…I think being an entrepreneur has made me a much better partner and family member. I’ve tried to apply the same lessons I’ve learned running a business to being part of a happy and successful family. All members of my family just want to be supported and appreciated, just like my “work family” does. And of course that means that we all need to find the right balance of making efforts to help each other, without feeling like your own needs are being ignored. I do my best to stay on top of what my family needs from me, while making sure that I’m loud about communicating my own needs as well, so that resentment doesn’t build up. It helps to designate certain practices or traditions as sacred, but also cut ourselves a lot of slack — we can’t always put the phones away.
At times it feels like wellness or elevating one’s wellbeing, is diametrically opposed to high achievement and high performance in one’s career. The stress, mental energy, long hours, lack of restful sleep, preoccupation that result from a high-achievement life seem to directly inhibit wellness. And yet, in order to sustain the creativity, flexibility, mental acuity and resilience that are necessary for high performance, wellness and wellbeing of the mind, body and soul are also mandatory. So how do we achieve both? This is the question I’m hoping to answer through conversations with high-achieving women who have gleaned and are practicing their own philosophies on maintaining their wellbeing.
As a part of this series about what successful women leaders do to thrive, both personally and professionally, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Maria Hasbun. Sara is the founder and Managing Director of Meridian Linguistics, a consulting agency providing linguistic expertise and language technology solutions to companies like Airbnb and Alibaba.
After close to a decade of living in Asia, and several years living and working from the road, Sara Maria also consults on challenges related to language learning and cross-cultural communication. She speaks six languages, including English, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, French, and ASL.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path and to where you are today?
Sure. My career in language technology was definitely never a given! I was actually terrible at foreign languages, for most of my life. I grew up in the United States, to an American mother and a Salvadoran father. But my family only spoke English at home, so I didn’t learn my first foreign language (Spanish) until high school.
And I really, really struggled to learn Spanish. I was otherwise a good student, but for some reason I just couldn’t get that language to work in my head! My father and my Spanish-speaking cousins would just shake their heads and laugh when I tried to say anything. I think many other Americans can identify with struggling through high school French or high school Spanish, and feeling like they just don’t have the “language gene”.
But it was particularly frustrating for me, because I look very much like a Spanish speaker. I was constantly approached by Spanish speakers on the street. Every time I had to say “sorry, no hablo español,” it hurt my soul a little bit.
So in college, I decided to study linguistics. Linguistics is basically the science and structure of how language works. Basically, I wanted to figure out why it had been so hard for me to learn Spanish.
And it was in college, while studying language science, and probably because I was studying language science, that I made my first breakthrough. I finally became fluent in Spanish.
Then I got a little greedy. You could say that I was making up for my crushed ego, my ego had definitely taken a beating over Spanish. Over the next decade I went on to study Mandarin, French, Russian, Arabic, American Sign Language, and Korean…then forgot Russian and Arabic, then started learning Indonesian…I definitely felt like I had something to prove!
I spent the next few years moving from Nicaragua, to China, to Korea. By the time I got to Korea, I had dropped out of a PhD program to focus on my consulting business. I had started attracting people who needed help solving all kinds of language problems — they wanted to develop speech recognition in Swedish, they needed millions of words of Korean translation, or they needed advice on how to get their employees to learn Chinese, things like that.
I started my consulting agency and incorporated in Hong Kong, although I almost always worked remotely from the road. I was initially doing all the work myself, but was eventually overwhelmed with demand, and started hiring other linguists with complementary expertise. Then I found a business partner with more sales expertise, and then I started rounding out my team with people more capable than I at handling accounting, vendor management, etc.
I really never set out to become an entrepreneur, I just considered myself a language geek. But it turns out that language skills are in pretty strong demand these days, and I was really lucky to be able to find like-minded geeks who have helped me build this into a business!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Probably my most interesting experience happened in North Korea. By chance, I ended up meeting a Deaf German activist on the flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. I’ve studied sign languages for several years, and he is very well-traveled himself, so we were able to chat in a mishmash of American and German sign language.
We ended up meeting up in Pyongyang to discuss initiatives that support the Deaf community in North Korea, a topic about which we are both very passionate. I had a few pinch-me moments there in the lobby of our Pyongyang hotel, when I realized…not only was I in North Korea, a fascinating country in its own right, a place I never thought I would make it to….but also, I was chatting in my fourth language with a really impressive person who I would never have met if I hadn’t gotten involved with linguistics and languages!
I’ve had so many unique experiences because of the languages I’ve learned, and to think I almost gave up on Spanish!
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I was — am still — a terrible micromanager. Even as I expanded my team, I really thought that I had to teach my employees to do everything exactly how I did it, because after all — my methods had worked well so far! Of course that only leads to burnout, it means you aren’t learning new ways of doing things that could potential be even better, and I’m sure it was incredibly annoying to my employees!
