By Chesley Turner
photography by Stephen Busken
It’s more than an aspiration
It’s an exhortation.
True, life isn’t always perfect. But all too often, remarkably competent and clever women mistake self-inflicted exhaustion for the road to success. It’s a misconception many of us share, no matter our age, income, or economics, whether we’re in the home or in the office.
Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post and one of Forbes’ 20 Most Powerful Women in Business, has been there too. Moves caught up with her to talk about her personal experiences mistaking struggle for success, which she delves into in her new book, Thrive. Speaking in her lilting Greek accent but with the firm confidence of a woman who knows her own mind, Arianna shared a little perspective on media, and on life in general.
When it comes to modern media, there’s no denying we live in a social cyber world. News is no longer the province of only the news channels, and oftentimes, what the news channels produce isn’t always news. The whole landscape has changed.
“It has democratized information. So now you don’t have to be employed at a newspaper to be heard.” Arianna immediately references the time when the Huff Post published an article by a homeless teenager. The Harvard Admissions office read the article and offered him a place at Harvard. Setting aside the philanthropic overtones, the story is remarkable. News outlets giving voice to the marginalized isn’t something you see everyday; they’re more likely to sensationalize than to listen. “Certainly, at Huff Post we have no hierarchy,” she says, commenting that the President of France might have an article posted right next to a student’s.
“I think that’s one of the etchings that has dramatically changed the way we receive information. The Huffington Post, for example, is both a journalistic enterprise, with 800 journalists, editors, reporters around the world, but also a platform, that allows tens of thousands of people to express themselves on everything from the more serious issues of the day to issues which affect the way we live our lives.”
It’s that second class of article – examining the way in which we live our lives – that has been gaining ground, largely due to the prominence of social media. “We are finding that some of the stories and blogs that are the ones that are most shared are about things that can help us live our lives with more fulfillment and less stress.” She sites, again, a Huff Post blog wherein a special education teacher wrote, “The Day I Stopped Saying ‘Hurry Up’ to My Daughter.” The author shared the alarming realization that the two words she spoke most to her six-year-old daughter were: ‘Hurry Up.’ ‘Hurry up and get up,’ ‘Hurry up and have breakfast,’ ‘Hurry up and go to sleep.” “She was stressing out this child that wanted to literally stop and smell the roses. The story got 1.2 million likes on Facebook and was shared and read by six million people.
“People used to say in Newsrooms, ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ You know, put bad news on the homepage and everybody will read it. But now I think that people – she stops – obviously we do a lot of that. You know the world is full of tragedy and bad news and corruption and dysfunction. But we also feel that we have a responsibility to put the spotlight on good things happening.”
But these days, it seems that traditional news outlets and non-syndicated opinions alike share the same confusion when it comes to fact and fiction. “People, as someone said, are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own set of facts. And I think that there is truth. I think we sometimes veer too close to Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of the truth. And so it is our responsibility to ferret out the truth.” She continues, “Sometimes it’s easier than at other times, but I think that is absolutely key, and it’s imperative to recognize that not all information is equally valuable, and that in fact not all knowledge is equally valuable.”
Here, she makes reference to a section in her book. “I think that one of the problems with us being inundated with information 24/7 is that we are starved for wisdom. In Thrive, I have a whole section on Wisdom, and I write a whole lot about this distinction, and about the importance of maintaining that distinction, even in the middle of how inundated we are with social media.”
As an experienced journalist, who began writing on politics and women’s rights at the age of 23, Arianna has logged many miles in print. “My views have not changed when it comes to the key social issues of gun control, abortion, or gay rights. I was always in favor of that even when I was conservative on issues of the role of government. In terms of the women’s issues, my views have not changed.” But then she adds, “I hope I’m expressing them in a better way.” At age 23, she wrote a book called, The Female Woman. “I believed then what I believe now, which is that we need to give women equal respect for all the choices they make, including if they choose and are able to be stay-at-home moms. I am a feminist, and I believe that the greatest definition of feminism is equal opportunity for all women’s choices.”
At the time, she points out, there was a strong “feminist” movement that belittled the role of the stay-at-home mom. “They only respected the woman with the attache case.” And so she cites her reason for writing Thrive: the need for yet another women’s revolution. “You know, if you think the first one was giving us the vote, the second one was a lot of the good work that the women’s movement did of giving us access to all jobs and the top of every profession and this is still an incomplete revolution. But the third one has to be changing the world in which we are participating.”
But we shouldn’t have to trade happiness for success. And the way the world works today, that’s often the tradeoff we’re asked to make, for men or women. Stress rates are up, heart health is in decline, and it often comes down to workplace stress. “Women need to not just say we want to be at the top of this world, but we want to change this world. And for me that’s the third feminist revolution.”
True Feminism, according to Arianna, is about changing what is not working. “Instead of simply women saying we want to succeed the same way men have succeeded even if it means heart attacks in our 50s and high blood pressure and all the other things that so many have suffered from because of the way we have defined success in the world today.” She rattles off the facts and figures that she knows by heart. Women in stressful jobs have a 40% greater risk of heart attack and a 60% greater risk of diabetes. Thus the need to focus on the importance sleep, recovery, and renewal. There are modern ways, she says, to approach work, which combine what she calls “ancient wisdom” with modern science.
And it’s working.
“Basically what is wonderful now that there is a new listening and a new understanding in the zeitgeist, if you want. 35% of American companies, large and mid-size, have already introduced some form of stress reduction practice in their work places.” Huffington Post has nap rooms, meditation, yoga, and breathing classes. They also have an understood email policy: if you’re off work, you’re not expected to be on email. “I think that the companies that are kind of at the forefront of these changes are going to be the ones that attract the best talent and are able to retain it.”
And while this will no doubt be a top-down corporate game changer for some companies, Arianna encourages women to step up and start making changes from within, as well. She shares another story of when she met two young women working at Mckenzie in London. The two women worked hard week after week. Then they went to their bosses and said, “We are not on email over the weekend. Here are our cell phones. Please call or text if it’s urgent. But we are not on email.” A few months later, upper management approached the women and told them they’d been identified as leaders in the company. “They had staked out a way to work hard and do their best work while also taking care of themselves and not burning out.”
Because once you burn out, it’s too late. Arianna experienced her own severe burn out, recounted in the early pages of her book, which triggered her change in perspective on work life and success. “After all, it’s when you’re burning out that you make the most mistakes. You are not as creative or productive.” She quotes Bill Clinton, who is also quoted in Thrive, as saying, “The most important mistakes I made in my life, I made when I was tired.”
If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Arianna has been traveling the country, talking about the need to recalibrate our lives, and give ourselves the opportunity to thrive. “I’ve just been stunned by the numbers of women who have talked to me about their burnout, who’ve had wakeup calls like mine when I collapsed seven years ago.”
It’s the grand tradition of the fourth estate to point out society’s problems that need to be faced and fixed. And that’s precisely what the Huffington Post is doing, under Arianna’s direction. Furthermore, Thrive sets out an honest recounting of personal experiences, but also a very crucial road map for recovery, by giving more attention to well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving in our lives. “This is a very important conversation that we are having on Huff Post and that I’m having in many different places, from high-powered executives to students, women and men. This is a conversation that we need to be having, and fortunately, we are having.”