over the past few years paint a truly depressing picture. Some estimates suggest, for example, that by 2020 mental health problems will become the second biggest cause of disability worldwide. In the UK alone, they cost the economy some £94 billion every year. Surprisingly, it’s not because people take time off work. In fact, the opposite is true: people keep going to the office, even though they struggle. As a result, their productivity plummets while their problems get worse. One reason this happens is the stigma surrounding mental health. Another can be a toxic work culture that treats burnout as a badge of honor. To tackle the root of the problem, we need to talk about mental health at work, at home, at school - everywhere, really - until it becomes something as normal as physical health.

The idea for “The Things that Happen to Those Who Live” came about as a way to provide role models - successful people who owned their struggles and were willing to share them openly. Very often in public conversations, we sanitize or gloss over the real stories behind mental health, and I wanted to show that there’s a way to talk about the pain that transforms our relationship to it and turns it into a part of our shared humanity.

Could you give us a sneak peek at some of the authors and stories that will appear in the book?

●    Rory Bremner, Britain’s top mimic, will share his experiences with ADHD

●    Ben Saunders, one of the world’s leading polar explorers, will talk about the hidden dangers of our obsession with achievement

●    Hazel Gale, cognitive hypnotherapist and national boxing champion, will write about the hardest fight of all: embracing our whole selves

●    Melanie McGrath, Financial Times best thriller writer, will address violence, in the world and inside us

●    Julian Baggini, one of UK’s most popular philosophers, will talk about the tyranny of happiness

●    Cathy Rentzenbrink, award-winning author, will share how grief can freeze us into denial of reality

●    Ed Mitchell, veteran TV broadcaster, will write about the powerful grip of alcoholism

What advice would you give to recent university graduates about building a fulfilling life and career?

I wish I knew! But if I have to say something, it would be this: Academia is easy. You are given problems and you need to find their optimal solutions. In real life, the problems are not given to you; you alone have to choose the ones you need to solve. My mistake right after AUBG was thinking that I had to answer the question: what should I do now? A better question, which took me years to figure out, would have been: what kind of person do I want to be? When it comes to your life, beware of optimal solutions to the wrong problems.

Tell us a bit about your time at AUBG. In what ways have your AUBG education, experience and friendships had an impact on your career and who you are today? Are you still in touch and collaborating with other AUBG graduates?

The three most important things I got out of AUBG are: one, learning how to think clearly; two, learning how to write (which is a form of thinking); and three, learning to be curious and to ask good questions. These are the meta-skills that have allowed me to navigate different careers and to thrive in various environments, to be flexible and to carve out opportunities where none existed for me. Last but certainly not least, I met some of my best friends at AUBG: Yavor Stoychev (‘12) worked with me in my first business; Mariana Barakchieva (‘12)  illustrated a number of my published essays; Plamen Dimitrov (‘12) knows better than anyone the pleasures and pains of charting your own unconventional path; Simona Atanasova (‘12) is still someone I can count on for everything.  

What extracurricular activities/exchange programs/student clubs did you participate in while at AUBG? How did they affect your university experience and who you are today?

In my sophomore year, I became one of 30 students chosen for the    Bulgarian Young Leaders   program to spend a year in the U.S. My host institution was a college in the Midwest known for its engineering program. The best way I can describe it is a military boot-camp for math. I survived (and even thrived) but it was clear that math and I were finished. The experience also proved to me that I’d built a solid foundation at AUBG, which prepared me for the challenges of my exchange year.

When I got back to Blago, I co-founded the Freakonomics Club together with then SG President Elitsa Nacheva. Our idea was to offer a glimpse into all the fascinating things happening in economics that didn’t make it into our textbooks. We invited professors to talk about their own research and professional passions over wine and banitza, we had renowned business leaders who shared insights into their lives and careers, and we organized a field trip to one of Bulgaria’s leading IT firms and the Institute for Market Economics.

Interview by Dimana Doneva

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