Positive self-talk: Remind yourself that nothing you do today is going to define you for the rest of your life. We are allowed to make mistakes and that we’re doing our best. This one is harder for me because I put so much pressure on myself to make the “right” decisions, but the truth is that the right decision is dynamic and will change from hour to hour. All I can expect from myself is to do my best with the information I have at this exact moment. Hindsight can get you down if you let it.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High-Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rukshana Hassanali.
It was a deep curiosity and fascination with the human mind that led Rukshana Hassanali to study Psychology at Simon Fraser University, with a focus on behavioral neuroendocrinology. Her passion for people and the human mind eventually led her to a marketing role with the B.C. Psychological Association. It wasn’t long before her natural ability to communicate with and understand audiences led her to PressReader, where she held the highly coveted role of Director of Brand Marketing and met fellow SoftServe co-founder, Annee Ngo. The rest is history. Now, as the Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of SoftServe, Rukshana leads the team’s marketing efforts and is proud to be a part of the growing soft skills revolution, a mission she’s deeply passionate about.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in the suburbs and I’m the daughter of an immigrant and refugee, so I’m a first-generation Canadian. And growing up with that knowledge I felt a deep sense of gratitude and guilt at the same time for being one of the “lucky ones” who got a chance to live in a Western country. Much of my upbringing was rooted in perspective-shifting and empathizing. Since my parents came from developing countries where they saw injustice as the standard practice, it was hard to complain about not getting the latest jeans or coolest accessories. I realize looking back just how much this became the default way of thinking for me. I don’t just compare myself to my peers in Canada but my peers internationally. This passion really helped me build SoftServe. The realization that empathy-building is not part of every child’s upbringing but it should be.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
I never really knew much about entrepreneurship or being self-employed. Even though my grandmother started her own catering business in Africa, after her divorce from an abusive husband that left her financially cut-off and left with three small children to take care of. But as a kid, I always wanted to be a traveling journalist and document the injustices in the world, but my family wasn’t too keen on that after having experienced many of those injustices themselves. I feel like I “fell into” entrepreneurship after meeting my co-founder at a company we both worked for. It was that moment I knew I could translate my passion for creating a lasting impact on the world through education, by means of SoftServe.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I had a couple of great English teachers, Ms. Church and Mr. Boomhover, in high school that really encouraged me to keep sharing the way I saw the world and to communicate honestly and openly. They saw something in me that I didn’t fully understand, and I wasn’t entirely accepted outside the creative writing and philosophy realms, so I think if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had the confidence needed to express myself and keep growing as a person.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
There are so many! Once I was presenting SoftServe to a classroom full of prospective teachers and our tech was being glitchy. I had this moment of panic for a minute and then I instantly thought this has to be something that happens to teachers all the time. This has to be something relatable and I’m sure we can bond over this and come out stronger. At that moment, I knew that no matter how seasoned a teacher is or isn’t, a new tool is always going to turn them into a student and we need to ensure support is available to them. The easier and more supportive of a learning environment we can create for everyone, the better.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
First, I would say don’t be afraid to talk to as many people as possible. Get varying opinions on your venture and your ideas, and don’t be afraid of having difficult conversations with people. You don’t just want “yes” people in your corner when starting your own venture. You want people who will disagree with you, and push you to be better and do better.
Secondly, I’d say to build a strong network of friends who are doing similar things to what you want to do. Connect with people who are ambitious, driven, and passionate. After all, they say you are the company that you keep. It’s important that your friends and mentors are aligned with your goals and vision, and share a similar level of excitement and passion for achieving their goals.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I love the books Big Magic and the Alchemist. In my heart of hearts, I’m a believer in the magic of creativity, art, and dreams. These books spark my soul in a way no other books have. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read my fair share of business and self-help books and they’re great in the short term — they are a great reminder that we can get dragged through the muddy waters of life and survive.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I have a few, but the one that resonates with me the most is, “It doesn’t matter how many times you fall. What counts is how many times you get up and get going.”
In entrepreneurship, you’ll come across many obstacles and many injustices that will inevitably delay or even postpone your passion project. And certainly, some obstacles will seem much more insurmountable than others. But, what’s important here is to focus on your end goal, and know that every learning, every “failure,” is in fact an opportunity to grow. These obstacles will ultimately only make you stronger and a better business leader. It’s okay to feel down, it’s okay to feel all the feelings these obstacles bring on, as long as you get up and keep pushing forward.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Making soft skills accessible with SoftServe is easily the project I am most passionate about. We’re in the midst of a soft skills deficit that is forcing us to change how we hire, train, and retain employees, and we know the only way to solve this deficit and build a stronger economy is by bringing soft skills into the classroom and teaching them early on.
Until we can prioritize that one of the pillars of a successful society is effective communication, which was how we came to develop language, we will continue to misunderstand each other, which will continue to lead to gross injustices.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high-stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
- Take a deep breath: As cliche as it sounds, taking a deep breath and trying to look at the situation from an objective perspective is hugely helpful. Breathwork is calming, meditative, and above all else, effective.