I’m lucky that my team was patient with me and I’m even luckier that most of them are still with me! It actually took my honeymoon in Cuba, essentially an enforced communication blackout since wifi wasn’t available in Cuba at that time, to teach me to let go. When I turned my phone back on at the end of that week, literally trembling with fear, I saw that not only had everything run smoothly in my absence, it had even run a little more smoothly than usual!
That was when I learned to step back and trust that I had hired a capable and responsible team.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture and work life?
Let your team members design their optimal lifestyle, fitting the work around their life, instead of the other way around.
Honestly, when I first started, I didn’t have a whole lot of options — I was grateful to anyone who wanted to take a chance on joining a very early-stage business. I let my team members decide where they would work (we are all remote) and we worked together to cobble together workflow procedures that allowed for reliable and timely communication with clients and vendors without getting in the way of the life that they wanted to live (taking into account families, health routines, hobbies, etc).
I’m very proud of the system that we designed for “passing off” tasks to other team members without losing details or accuracy. This means when one of my managers has an emergency and needs to take her kid to the hospital, or if another team member is offered an exciting short-term opportunity that she wants to pursue, she can easily hand off that job to another manager. No one has to pull all-nighters, or miss their kid’s baseball game. I want my employees to feel like working at Meridian Linguistics gives them an unrivaled opportunity to grow in their lives and their own careers, while helping our business grow and deriving stability and education from that. I think that is one reason my employees have remained so loyal, even though early-stage startups can be really challenging.
Ironically, as I write this, the entire population of China is learning how to transition their employees into a remote workforce in a big hurry. Multiple cities are under lockdown due to the coronavirus, so employees aren’t allowed to report to the office for at least the next two weeks. I’m really interested to see if any companies decide to keep the remote structure after the virus is contained!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. In my work, I focus on how one can thrive in three areas, body, mind, and heart. I’d like to flesh this out with you. You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)
Learning languages is the best possible exercise for the brain. It is both analytical and creative. You do have to learn a lot of rules, but you also have to come up with lots of creative workarounds, in order to communicate on the fly. When my travel partner sprained her ankle in Myanmar, I had to get creative with my 20 words of Burmese! When I urgently needed to book a coworking space in Kyiv after only two weeks of Ukrainian lessons, I had to get creative!
I’ve been on the road nonstop for nearly two years now, working from dozens of countries, and I try to learn at least a little bit of the language wherever I go.
I have lots of methods for cramming language learning into a busy schedule — I actually give talks on this topic frequently, and write about it on my blog as well — but probably my most useful tool is italki, which is a platform to find online tutors in nearly any language.
I usually have between 3 to 5 italki lessons per week, usually only 30–45 minutes at a time, to either study a little bit of a new language, or to work on maintaining the languages I already know. I also make use of “dead time” as much as possible: if I’m waiting for the elevator or standing in line for immigration, I’m probably reviewing my flashcard apps.
I’ve found that learning languages also teaches you to open your mind and consider completely novel ways of seeing the world, and different ways to interact in society. I believe I’ve become a more thoughtful and a more aware person since learning my languages, and this helps me in all sorts of interpersonal interactions.
My second routine to help my mind thrive? If I’m banging my head against a wall, trying to resolve a difficult issue or solve an impossible problem, I just step away. I go for a run, I take a dance class, or at least switch to another task.
As a language learner, I’ve learned how powerful our unconscious brain is. Our body can sometimes function better without our mind getting in the way. For example, if you think too much about breathing, it actually gets harder to breathe, right? The same goes for speaking a foreign language, or resolving a difficult task. Sometimes you have to mentally step away from an issue and let your thoughts percolate unimpeded. Then you can come back and see if any good solutions showed up in the meantime!
Finally, can you share with us two routines that use to help your heart, your emotional or spiritual life to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)
I walk my dog! Or rather, she walks me. I don’t usually want to do it, because I’ll be completely honest, I hate having my flow state interrupted to do a small task that will take me away from my screens.
But inevitably a few minutes into the walk I’ll not only feel so at peace, I’ll often have mental breakthroughs, I’ll find solutions to challenges that had been bothering me all day. And walking Pokie reminds me what is truly important in the end, which is to take care of the ones you love and do whatever you can to make them happy. It is hard to be stressed if you know you’re managing that much.
I also text constantly with my family and friends, since I’m so frequently on the road. It doesn’t matter what timezone we’re in, we just pick up the conversation when we wake up, we share pictures, sometimes just emojis to say, “I’m thinking of you”. It means a lot to me to have these kinds of relationships. If I couldn’t text like this, I probably couldn’t bear to travel as much as I do.
