Arianna Huffington on How to ‘Thrive’

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A fall caused by exhaustion led Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, to a broken cheekbone, four stitches and a journey toward redefining success. In her new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder, Huffington calls for a measurement of success beyond simply money and power. In a recent interview with Wharton management professor Adam M. Grant while she was on campus as a guest lecturer in the Authors@Wharton series, Huffington said the third metric “includes our well-being, our wisdom, our capacity to wonder and bring joy into our lives and our capacity to give. Without these four pillars, life is really reduced to our to-do list.” In addition to sharing the small steps anyone can take to rebalance their priorities, Huffington discusses how she is encouraging her employees to do the same.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Adam Grant: You have been running The Huffington Post for quite a while. What made you think about redefining success?

Arianna Huffington: It was actually a rude awakening, a personal wake-up call, seven years ago when I collapsed from exhaustion, burnout and sleep deprivation. I broke my cheekbone on the way down and got four stitches on my right eye. It started me on this journey of asking myself the big questions that we stop asking ourselves when we leave college: “What is a good life? What is success?” When I looked around at colleagues, friends and the world at large, [I realized] that we had shrunk the definition of success down to two metrics: money and power. We had left out what I now call the third metric, which includes our well-being, our wisdom, our capacity to wonder and bring joy into our lives, and our capacity to give. Without these four pillars, life is really reduced to our to-do list. We continue to neglect our own selves and our own health and well-being.

Grant: How has writing the book and thinking more about well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving affected your own life?

Huffington: It has been really an incredible gift. You know how they say, “You teach what you need to learn?…” Because I’ve delved into all the details, I have begun to incorporate them in my life much more than I would have done otherwise. As I’m on book tour and I keep speaking about them, I feel that I’m also reminding myself every day….

Grant: What are the biggest changes that you have made to your daily habits and practices?

“One of the recent changes we made that has been very significant has been making it clear that no employee is expected to be on work e-mail after hours. When they are off, they are off.”

Huffington: The biggest first change that I made was sleep. At the end of each section of the book, I have three little baby steps that I recommend. They mirror the baby steps that I took. The first one was I began getting 30 minutes more sleep a night than I was getting before, until gradually I got from four to five hours, which is what I was getting before I collapsed, to seven to eight hours, which is what I’m getting now. The result has been transformational. All the science now demonstrates unequivocally that when we get enough sleep, everything is better: our health; our mental capacity and clarity; our joy at life and our ability to live life without reacting to every bad thing that happens. In everybody’s life, there are things that happen every day that we wish had not happened. How we react to them very much determines the quality of our life.

I used to meditate on and off, ever since I was 13 years old. But I actually introduced a daily practice, which started [at] five minutes and is now at least half an hour. I got to half an hour, again, gradually by experiencing the rewards of those five minutes. In the book, I’ve included meditation steps that people can take, as well as, believe it or not, apps that they can use to help them get started.

[I also do] some form of movement — yoga, exercise — even when I’m traveling, in my hotel room, for just 10 minutes….

Giving in small daily ways has been really important. Leaving aside what we give to charity or volunteering time, just one of the first steps I recommend and I practice is to make personal connections with people who otherwise you might take for granted — the check-out clerk, the barista in the coffee shop, the cleaning crew. [It makes a difference] when we actually connect with people on an individual level and in how present it makes us be.

Grant: These are obviously individual changes. But you have also been rethinking how you run The Huffington Post in light of this perspective. I know you have introduced two nap pods. Are there other changes that you have been especially passionate about?

“We don’t pay people for their stamina; we pay them for their judgment.”

Huffington: Yes. We introduced two nap rooms, meditation classes, yoga classes, breathing classes and healthy free snacks. But one of the recent changes we made that has been very significant has been making it clear that no employee is expected to be on work e-mail after hours. When they are off, they are off. We’re a 24/7 media operation, so there are always people on, but not the same people. People tell us every day what a difference it has made — how they can really be undistracted, be with themselves, their families, their loved ones and return to work recharged. We don’t pay people for their stamina; we pay them for their judgment, and increasingly, for their ideas and their creativity — this is the lightning in the bottle.

Grant: You mentioned judgment, which is a big part of your pillar of wisdom. What are some of the steps that you recommend to become wiser?

Huffington: First of all, start with the recognition that we all have wisdom in us, that it’s not something we have to get from books or cram into us. It’s already there. Every religion, every philosopher talks about that in different language. It’s basically the kingdom of God is within. Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.” When we tap into that center of wisdom, strength and peace, that’s where our capacity for wise decisions and for tapping into our intuition comes from. It is like a muscle. The more we visit that part of ourselves, the more we exercise that muscle and the more likely we are to be able to tap into it again and again with ease.

Grant: One of the things I enjoyed most in reading the book was your personal narrative on a journey to try to figure out how you can take these ideas seriously and implement them. I know that your family played a very big role in that. What affect did your mother have on your thinking about Thrive?