- Work backwards: What’s the goal you would like to achieve regardless of the decision you make? Understanding the outcome needed will help lend you some unbiased context to frame your decision.
- Consult with your network: Often tough decisions don’t have simple answers and many times you’re deciding between two equally important things. In some situations, it’s good to get an objective third party to give you their insight. It’s often not for their advice but for them to lay it out for you in a way that your biased mind may have missed.
- Look between the lines: We often assume that all decisions have to be finite or binary. That’s often not the case. Try and think of the scenarios that exist in between the spaces of 0 and 1 and see if there’s anything that makes sense. As a business leader, you’re often coming up with new ways of doing things, so it’s not unheard of to offer up a solution that was never placed on the table.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers five strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high-stress situations?
- Yoga: Whenever my mind begins to overwhelm me, I practice yoga. I quickly came to realize I need to be relaxed to perform at my best.
- Good Nutrition: I would have never said this before when I was the “burn-the-candle-on-both-ends” type, but for me, ensuring I’m eating foods that offer balanced and unprocessed nutrition has an amazing calming effect on my mind and body.
- Reading: Though I rarely have the time these days, reading books about others overcoming challenges or fantasy books really helps me see possibilities that my mind is unable to in the moment.
- Going for a walk: There is nothing that helps our minds solve problems in the background more than doing something mundane and repetitive. Walking is the best way for me to feel clear-headed and let my mind do what it does best.
- Positive self-talk: Remind yourself that nothing you do today is going to define you for the rest of your life. We are allowed to make mistakes and that we’re doing our best. This one is harder for me because I put so much pressure on myself to make the “right” decisions, but the truth is that the right decision is dynamic and will change from hour to hour. All I can expect from myself is to do my best with the information I have at this exact moment. Hindsight can get you down if you let it.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations, or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
Yes! I love breathwork and manifesting what I want. I try to wake up each morning and tell myself what I am working towards. I also like to use yoga to control my breath and my mind. I can get very anxious and overwhelmed and I’ve found this to be very calming.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I like to listen to music that motivates me, and makes me feel good, as cliche and overdone as that might be. I also practice manifesting what you want as if you already have it. The old saying: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have” holds some truth.
I also like to remind myself that growth is not supposed to be easy. You’re doing a hard thing and that’s impressive in-and-of-itself. Not every day is going to be wonderful and you might not be at your best every day, but the hard work is worth it. The struggle is worth it. So, when I’m having moments of doubt and need to clear away distractions, I remind myself that the distractions are there to ultimately make me stronger, and I just need to push through them.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
They’re massive! Humans are wired for consistency and when we fall off track we get distracted, frustrated and anxious. With that being said, I often fall off track, but I always get back on, and that’s what matters at the end of the day.
Habits are huge because they’re essentially frameworks for focusing our attention and shaping the way our minds work. We spend so much time fixing our homes, appearance and even desktops but we neglect our minds. Habits that have helped me on my journey are: checklists of tasks I’d like to complete throughout the day, taking a walk in the middle of my day with my dog, and doing yoga.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
First, I think by understanding that our minds are creatures of habit and comfort. We will most always ignore the changes we need for growth. Even by keeping this thought in your head will help change that thought process and open you up to uncomfortable, but needed changes. My practical advice is to start small and build up: if you want to get into yoga, start with five minutes a day twice a week and build from there. The changes are so small you don’t notice, but they really add up over time. The other piece of advice is to write down your goals. I’m a big fan of vision boards with high-level ideas, and then putting specific outcomes or statements on your whiteboard. Things like, “I am grateful for my role as the Director of XXX at YYY company.” Lastly, Find a way to track your progress. I personally use an app that gamifies my yoga; it tracks my progress, which encourages me to do more.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
I think it’s different for everyone. For me, it always starts with a spark of creativity and then goes on from there. But getting the spark can be hard. For me, music helps, but sometimes it’s a conversation with a friend, or it’s going on a walk. I’ve written out full ideas with execution plans on napkins before, so you never know where you’ll find yourself in a flow state!
When you are feeling your most creative, my biggest suggestion is to lean into it, and not let the moment pass. Get your thoughts on paper, and take advantage of your brain functioning optimally.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If we could all focus on becoming soft skill experts, then MANY of the problems we are facing today would be much easier to overcome. Humanity likes to section ourselves off into categories, and when we see each other in these divided states, it’s easy to not see each other as the same. We need to re-engage our curiosity and our empathy, and those invisible barriers will disappear.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
This is always such a hard question to answer! There are so many amazing people in the world. Right now, I’d have to say Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She fights for what she believes in and has so much grace under pressure. I feel as though I could learn a lot from her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can keep up with all the fun things we’re doing at SoftServe by checking out our Instagram, @get_softserve. I’m available on LinkedIn if you’d like to stay up to date on my other endeavours, https://www.linkedin.com/in/rukshanahassanali/.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.