When life is very busy, and you cannot stick with your ideal routine, are there any wellness practices, rituals, products or services for your mind, body, or soul that you absolutely cannot live without?
I need exercise, or else I start to feel very sluggish in both mind and body. If I truly don’t have time to even manage a 30-minute workout, I’ll at least do a 5-minute plank next to the bed, before I hope into the shower. I’ve also recently discovered online K-pop dance classes! You can do them alone in your room. Ideally with no one watching…unless you’re a lot better at it than me!
All of us have great days and days that are not as great. On days when you feel like a rockstar what do you do? What does that day look like, and what did you do to get there?
On the best days, I’ve gotten 8–9 hours of sleep in my own bed, with my dog curled up at my feet, and I start my day really early. I get the hardest and most urgent tasks out of the way first, then take a break to exercise and rest my brain. When I get back to my desk, I knock out another few tasks and make sure that my team is on track for all their deadlines and that I’ve removed any bottlenecks standing in their way.
Mid-afternoon, I take a break to study a foreign language for about an hour. Then it is back to work until dinner. I have dinner with my husband, with my dog begging (and probably getting) some scraps. Usually, I have to work for another hour or so after dinner, but then ideally I get into bed nice and early and start winding down my brain with a good book or a TV show (ideally in another language, because you can learn so much from watching foreign media).
In contrast, on days when you feel down, what do you do?
When I’m feeling down, I do whatever I can to distract myself. I remind myself that failures are lessons. Sometimes they are very expensive or painful lessons! But the more painful the lesson, the less likely you’ll forget it!
Do you have a story about the weirdest, most bizarre or most humorous wellness experience, treatment, practice, or practitioner that you’ve ever partaken in? If you do, we’d love to hear it.
I can’t think of anything I’ve tried myself. But if you spend a month in Ubud, Bali, you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about yoni eggs and full moon rituals!
You’re a high achieving business leader, and you also have family and loved ones that may require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the executive at the door, and be the most loving caretaker at home?
Actually, I think being an entrepreneur has made me a much better partner and family member. I’ve tried to apply the same lessons I’ve learned running a business to being part of a happy and successful family. All members of my family just want to be supported and appreciated, just like my “work family” does. And of course that means that we all need to find the right balance of making efforts to help each other, without feeling like your own needs are being ignored. I do my best to stay on top of what my family needs from me, while making sure that I’m loud about communicating my own needs as well, so that resentment doesn’t build up.
It helps to designate certain practices or traditions as sacred, but also cut ourselves a lot of slack — we can’t always put the phones away.
Is there a particular practitioner, expert, book, podcast or resource that made a significant impact on you and helped you to thrive? Can you share a story about that with us?
Actually, reading Arianna Huffington’s “The Sleep Revolution” really changed my life. Before that, I was still trying to train myself to need less and less sleep (spoiler alert — it didn’t work) and I was ignoring the fact that the times in my life that I have been the most successful and productive were NOT the times I was pulling all-nighters, but the times when I had a regular and sufficient sleep schedule.
When you’re starting a business and so much relies on you, you can’t afford to overwork yourself and get sick. You can’t just pull a lot of all-nighters and then sleep for a week. Your clients and your team expect consistency. After I read that book, I finally gave myself permission to DEMAND 8 hours of sleep per night. I don’t do 3am conference calls, no matter what timezone. If you want me to be available in the middle of my night, you had better fly me to a better timezone! With my travel schedule, I don’t get jetlag anymore, but if I’m missing even an hour of sleep I really feel it.
I haven’t lost any clients over this. In fact, I think they take me more seriously!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could start a movement, it would be to inspire everyone to learn at least one foreign language to fluency. Even just one foreign language gives you so much more perspective, because you suddenly start to question what is universal, what is human nature, and what is cultural. You start to see that there are many different ways to perceive the world, or to interact meaningfully and kindly with society, and you’re not necessarily chained to all the less efficient habits of the society you grew up in (because they all have their advantages and disadvantages). And above all, learning another language teaches you empathy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Chinese has an important saying, “xiàng jìng rú bīn” which means “treat your spouse as you would an honored guest.” It is so hard to remember and practice this in everyday life, because we often take our loved ones for granted, we allow ourselves to get short with them, they become familiar and expected. But your family should be the most important people in your life, and you should treat them that way. I strive to remember not to take my spouse, or anyone in my family, for granted.
What are the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I’m on Instagram at @misslinguistic, where I chronicle my travels and my adventures in what I like to call “extreme language learning”. I’m also on Twitter (@mslinguistic) and my more longform content about to learn languages is at misslinguistic.com. My company, and our company blog about internationalization best practices and language technology, is at meridianlinguistics.com.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!