Huffington: My mother had the biggest impact because she naturally lived a third metric life. She naturally thrived long before I had incorporated these ideas in my life. She constantly would tell my sister and me, “Don’t miss the moment.” She was very clear that that’s how you really were fully alive. That’s why she [was] appalled [at] multitasking long before modern science has confirmed that multitasking does not really exist. It’s really task switching, and it is the most stressful thing we can do. She would have loved you, Adam, because she was a natural giver. I remember once when a lady admired the necklace she was wearing, and my mother said, “Here, take it.” The lady, surprised, said, “What can I give you in return?” My mother said, “It’s not a trade, darling; it’s an offering.”

She also could not have an impersonal relationship with anyone. She really connected with people. If the FedEx man would come to deliver a packet, my mother would say, “Oh, come sit down. I just baked something.” She lived in that sense of being fully connected with people in a deeper way than we are, which most of the time is pretty shallow. Often our connection to human beings takes second place to our connection to our smartphones.

“We used to think that there was a trade-off: You had to sacrifice your professional success in order to achieve inner peace. Now we see, no, not at all.”

Grant: This is something that you have not just been hearing is influential on the family side but also professionally. CEOs are making lifestyle changes. What are some of the biggest surprises that you have come across?

Huffington: Yes, 2013 was an amazing year because we had CEOs, one after another, coming out — not as being gay but as being meditators: Ray Dalio, the CEO of Bridgewater; Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce; Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna and so on. Suddenly what was regarded as kind of New Agey, flaky California [activity] has gone mainstream. People see the value of quiet time, reflection, connecting with themselves, the value that they derive when it comes to their professional success and their accomplishments. These are not separated. We used to think that there was a trade-off: You had to sacrifice your professional success in order to achieve inner peace. Now we see, no, not at all. The science is so conclusive.

I love this time we’re living in because it is the first time that modern science has so validated ancient wisdom in every respect, including giving. Modern science has really validated everything that philosophers and spiritual teachers have said about how giving is a shortcut to happiness. Now we have the data to prove it.

Grant: That raises a question that I wondered about when I read the book. We have these money and power metrics, which are the old way of thinking about success. You bring in well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving. Where does accomplishment fit, as an intrinsic sense of progress or achievement, in your view of success?

Huffington: The first two metrics, when defined in a profound way, are about accomplishment. It can be accomplishment that also brings a lot of money or influence. Or it can be accomplishment that gives a lot of inner satisfaction. So, the book is not against money and influence and whatever power really means in the modern world. It’s against shrinking ourselves to define our lives and our purpose in terms of these two metrics. It’s a question of what is in the foreground and what is in the background of our lives.

Often, when people step off a career ladder because they were going to burn out or they have already burned out, they don’t give up accomplishment. I quote a Wharton graduate who burned out after she had her first baby on her corporate job and left but went on to found a kindergarten, cofound a synagogue and create a mom[-focused website]. If you go to Exit.com, there are a lot of people who have taken what they love — their crafts, their hobbies — and turned them into a living. We need to think of accomplishment in a wider sense than just beginning our career here and climbing up the ladder until we get to the corner office or SVP position or whatever it is that we determine is the ultimate.

Grant: One note to close on: One of my favorite parts of the book was when you talk about eulogies and what’s not in them.

Huffington: Yes, I write a lot about death in the book, not in a morbid way, but because it is hard to really prioritize what you spend time on and what your life is about if you forget that we die. I quote the Onion headline that “Death Rate Holds Steady at 100%.” I write about how I was at a friend’s memorial and listening to the eulogy while writing the book. It dawned on me that our eulogies have really nothing to do with our LinkedIn profiles. In fact, our eulogies are about all the other things. You never hear in a eulogy, “George was amazing. He increased market share by one third.” Or, “He made SVP at 35.” It’s all about how we made people feel — small kindnesses, lifelong passions, what made us laugh. It’s all the things that when we get really, really busy with our goals we squeeze out of life, what they call the “exhaustion funnel,” when little by little all the things that nurture us, that feed our soul, are eliminated because we are so driven to achieve whatever that goal is. Of course, as soon as we reach it, it will not be significant until we reach the next goal. It becomes this endless postponement of being fully present and fully alive.

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Join The Discussion

2 Comments So Far

Eslam Ayoub

Great article, but it’s very hard to step out of the to-do-list.

Sue Corbett

Yes, stepping outside the to-do list is difficult. But not impossible.

And I speak here as a massive fan of the to-do list. I even have them for weekends.

I have found that I have first to make just one step outside the task-oriented mentality for which the to-do list is such an important and effective tool. But even that one step is a profound one because it means letting go of a sense of self as efficient and effective. And an absence of that self has to be filled with something else.

What then? I am still on the way to fully finding out. But very broadly it is something to do with presence or consciousness. I find that that is the self which first needs to grow, thrive and then gradually embrace the old “doing” self.

I am aware that this sounds, at best, spiritual and, at worst, unhelpfully abstract.

But I speak also as a practicing manager – currently of a small NGO (25 staff) and previously of a large business division in a public company (320 staff). When I bring the presence to work (which is when I remember, so consciousness again), what happens? Time slows down. I listen better. It is easier to distinguish the really important from the not so important. I facilitate more than I fix.

It’s a constant effort to loosen the successful habits and self-image of more than 30 working years. Of course, it’s difficult. But the moments of success are gradually joining up within the working day and on more days in the week.

Arianna, this is all said without yet having read the book. I am looking forward to that.